NEW YORK — Patricia Namm Saffran and her husband, Bill, were awakened on a recent Saturday at 6 a.m. by a window-rattling whump whump whump.
They were stunned to see a helicopter hovering just outside their sixth-floor Manhattan apartment. "It reminded me of all those Vietnam War movies, and I don't like war movies," says Ms. Saffran, a painter.
Such noises heard through the day have prompted Saffran and other East Side residents to become part of a growing movement against the whumps - the sound generated by helicopter blades as they hit the air.
From Encino, Calif., to Brooklyn Heights, residents are organizing, petitioning city councils, and trying to get the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to change the rules governing helicopter flight. Even the military, the largest user of whirlybirds, is under pressure to muffle up.
The message is finally starting to get through: Last month, the federal government proposed restrictions on flights over the Grand Canyon. And, within a few months, at least one company says it expects to get FAA certification for a modified helicopter that will significantly cut down on its noise emissions.
"We have been working with the Helicopter Association International and pilots' organizations to make them aware of the complaints," says Bob Barton, manager of the General Aviation Operation's branch of the FAA in Washington. "Everyone wants the aircraft to fly somewhere else, not in their neighborhood."
The noise problem has surfaced as heliports have become a part of some cities' makeup. Daniel Anderson, president of the US Air Tour Association in Alexandria, Va., says almost 1 million tourists climbed into helicopters last year. "Tourists want to see as much as they can in a short space of time," he says.
Mandating a minimum altitude
But the increasing number of birds in the sky is causing angst for those still on the ground. In Encino, Calif., Gerald Silver has formed the Helicopter Noise Coalition, which he says has about 1,000 participants from Seattle to New York.
Mr. Silver formed the organization when the noise from flights from Van Nuys Airport started to infringe on his retirement. At first he assumed the flights were police, fire, and rescue helicopters. But he discovered most were news media flights leaving for traffic reporting, tourist operations, and training flights.
Silver has asked the FAA to mandate a minimum altitude of 1,000 feet for helicopters operating over congested areas. So far, the FAA, which is mainly concerned with safety issues, has twice rejected his request for the new rule.
In New York, Saffran and others have been pressing local officials to clamp down on flights. Over two days this fall, Joy Held, a Manhattan resident, logged 30 helicopter flights per hour from her roof. "It comes through the soundproof windows into every room of our apartment," she wrote on a recent petition.
Responding to the residents, Ruth Messinger, the Manhattan Borough president, formed a Helicopter Task Force, which has asked the operators to try to limit their travels to the rivers and to fly at 1,500 feet. The City Council also has tried to limit the number of flights and gradually reduce weekend flights. This attempt was overturned in a lawsuit that the city lost last week.
The Grand Canyon noise restrictions are likewise being challenged in court by 13 air-tour operators. New FAA regulations impose morning and evening curfews on flights and expand no-fly zones to about 80 percent of the park's airspace. "They have far exceeded what Congress asked them to do and are simply stepping out of bounds," says Mr. Anderson.
Four years ago, Papillion Grand Canyon Tours, which flies about 130,000 passengers a year, approached the major helicopter manufacturers about modifying existing aircraft or building a quieter chopper. "There was not any serious interest in getting that deeply involved in the acoustics because that means a redesign, which means big dollars," says Arthur Schneider, director of quiet technology for Papillion based in Kirkland, Wash.
Papillion joined with Sanford, Fla.-based Vertical Aviation Technologies to redesign its Sikorsky helicopters. Several million dollars later, Mr. Schneider claims to have produced a significantly quieter copter. "You can have a normal conversation with the helicopter at 500 feet above you," he says. Once it gets FAA certification of its modifications, Papillion plans to enter the New York market when the city opens a new heliport on the West Side.
To quiet its choppers, Vertical will articulate the blades - they will have a certain amount of movement at the base of the blade. This allows each blade, with computer control, to flap independently. The modified choppers also have five blades instead of three. This allows a slower rotation, which cuts down on noise.
Some of the technology has been tested by NASA, which found that articulating the blades can cut noise by about 50 percent. Recently, Lucent Technologies won a $13 million contract from the US Navy to study ways to reduce helicopter noise and vibration. "It is doable," says Larry Behrendt, program manager for the three-year project. "The noise reduction could be a significant number depending on the copter and the performance restraints." For the military, he says, a quieter chopper could be a few years away. The technology could be applied to commercial aircraft.