December 3, 2020
Steven Jacquier commenting on Commercial Tour Helicopter noise and abuse on Hawai’I Island.
Incessant daily abuse and exploitation by commercial tour helicopters since the Leilani Estates eruption has had a severe negative impact on my health, my family, and my farm.
My home and 20 acre farm of over a decade’s labor is located a couple miles upslope from Fissure 8 in Leilani Estates. There are now many hundreds of active steam vents running along a diagonal stripe across my farm. In particular, a large plume of steam strongly rises from a crack several feet across, about fifteen to twenty feet deep in places, and about ninety feet long; this powerful steam vent and large crack is located 46 feet away from the corner of the house. At times there have been as many as four commercial tour helicopters circling around at the same time, ranging from 200 feet to 800 feet above the house, gawking and taking photos (including video recordings). A neighbor on my same lane told me that he looked out the second floor window of his house –the whole house shaking from the deafening noise– and saw a commercial tour helicopter hovering at a height even with his eye level above the back yard as people took photos of steam vents there. There are hundreds of witnesses; I, as well as others, have many photos and videos of these helicopters. The invasion of privacy and exploitation is appalling, and the deafening noise is intolerable.
Commercial tour helicopters came from about 7:30am until sunset on most days, seven days a week, including on weekends and holidays, from just after the eruption until this current COVID-19 hiatus. There have been low overflights at daybreak on Easter Sunday morning, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day. The noise frightens pets and farm animals alike. My parrots injured themselves, flailing around in a panic; my beloved African Gray parrot had to be rehomed on Oahu away from the incessant noise. My green cheeked conure died. Poultry production became erratic and was finally abandoned; the birds laid eggs in panic during overflights and even stopped laying altogether. My dogs became frantic barking at low overflights. The stress became so bad for me that with zero other risk factors whatsoever, one early morning in June of 2019 my retinas detached. I went completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other (with complete blindness in both eyes just hours away). An initial emergency surgery reattached the retinas, a series of additional surgeries followed, and after a year of recovery I am now able to see again, but I nearly became permanently totally blind as a result of the stress caused by the constant noise and harassment from commercial tour helicopters. My doctors say there is no other explanation for why the retinas detached except severe chronic stress. The only chronic stress in my life was daily harassment by commercial tour helicopters.
Because of the detached retina injury and ongoing stress at my farm resulting directly from constant commercial tour helicopter noise and harassment, my spouse and I were forced to leave our home in Hawai’i. We moved in together with our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in Anchorage, Alaska. We still own the farm in Hawai’i and would like to return there, but cannot as long as the commercial tour helicopter harassment continues. This is particularly unfortunate not only as regards the farm laying fallow, but because I was unable to accept a research position offered to me at the University of Hawaii Hilo’s College of Pharmacy Research Laboratory. I am an experienced scientist with a number of publications on angiostrongyliasis (Rat Lungworm Disease) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, among other research areas. Thanks directly to the noise and harassment of commercial tour helicopters flying low above my home as often as every forty minutes throughout the day, almost very day, I had to leave Hawaii and find shelter in Alaska to recover from my nearly complete and permanent loss of vision. I am stubborn, but not stubborn enough to go blind rather than leave that constant stress.
This has all been tremendously costly in many different ways. Financially, emotionally, in terms of health, and even relationships have suffered. Please note that we were among the lucky Lower East Rift Zone residents whose property was simply damaged rather than covered by lava. The real hardship and difficulty is not from the eruption or even the steam vents, but from being turned into a circus freak show and gawked at daily by commercial tour helicopter exploiters. The commercial helicopter tour operators are like disaster pornographers, sadistically exploiting private citizens for their own financial gain. Maybe we could ignore people taking thousands of photos and video recordings of us, but there is simply no way to ignore the noise and vibration of the helicopter rotors shaking the whole house. I have tried playing music on earbuds underneath shooter’s headphone ear protection; it is no use. The helicopter noise still penetrates.
