Chopper noise gets residents all twirled up.
Whumpwhumpwhumpwhumpwhumpwhump! For the 10th time this hour, Mike Metcalf’s world is drowned out by the seismic reverberations of a helicopter rotor above his town house on 4th Street SW. On what would otherwise be a quiet Tuesday evening at home, it sounds, he says, like a workman running a jackhammer full blast in his front yard. But even that would be preferable to the near-constant parade of choppers zooming overhead.
You can yell at a guy with a jackhammer. There’s little to be done about a booming Sikorsky UH-60A Blackhawk hovering 200 feet over your house.
When Metcalf moved into his two-story home about six years ago, helicopter noise wasn’t that bad. But over the past few years, he says, helicopter traffic over the Southwest waterfront has just about doubled. The noisy birds fly south above his house to nearby Fort McNairand north, to the White House, and west, to the Pentagon and National Airport. Metcalf says he would move if he thought he could find a chopper-free zone.
“We have 100 or 200 flights a day over here,” complains Metcalf, a 54-year-old Defense Department employee. “It’s just sort of constant, back and forth, back and forth. It’s not enough to make someone jump off a roof, but it is a problem, and it doesn’t have to be as bad as it is.”
With flight routes crisscrossing the region’s airspace, most neighborhoods suffer auditory assaults at some time or another. Choppers swirl over Connecticut Avenue so frequently that a simple drive through Woodley Park can make you feel like an extra in The Fugitive. Southwest D.C. may get the worst of it, but you don’t have to live by the water’s edge to be jarred by a buzzing copter inexplicably circling overhead.
Go several miles north to Don MacGlashan’s home in Chevy Chase and chances are a 350-Bell or Robinson R-44 will jar the sky while you’re there.
“There has been a 40 percent increase in military traffic alone over the last two years,” says MacGlashan. He got so fed up with the noise that he joined the board of Citizens for the Abatement of Aircraft Noise (CAAN), a group of activists from 68 neighborhood associations in Maryland, Virginia, and the District. “They rattle the windows and the doors. I hear it anytimeearly morning, late evening. We hear helicopters two or three times a day, at least. There is no pattern to it.”
Some highly sensitive areas of the District are off-limits to helicopters for security reasons. One zone restricts flights over the Capitol and the White House; it extends east from the Lincoln Memorial to 6th Street NE and north from Independence Avenue to K Street. Another covers a half-mile radius around the Naval Observatory and the vice president’s home in upper Northwest. Those no-fly areas extend 18,000 feet into the air.
Over the rest of the region, federally designated flight paths are supposed to keep the peace by steering pilots away from residential areas and, if possible, over the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. But here’s the rub: Helicopter flight paths are never mandatory. Just mere suggestions.
“It’s like the Wild West,” says Metcalf. “There is no regulation at all. We have to depend on the generosity of the powers that be.”
No one keeps figures on exactly how many helicopters operate around the D.C. area. Nor can civilians know how many flights occur each day. That’s mostly because many military training and transport flightswhich make up 90 percent of local helicopter trafficare classified. When the prez and veep are in tow, flight schedules are held tightly secret to prevent sabotage. Though choppers have to fly at least 1,000 feet over most of the city, in the 5-mile radius around National Airport, they dip to 200 feet to avoid the incessant parade of airplanes. This low-fly zone encompasses a good chunk of the District, from Georgetown to the southern tip of Rock Creek Park and all the way to RFK Stadium. And, naturally, the entire Southwest quadrant.
Because of the large number of classified flights, all the helicopter experts can say is that, between the rising number of flights by military birds, emergency medical transports, corporate air taxis, and U.S. Park Police surveillance craft, D.C. air fairly teems with low-flying copters. And if you want a good picture of the Beltway at rush hour, you’ve got to accept the humming of the Fox 5 chopper, the only TV helicopter operating in the District.
John Guazo, the amiable Fox 5 pilot, says it’s up to the pilots to “fly with people in mind. Many don’t think about the noise they’re causing.” But although Guazo empathizes with District residents rousted from bed by his rumbling machine or annoyed when he flies low enough to capture breaking news, he says people on the ground who want their highway chase scenes and utter silence at the same time are just plain out of luck.
“When people want helicopters, they want them now,” Guazo says from his base at the D.C. Heliport on South Capitol Street SE. “They want emergency victims taken from the highway. The helicopter better be there when problems happen, like when the police are catching criminals. But people don’t want to hear it when we’re not doing those jobs.”
Police and emergency medical flights have to fly wherever and whenever they’re needed, and the highly sensitive military and government troops of flyers are allowed to do basically whatever they want. And that’s the crux of the problem.
“We have no control to enforce [the flight-path rules],” says Karen Baker, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Military District of Washington at Fort McNair, which has 20 choppers in its fleet.
Earlier this year, after Baker talked with Metcalf and other residents, her division sent letters asking military pilots in the area to keep farther away from the homes in Southwest. The other military branches said they re-briefed their pilots on the proper flight paths. “We have reached the limits of what we can do,” Baker says.
After months of bitter complaints from residents, local officials formed a task force this summer to find ways to ease the problem. At the table were folks from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s Committee on Noise at National and Dulles Airports (CONANDA), the Helicopter Association International, CAAN, and military personnel. The task force, dubbed the Special Helicopter Users Group, identified “hot spots” for helicopter noise and will develop new regulations.
But don’t expect major changes anytime soon. It will take months to come up with revised routes and altitude levels and to educate area pilots about how to fly in ways that minimize loud thwacking sounds in the sky. “We are not going to eliminate all the noise, but we can decrease it,” says George Nichols, principal environmental planner for CONANDA.
The hot spots consist of eight zones, including Southwest D.C. and several communities in Arlington County. The Users Group will break each area down by population, number of complaints, proximity to landing areas, frequency of over-flights, and the altitude pilots must maintain. Computer models will show what happens when flying patterns are altered. Once all the data are digested, the group will tell pilots where their noise is most affecting people and explain how they can fly nicer.
Plans for reducing noise include shifting helicopter routes a quarter-mile or so away from hot spots and checking how higher altitudes might ameliorate the problem. But even redrawing the rules won’t save everyone from what one resident angrily terms “noise terrorism.”
“The risk is moving the areas of complaint from one spot to another,” says Bill Anderson, director of heliports and technical programs for the Helicopter Association International. “There are always going to be some areas” hit harder than others.
Read: Southwest. The compounding helicopter-intensive factorsproximity to military bases, the White House, National Airport, and the Pentagonmean that the area will never be conducive to a life of rest and repose. “The military has tried to be cooperative,” Metcalf says. “And I hope the new organization will come up with a plan that would limit the amount of helicopter traffic in the area. But I don’t believe it has any real leverage it can apply. They can just appeal to pilots to be good neighborsor shame them into changing.” CP