Hollywood Hills Residents Caught in Helicopter Showdown

Hollywood Sign Helicopter - P 2013
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Hollywood Sign Helicopter - P 2013

Tony neighborhood dwellers can't take the incessant whir as a new bill targets news choppers and low-flying tours.

This story first appeared in the March 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The tony Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles is gaining notoriety for the wrong kind of buzz: incessant helicopter noise in the skies above it. But the star-studded neighborhood finally might be about to reclaim a measure of serenity with the help of newly introduced federal legislation -- if L.A.'s band of news helicopter pilots and tour operators don't put a stop to it.

Charging that the FAA has failed to properly regulate sound levels in the metro area, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Rep. Adam Schiff, whose 28th District includes the area, announced a bill Feb. 5 to target "non-emergency-related" traffic by forcing the aviation agency to "set guidelines on flight paths and minimum altitudes." Homeowners near the Hollywood sign, irritated by what they believe has been a marked increase in low-hovering tour flights near the landmark in the past few years, necessitating double- and even triple-paned windows in the once-tranquil neighborhood, have been at the forefront of pushing elected officials to act. The Los Angeles Residential Helicopter Noise Relief Act is the result of their efforts.

"There are no rules right now," says film editor Paul Martin Smith (Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace), who lives near the sign. "The noise is so bad, you find yourself putting a screener on pause because you can't hear it." Adds his neighbor, production designer Robert de Vico (The Boondock Saints), "I'll be on the phone with a director, and my conversation comes to a stop."

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Private-sector pilots admit that noise can be an issue -- especially in high-traffic areas like the Hollywood Hills, which is home to the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Justin Timberlake and countless other industry figures. L.A.'s local television news broadcasts have long relied on coverage of breaking news via helicopter, from high-speed police chases to fires and other emergency situations. But despite the omnipresence of eye-in-the-sky choppers, the pilots believe the legislation zeroes in on the wrong offenders.

"The very aircraft they're trying to exempt are the root of the problem," says Larry Welk, outgoing president of the local Professional Helicopter Pilots Association. He notes that military, fire, medical emergency and patrolling police -- the LAPD alone retains a 17-copter fleet -- account for a majority of the disruptive noise but would not be regulated. (Schiff acknowledges the public-safety contribution but is adamant that "a great deal" of private traffic "is also a large generator" of noise, noting "some of these operators are among the worst actors in terms of flying low and hovering.")

The private side also takes issue with the initial floated altitude minimums -- they've ranged from 1,000 to 2,500 feet -- because they would force helicopters into airspace occupied by much faster planes. Opponents of the bill, which has been referred to a committee pending an FAA report due in May, claim such a change would increase the likelihood of deadly collisions. "It would be very scary," says Chuck Street, executive director of the Los Angeles Area Helicopter Operators Association and a longtime pilot for KIIS-FM radio. News agencies in particular believe that set flight paths, aside from being an unfair noise burden to those who live directly below them, would undermine the efficiency advantage that makes helicopters valuable in the first place. "We cover almost 42,000 square miles in our market," says KNBC-TV news director Todd Mokhtari. "It's the No. 1 tool for covering breaking news."

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Jeff Baugh, a veteran airborne reporter for CBS' local station KNX-AM, notes that the helicopter community already has become more sensitive to residents' complaints and reacted proactively, curtailing hovering to a minimum and instituting pooled feeds on big local stories such as the Endeavor Space Shuttle flyby and "Carmageddon II," both of which took place in September. "We've been responsive," he says, adding that living in a city like Los Angeles brings certain drawbacks. "We're really just a tiny part of the noise problem anyway."