My house is located at 1,300 feet elevation atop the ridge upslope from Lelani Estates; the highest point in lower Puna is located on Ala Ili Road. Instead of flying out at sea the commercial tour helicopters from Kona and Hilo alike cut across this ridge very low above the ground. By the time they reach Fissure 8 they are perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 feet about the ground, but when they cross the ridge they are usually between 300 and 800 feet above the ground. Some are much lower, just barely clearing the tops of my Hirosi bamboo and a tall albizia tree on the property. I worry that a helicopter will accidentally crash into my house and harm or kill the ohana now living there. A professionally designed and legally permitted sixty foot tall shortwave radio tower stands atop a small rise alongside my house; it is massive and substantial, military grade (actual surplus military equipment). Several times I have listened and watched in horror as commercial tour helicopters churn their way through or just underneath cloud cover almost down to the ground, narrowly missing the radio tower. A couple of times an idiot pilot has circled around overhead above dense cloud cover (one can hear exactly where they are above the low clouds as they circle) and then foolishly dived through a “doughnut hole” when the cloud cover briefly opens and s/he can see the ground underneath. The pilot thinks if s/he can just get under the cloud cover then he or she has it made and can skim just below the clouds on the ridge down to Fissure 8, but when they dive through the hole they risk hitting the radio tower, an albizia tree, or the house itself. One commercial tour helicopter dove through the clouds headed toward the house on a collision course with the radio tower standing between, then pulled up and missed the tower by just few dozen feet. I have also witnessed several near midair collisions between commercial tour helicopters crossing paths above my property. Even living up in Alaska I feel anxiety about this risk my ohana still at the house are constantly being subjected to by careless and contemptuous commercial tour helicopter operations.
Since August 31st, 2018, when I last testified on this issue (for your reference that previous testimony is appended here, following immediately below today’s new testimony) what has changed?
1) Exactly as predicted, there have been yet more commercial tour helicopter crashes with mounting numbers of fatalities and serious injuries among visitors. This is a stain upon Hawai’i’s tourism industry as a whole and upon the aviation profession in particular.
2) Exactly as predicted, these “accidents” have placed residents on the ground at risk as commercial tour helicopters have crashed and burned in urban and rural areas alike, strewing bloody carnage and flaming horror in their wake.
3) Exactly as predicted, across the state of Hawai’i those candidates seeking election to public office who have made combatting commercial tour helicopter abuse a priority, such as via the Safe and Quiet Skies Act, have won their elections while many of those incumbents who have colluded with industry have been dumped from elected office.
4) Surprisingly, the consciences of two FAA workers have finally pressured them into stepping forward and becoming whistle blowers exposing the collusion between regulators and the commercial helicopter tour industry. This fact reveals the accusations of venal corruption which we members of the public have long been directing at the Hawai’i FAA do indeed have substance. The FAA has failed to respond to the thousands of complaints by residents quite simply because the FAA in Hawai’i has sold out and is in cahoots with industry buddies. Cronyism has resulted in this intolerable situation from noise to fatalities. For shame! Those responsible should not just be fired but be doing hard time in prison.
5) COVID-19 has brought a respite to the daily onslaught of commercial tour helicopter noise abuse and invasion of privacy as well as a chance to rethink Hawai’i’s economy and the role of commercial tour helicopters. This is a chance to correct the situation and make improvements for the post-COVID-19 era to come. If those of you reading these words fail in this task, such that the same old, same old abuse resumes exactly as before, then there will be literally Hell to pay when someone’s sanity snaps such that s/he attacks pilots on the pad with a machete, buys a ticket and goes up in a helicopter with the intention of cutting the pilot’s throat mid-flight, or simply takes a gun and shoots a low flying commercial tour helicopter out of the sky above his or her house. It is rather surprising nothing like this has yet happened given the extreme, deliberate, arrogant cruelty of the abuse to which residents have been subjected.
