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Jean Graham

December 3, 2020

We live in Leilani Estates and have seen the excesses and abuses an unregulated tour helicopter industry can wreak on a community. For the duration of  the 2018 Fissure #8 lava flow and several months post-eruption, overflights per day often exceeded 150 aircraft in an 8 hour period. The operators were turning helicopter flights over at an average of every  60-75 minutes during daylight hours; as fast as they could land and load. It was called hot loading since seats didn’t cool down between new loads of tourists. The industry reaped the rewards of an enormous business opportunity during this disaster and ignored affected communities. They made record profits and ignored the residents who suffered for those profits. They have shown an unrepentant indifference for the people of Hawaii unfortunate enough to live under a flightpath.

Never has lava been so predictable and so close to an airport and provided such a goldmine to the air tour industry. They took full advantage of it at the expense of our communities.  The  short roundtrip from Hilo allowed  each fleet multiple flights per aircraft every day. It was  an unparalleled business opportunity. The flightpath was short and the turnover was high and they used the communities in the path of the lava relentlessly, with no regard for the suffering residents living in the midst of the total chaos of the eruption.

There were, more often than not, 4-8 helicopters overhead arriving and leaving and circling Fissure #8  3-6 times. Circling kept them overhead for an additional 10 minutes, hovering and weaving in and out of heavy air traffic . At times, individual helicopters were stacked up tp 2-5 aircraft deep before departing. 

This intense and unregulated air traffic created non-stop noise for hours with measured decibels, at times, in excess of 85 decibels. It also created an incredibly dangerous situation for residents on the ground under the heavy  traffic. We were lucky there were no collisions or failures. 

I discuss the above to illustrate how careless and unregulated the industry is. They were not constrained by any agency or even  their own management  and were free to use the airspace any way that maximized profits. We were able to track around 15 aircraft at the time and noted near-collisions in the busy airspace. These helicopters were often at the same altitude, trying to maximize the view, often flying within a few dozen feet of each other. When we attempted to make complaints to the HHA, our calls were ignored and nothing was done. The hotline did not take calls in person and comments left were never answered.

The industry does not self-regulate and does not respond to residents’ complaints . When we have a combination of unsafe flightpaths and heavy traffic,  we need laws to make the industry accountable.

In addition to the strict permitting, I suggest all the  helicopter tour industry data be made available to the public.  Information should include fleet sizes, flightpaths, number of flights daily, monthly and annually, annual revenue figures, increases in annual flight numbers,  and any citations or violations. The public should be allowed to see what tour operators are doing over their communities.

Requiring all aircraft to install ADS-B would be an important step towards ensuring compliance. With this tool, residents are able to monitor who is using their neighborhoods for tours, how often they fly and at what altitudes they fly. It also pinpoints location with latitude and longitude. At present only aircraft using certain classes of airports are required to use ADS-B. That exempts anyone flying at any airport on the island of Hawaii, Maui,and  Kuai, unless they use Inyoue to land. All of these islands get significant traffic and have seen numerous incidents–some of them fatal.  Danieal K. Inyoue is effectively the only airport that meets the requirement for mandatory installation of ADS-B. 

  We do not agree that the tour industry should comply only with FAA requirements. Hawaii is a unique problem with small airports and heavy helicopter traffic over populated land.  The FAA doesn’t forbid the installation of ADS-B and the state is empowered to make their own decision on it.

HHA has submitted testimony as follows:

The Hawaii Helicopter Association is a non-profit organization that interacts with communities and local, state, and national government in order to ensure responsible helicopter operations in Hawaii.

They are not responsive to communities and they have failed to interact with them when contacted several hundred times with concerns. In fact, the past president blocked all email contact, returning messages unread and the hotline was never answered in person. Messages were ignored. Their dismissal of  resident’s comments and concerns illustrates perfectly why legislation is needed. 

All of the following should be made law.

No permit shall be authorized unless accompanied by a Hawaii sectional aeronautical chart marked to indicate routes and altitudes to be used in conducting aerial tours and noise abatement procedures to be employed in the vicinity of identified noise sensitive areas.

No permit shall be authorized unless the tour aircraft is fitted with a flotation device and an automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast device which have been approved by the United States Federal Aviation Administration.

Jean Graham

Post Author: HANSTF