A Los Angeles County Sheriff's helicopter flies low over Figueroa Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Torrance residents say sometimes county helicopters, LAPD and Coast Guard helicopters fly over their area to get to other cities. They are likely to be exempt from any new regulations.
Throngs of Los Angeles residents would love it if helicopters bumped it up a few hundred feet while flying above their houses. Maybe that would quiet the battering rotor sound.
This summer helicopters flying over the City of Torrance may end up doing that.
If the Federal Aviation Administration green lights the test program, Torrance helicopters will be asked to voluntarily fly at higher altitudes along three main helicopter paths while flying in the city.
Currently, helicopters are asked to fly at minimum 600 feet above sea level. That altitude is meaningless in some parts of south Torrance where a hill rises far above that.
“We’re trying to work out something for everybody,” said Pete Elmore. He chaired a Torrance helicopter committee a few years ago that tried to tackle the chopper noise problem.
After four years of contentious meetings here and there with residents, city officials, FAA representatives, and airplane and helicopter operators – a six-month test plan has been submitted for federal aviation approval.
Higher helicopter altitudes will be tested on three routes that are already in heavy use at the Torrance Airport:
- Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) Route: Helicopters leaving the airport will climb to 1,400 feet above sea level. Inbound helicopters will fly at 1,200 feet.
- Crenshaw Route: Helicopters leaving and coming into the airport will fly at 2,000 above sea level.
- Southeast Route: Helicopters leaving and coming into the airport will fly at 1,000 feet above sea level.
A map of the proposal is below and it also shows two northbound routes in which higher altitudes will not be tested.
Choppers from three Torrance helicopter operators – JJ Helicopters, Advanced Flight, and Robinson Helicopter Company – will have transponders placed on the aircraft during the six-month trial period. It’ll track their paths, GPS locations and, along with ground noise monitoring, will collect date on the current 600 foot altitude flight path and the higher altitudes.
Elmore has run predictive computer noise models and he thinks that along the PCH route, chopper noise might be quieter.
“We can look towards a five, six, seven decibel decrease in the helicopter noise,” he said.
Not everyone’s a believer. Torrance resident Richard Root led the charge four years ago convincing the city that helicopter noise relief must be taken seriously.
Root came to the city in 2009. The year before, Robinson Helicopter Company – Torrance’s largest helicopter operator and the world’s leading chopper manufacturer – produced a record 893 helicopters. That’s at least four to five daily helicopter test flights by Robinson, each for about an hour long. The company also offers pilot classes for their clients.
“The number of flights we get varies in direct proportion to the number of helicopters they make,” Root says.
He doesn’t buy that the higher helicopter altitudes will help the noise on the ground because Robinson already asks its pilots to fly above 1,000 feet anyway.
“What needs to be done is a reduction in the number of helicopters that are flying, the traffic,” he says.
The FAA can’t limit the number of helicopter flights in Torrance. But it’s not in the best interest of the city to tell Robinson to slow down production: The company employs approximately 1,300 people.
“Hopefully, this will provide a degree of relief to the people that are being impacted by the noise,” said FAA acting regional director David Soumi.
It’s not official, but the city expects the FAA to clear the way for the six-month helicopter test plan by the end of summer.
Soumi said if the test proves to be successful – that is if helicopter noise is reduced and the higher altitudes can be flown safely – the FAA could consider this a model to muffle helicopter noise throughout the Los Angeles region. But he warned not all areas are as simple and small as Torrance.
“If in fact we can maintain safety and efficiency, (and) all the other requirements and do it in a more sensitive noise mode, why wouldn’t we do that,” Soumi said.
Adjusting helicopter altitudes is similar to balancing chemical equations in high school. If you change altitudes for helicopters on one side of the formula, there is likely be a change or adjustment needed to the other side of the equation. In this case, it's the airspace for fixed-wing planes.
Asking Torrance helicopters to fly above 1,000 feet has not gone over well with some of the fixed-wing airplane pilots and operators in Torrance.
Jim Gates flies various small single engine planes, including an experimental plane he built himself. He’s retired, but does airplane maintenance and engineering for small plane companies.
Gates said he’s worried that the habitual ocean clouds that roll up shore will complicate the test of the new paths and helicopter altitudes. Fixed-wing pilots, required to fly at 1,000 feet or higher, must also stay a certain number of feet to the sides, above and below cloud cover.
“If you have all of this traffic crossing at the same altitude, that’s going to be a problem,” Gates said.
When flying by visuals (meaning by sight), Gates said he hardly is able to see helicopters because they’re often smaller than fixed-wing planes.
But since Robinson helicopters and other choppers already fly at 1,000 feet in Torrance, that might not be a problem. Still, Gates said there’s no guarantee when buffer zones between the two aircraft are shrunk.
Kurt Robinson, president of Robinson Helicopter Company shares Gates concern. He said he’s willing to try the higher altitudes as long as they’re safe.
“Safety has to be number one,” Robinson said. “It has to be.”
If there are safety hazards during the trial period, the testing will be immediately halted, said Torrance city staffers.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the trial altitude for the Southeast Route would be 1,500 feet above sea level. It will be tested at 1,000 feet above sea level.