September 19, 2020
Mahalo for allowing me to provide my testimony. In some ways, this concern feels incredibly petty relative to the other more significant issues we are dealing with at this time in history, but I cannot sit idly by and allow the place that I call home to be consumed again by the out-of-control tour helicopter industry.
The tour helicopter industry has been allowed to operate virtually unregulated in the Islands for decades. Tour helicopters fly whenever, wherever they want; their only requirement is to “fly neighborly” and “safely”, at an altitude of 1500 ft or higher. This leaves things wide open to interpretation and has produced a wild-wild west mentality in our skies.
Tour helicopters fly under Visual Flight Rules (VFR); they are not equipped with instruments to fly under cloudy conditions. Despite this, tour operators fly over Windward Communities even under rainy, cloudy conditions when the Koʻolau Mountains are completely fogged in. This creates incredibly unsafe conditions as evidenced by the tragic helicopter accident on April 29, 2019, when a tour helicopter pilot became disoriented during overcast conditions and crashed in the middle of Kailua Townʻs main street, killing 3, but miraculously sparing the lives of those on the ground. Because tour helicopters in Hawaii are only capable of operating only under VFR, it is especially dangerous to those of us living in Windward Communities where weather and wind conditions, especially near the mountains, are notoriously “unpredictable” (which tour operators have openly acknowledged).
When called, every government agency (FAA, Hawaii Airport Division, Hawaii Department of Transportation) points to the other as the one in charge. After many aggravating phone calls and finger-pointing (the proverbial endless loop), it became clear that NO ONE is in control of these operators. In fact, government agencies have been given the tour helicopter industry carte blanche authority (via the Hawaii Helicopter Association—which actually has NO authority over individual operators) to control/monitor THEMSELVES! How ludicrous that the fox is given the keys to the hen house! Some tour operators have held these keys for so long that they openly goad frustrated community members to “go ahead and try to make changes” since they know that the Community has been unsuccessful in doing so for more than 25 years. These operators know they have the upper hand; the tourist buck has clearly been valued over the health and well-being of Kamaʻāina for years.
Pre-COVID, the volume of tour helicopters over Maunawili/Olomana (based on data from the FlightRadar24 app) had reached a tipping point. We averaged a helicopter overhead every 4 to 5 minutes from 7 am to 6 pm—every day. It became so unbearable that my family actually considered moving from our home of 20+ years. Then we realized that there was no place to go! We are buzzed by helicopters while at our family property in Pupukea, at cemeteries in Kaneohe and Diamond Head, at Makapuʻu beach, on the mountain hiking trails, at City and State parks, and while having coffee in Manoa… there is virtually no escaping the incessant drone of these helicopters. The now quiet skies created by COVID have only highlighted how dire the problem had become. We are overjoyed to hear the birds again.
Since the FAA and Hawaii State government agencies have been ineffective partners in establishing regulations to protect the safety and well-being of our community, we need the National Transportation Safety Board to have the authority to help adopt, enforce and monitor the regulations for increased safety standards for the tour helicopter industry.
– Reduce/control the volume of tour helicopter activity
– Increase minimum altitude requirements
– Vary flight paths so one community is not inundated over others
– To ensure the safety of those on the ground, tour helicopters should be banned from flying over residential
– Tour helicopters should be required to fly one mile offshore to ensure the safety of those on the ground
– Require helicopters be fitted with IFR and floatation equipment
– In addition to HHAʻs “self-monitoring”, establish an independent government agency to represent Kamaʻāina
concerns, monitor tour operator activities, and impose CONSEQUENCES for infractions (turning off
transponders, flying below required elevations, crashes) and ensure appropriate licensing, etc.
PLEASE take the keys from the fox!
Debra Laeha and the Hen House