So, what are the solutions? Personally, I love flying in helicopters and would hate to see that option disappear entirely. There is absolutely no way, however, that I will allow any ohana member or visitor of mine to go up in a Hawai’i commercial tour helicopter knowing as I do the unethical conduct of this industry, the utter failure of the FAA to perform its regulatory role in Hawai’i, and the danger in which commercial tour helicopters knowingly place their passengers. They know the risks of shirking proper maintenance. They know the risks of skipping pilot drug testing. They know the risks of underpaying pilots. Underpaid pilots strive to make their money via tax free cash tips by thrilling tourists. Flying illegally low thrills tourists. Circling around residences so tourists can get better photos of steam vents right next to a house thrills tourists. Diving through doughnut holes in low cloud cover and then flying just a couple hundred feet above the ground with a cloud ceiling immediately overhead thrills tourists. It also kills them, as recently happened to the family of visitors on Kaua’i. So antagonizing residents as to be painting a target on low flying commercial tour helicopters for anyone with a rifle and too much booze, or a growing brain tumor, will eventually also kill visitors. So, again, what are the solutions?
Here are my suggestions:
A) Clean house at the FAA. Except for the two whistle blowers, fire the lot of them from top to bottom. The NTSB could provide appropriate oversight and restructuring to this process.
B) Investigate and prosecute wrongdoing at the FAA to the full extent of the law and incarcerate those convicted; likewise, wrongdoers in the commercial tour helicopter industry should be fined, permits and licenses pulled, wrongdoers prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and those convicted incarcerated.
C) Rigorously enforce existing FAA regulations, including sending FAA observers to Hawai’i Island to monitor low flying commercial tour helicopter operations in the field. Hover a drone above Ala Ili Road and I guarantee white-and-green helicopters in particular will be recorded deliberately, punitively, hitting my house with full roar rotor blast on their first flight of the day (they started doing this immediately after my testimony at the Nani Mau Gardens meeting, obviously as revenge for my having spoken out and perhaps to intimidate others against doing the same).
D) Where possible, establish several alternative flight lanes just offshore rather than flying overland and directly over residences & farms. Require operators to adhere to these routes, and vary them from day to day so no one route is always getting traffic. Varying the flight paths would give those residents still effected a break on at least some days. If this can be done –as it has– for the people of Long Island, NY, then it can also be done for the people of Hawai’i.
E) Require every commercial tour helicopter to keep a dedicated transponder showing its identity and elevation turned on from the moment it leaves the pad until it returns again, no exceptions. No turning it off to hide identity and hide evidence of illegally low flights, as has happened routinely for years without any consequence whatsoever.
F) Elected officials and bureaucrats at the county level, state level, and national level alike must stop passing the buck. Stop saying “Sorry, not my jurisdiction, I cannot do anything, my hands are tied.” Self-excusing avoidance (if not complicity) is exactly that which has led to this mess; it is lazy, unaccountable, and moreover has the appearance of impropriety (many Hawai’i bureaucrats and office holders are corrupt and everyone knows it). Instead, be proactive and strive to find ways to take action rather than seeking excuses for inaction. If all else fails, then tax an unethical and hazardous industry out of existence.
As bad as the impact of unethical, sadistic, arrogant commercial tour helicopter operations has been on me, I consider myself fortunate compared to some I have met. As much as I have hated being driven out of my own home, off my own farm, and away from useful laboratory research & an outstanding scientific team I love, I have had the resources and familial support to flee the state and remain away for the last year and a half. Though my retinas detached from the constant stress and I nearly went permanently blind, my eyes were saved by emergency surgery and a year of rest. I was fortunate. Others have lost far more than I have. Frankly, there are some in Puna who do not have ideal mental health support, nor welcoming places of refuge. This mess needs to be fixed while COVID-19 gives us all a respite and chance to prevent further fatalities.
Please feel welcome to contact me with any questions you may have. Thank you for considering my testimony; for every one person who speaks up I assure you there are dozens who would like to do so but lack the confidence, writing skills, access to technology, &/or who feel too intimidated to send testimony (…if they even know about this opportunity at all, which is doubtful).
This concludes my comment today except for including the transcript from 2018 following immediately below; it is still entirely relevant to the situation so is also presented as part of this comment.
