Blue Hawaiian Helicopters
A proposed bill from a Hawaii congressman would effectively end helitours in the U.S. It would impose a 55-dB noise limit on helicopters, which no current-production machine can meet—even the quiet Airbus EC130B4, which is operated by Hawaiian helitour operator Blue Hawaiian Helicopters, can't meet this threshold. (Photo: Blue Hawaiian)

Bill Would Effectively End Most Heli Tourism In U.S.

Citing a pair of recent high-profile helitour crashes in his home state, U.S. Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) on August 28 proposed legislation that would all but eliminate the industry.

His “Safe and Quiet Skies Act” would direct the Federal Aviation Administration to impose a series of restrictions on the industry, including flying no lower than 1,500 feet above ground level; prohibiting flights over military installations, national cemeteries, national wilderness areas, national parks, and national wildlife refuges; and forbidding pilots to act as tour narrators while flying. It would also require helicopters to have a noise signature no greater than 55 dbA during overflight over any “occupied area,” be it commercial, residential, or recreational—a standard that no currently certified helicopter can meet. 

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The bill would also scuttle federal pre-emption with regard to airspace and air operations by giving states and localities the power to “impose additional requirements—stricter than the minimum national requirements called for in the act—on tour flights.”

At a press conference this week in Honolulu announcing the legislation, Case proclaimed, “My Safe and Quiet Skies Act will further mandate strict regulation of commercial air tour operations to address defense risks and community disruption, including no overflights of defense, park, cemetery, and other sensitive installations and minimum altitude maximum noise limits on all flights. Additionally, it will allow states, localities, and tribes to impose stricter regulations on tour flights in their jurisdictions, to include time, route, and frequency, with required public engagement.” 

Case’s bill is just the latest in a series offered by congressional representatives in recent years to restrict helicopter operations from New York to Los Angeles. The bills have attempted, among other things, to impose minimum helicopter operating altitudes, set a curfew for hours of operation, and mandate flight paths. The FAA has deemed most of these efforts as unworkable and hazards to flight safety.  

Case's bill would have a major impact on Hawaii. The Hawaii Helicopter Association estimates that helicopter operators annually contribute $150 million to the state economy. The association points out that it has endeavored to address the concerns of citizen groups and regulators by investing more than $100 million in quiet-technology helicopters such as the Airbus EC130B4 in recent decades, adopting “fly neighborly” programs as advocated by the Helicopter Association International (HAI), and employing the PlaneNoise noise reporting and measuring system since 2017. 

The April 29 fatal crash of an air-tour Robinson R44 into the street in a suburban Honolulu residential neighborhood appears to be providing the most recent impetus for not only Case’s bill, but also similar moves from state legislators. Following that crash, Hawaii State Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R) called on the FAA to prohibit air tours over residential areas and national parks and called for the immediate grounding of helitour flights in Hawaii pending an investigation.

All three aboard that aircraft were killed. The pilot was new to Hawaii. In its preliminary report on the accident, the NTSB noted that weather three miles from the accident site was reported as visibility four statute miles, broken clouds at 1,800 and 2,800 feet agl, overcast clouds at 3,900 feet agl, and light rain.

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