Sent at 11:45am on 31AUG2018
Emailed to email@example.com and CC list at bottom
This testimony is already posted online and being shared in social media; I hope it will also soon be published in Hawai’i newspapers of record as an open letter to be read by tens of thousands of local taxpaying, voting, residents -so you may want to actually take note (rather than routinely ignoring, as has been business-as-usual for decades). This testimony is also being sent directly to Hawai’i’s elected officials. In this testimony I have included questions for each member of the Nani Mau public meeting panel; I challenge you to reply and publish your answers in the newspaper for all to read. Elected officials, please demand replies as well.
Helicopter Pilots Association Rep:
-How many thousand dollars, on average, do pilots receive each day in tips from tourists thrilled by illegally low flights?
-How much of the thousands daily in cash tip money is reported to the IRS on taxes?
-How much of those millions, total, has your association compassionately donated to Hawai’i community relief in the exact same disaster areas you exploit for fat tips?
-How much would you need to pay pilots if they were not allowed to accept big tips?
-When sued after a fatal incident, will you try to deny that you were aware of the unnecessary risks to which you were exposing unwitting customers by allowing pilots to routinely fly far too low and in such a contemptuous manner that many local residents have provided sworn testimony the low overflights are placing visitors at risk of gunfire?
-How much do you donate to which politicians?
-How is it that everywhere else in the USA low overflight regulations are actually enforced, but here in Hawai’i you have neglected to do the job for which we taxpayers fund your agency?
-Where will you be seeking new employment after the 2020 elections?
-How is it that the people of Hawai’i are taxed so heavily yet the helicopter industry does not pay anywhere remotely near its fair share?
-What is your personal relationship to the helicopter industry such that these operators get a free pass at the expense of Hawai’i residents?
Panel Members as a whole:
How many years of constant abuse have community members been subjected to by this callous industry and yet when you reluctantly agree to hold a two hour meeting it is held in the middle of a weekday afternoon when many working people cannot attend and you limit testimony to just two minutes per person? You even had the audacity to threaten the public with police openly displaying guns at the meeting while at the same time your facilitator repeatedly demanded “display aloha, no threats” even when no threats had been made. Has the helicopter industry been showing residents aloha? Your behavior at the public meeting was heavy-handed, cowardly, and designed to suppress participation. Truncated testimony is incomplete, at best, and many residents were unable to attend at all during the workday. The hearing should have been however many hours it needed to be in order to accommodate everyone who wanted to speak, testifying fully, should have been held on a weekend, and extended into the evening for those who could not be present during the day. Oh, and by the way, stipulating at the outset that there will be no answers given to any questions asked at a public meeting does not make those questions go “poof” and disappear. You will be held accountable, one way or another.
Helicopter operators cannot claim they are unaware of violations when a recording is made during each flight and sold to the tourist passengers aboard at the conclusion. The evidence is recorded, literally, on each flight. When local residents attempt to purchase these same recordings after overflights they are refused. Why? You film us while hovering above our homes but refuse to allow us to purchase these recordings of ourselves at our homes. None of us ever signed a consent form, agreeing to be filmed in our own fenced yards. Why does the FAA not demand to review these same recordings when unsafe flying complaints inform the agency of the exact date, time, and operator? Why?
These low overflights (from just 80 feet above the ground to around 200 feet, as measured against nearby trees of established height, has been documented many times; from 300 to 500 feet is routine in some areas) are illegal, noxious, and so arrogantly contemptuous of local people that they do violence and so constitute deliberate provocation of further violence in response. Do not dare admonish the peaceful public “no threats, no threats” when you are knowingly if not cruelly and deliberately inciting such massive rage among so many that a violent backlash is not only predictable but likely! You just do not want the public repeatedly advising you of that fact to be on record. I do. I, and other responsible individuals like me, are speaking up precisely because we want to be on record as having advised you that no rational (let alone ethical) business should ever knowingly place customers at risk as you are deliberately doing.
Ignoring a problem does not solve it. Like a scratch which turns into fatal gangrene without proper attention, this festering issue has long since gone way past the inflamed scratch stage and now needs serious and swift intervention before it goes from being a disgrace and outrage to being an outright tragedy. You have been warned, repeatedly, by many concerned community members citing solid evidence that nerves are frayed and people are near snapping. That is not a threat, that is the truth of the situation; you have heard it from dozens of people and are asinine fools if you ignore this prediction. Solve the problem, we urge you; do not further aggravate it by turning a deaf ear and blind eye. Bureaucrats, likewise, clearly, you like the steady job and pieces of bureaucratic turf over which you are ineffective Little Hitlers, but if you allow this situation to go further in the direction it is so plainly headed then you are allowing the slaughter of the goose which lays the golden eggs. Not just the helicopter operators but the entire visitor industry in Hawai’i is going to suffer if the predictions of so many come to pass and that sad news is splashed across media worldwide. Have you ever seen the movie “Babel”? I recommend you watch it. Do not continue to neglect this issue and so create a Hawai’i version of “Babel.”
Helicopters are currently flying within range of slingshots.
Helicopters are currently flying within range of bow and arrow.
Helicopters are currently flying within range of powerful lasers.
Helicopters are currently flying within range of side arms.
Helicopters are currently flying within range of high velocity carbines.
Helicopters are flying the same routes repeatedly, in groups, over people who are stressed out and any one of whom may be off his or her meds &/or an otherwise entirely conscientious and sober person but a person unaware s/he is developing a brain tumor which can transform his or her behavior. This exact situation happened in Alaska where a certified pilot, who had been out flying the week before, took a hammer and murdered four people because he felt irrationally enraged with them; a brain tumor was subsequently discovered.
Remember, the public owns the airspace, not the helicopter companies. The public employs the FAA to administer that airspace and the public can see to it through our elected representatives that corrupted bureaucrats are fired and replaced by those who actually do their jobs. Venal elected officials taking money and favors from vested interests can likewise be replaced by those who do their jobs. Do not wait until this situation goes from deplorable to tragic before doing your respective jobs.
The foregoing is the testimony I would have presented at the public meeting if I had been allowed more than two minutes to speak. Below follows the abbreviated version I was able to squeeze into just two minutes. If you do not like the testimony below, then blame yourselves for manufacturing a situation wherein it is that which you got to hear.
“This morning, as so often, several helicopters flew over my house at about 200 feet. Every time helicopters fly so low they place everyone at risk, including endangering Hawaii’s economy.
Pilots want big tips so they fly too low -but this is going to end up costing us all, including the helicopter companies.
You’d think certified pilots would have great judgement and self-restraint but back in grad school a pilot murdered my classmate Gene Barron and three others. The pilot was found to be insane at the time after an MRI exam found a brain tumor. He did not crash: he smashed in four peoples’ skulls, asleep in bed, with a hammer and later said in court it was because he was angry with these total strangers.
Well, there are a lot of people very angry with low-flying pilots. I hope none develop brain tumors.
Those helicopters this morning, as on many hundreds to thousands of other low overflights, are well within range of high velocity rifle fire. A heavy handgun could hit them. A tragedy like this is predictable. Entirely predictable and entirely avoidable:
Fly much, much, higher.
Fly varying routes.
Do not wait until some stressed out person, or person suffering from a brain tumor, or some pathetic angry drunken fool shoots down a helicopter filled with innocent visitors!
If you fail to take effective action and this entirely predictable tragedy occurs, then I hope this testimony today is shown in court when families of the dead visitors you knowingly placed at needless risk sue the helicopter companies -and I hope the survivors win big.
US Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
Gov. David Ige
Lt. Gov. Josh Green
Rep. Joy Sanbuenventura
Sen. Russell Ruderman
Councilwoman Jen Ruggles
Mayor Harry Kim
Journalist Frankie Stapleton
Journalist Alan McNarie
Journalist Nancy Cook-Lauer
US Sen. Mazie Hirono
US Sen. Brian Schatz