An active discussion about potential changes to the voluntary flight paths to and from East Hampton Town Airport between its manager and officials of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council proved irrelevant on Tuesday when the airport manager opted to stay with the routes he had just described to the town board during its meeting.
The discussion came exactly one year after a New York State Supreme Court Justice imposed a temporary restraining order that prevented the town from briefly closing and then reopening the airport in Wainscott as a private facility under a prior-permission-required framework, and with another looming season of what some residents describe as incessant noise overhead.
The Federal Aviation Administration now considers the airport private, Jim Brundige, the airport manager, told the board, yet the T.R.O. — “temporary” an apparent misnomer — prevents the town from limiting aircraft operators to one takeoff and one landing per day while imposing curfews and other restrictions based on the size and noise of aircraft, as intended by the board last year. The restrictions and curfews were aimed at alleviating residents’ complaints, which have soared in recent years in tandem with aircraft operations, particularly helicopter travel to and from New York City.
A voluntary curfew, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., is generally honored by airport users, Mr. Brundige said. The air traffic control tower will begin operation on Saturday, he said, and will operate daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Sept. 10.
Helicopter routes, developed in consultation with the air traffic control tower chief, airport staff, and representatives of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, are designed to safely control traffic into and out of the airport, Mr. Brundige said. “Noise abatement is a major concern,” he said, “but safety is the primary focus. It’s one of the most difficult things we do here.”
Last year, with the understanding that restrictions would sharply reduce traffic, “we limited the access to the airport with an ‘Echo’ route from the north, and a ‘Sierra’ route from the south,” Mr. Brundige said. “That turned out not to be the case . . . and the traffic was about the same as it had been in past years,” which he said put undue strain on both the air traffic control tower and residents living south of the airport.
To address that this year, he said, the airport has reinstated the “November” route, to be used for arrivals only, and only from the South Shore helicopter route (all routes are voluntary). The Echo route is available for arrivals and departures connecting to the North Shore helicopter route, and the Sierra route is available only for pilots requesting departures to the South Shore helicopter route, traffic permitting, “meaning that if there’s no fixed-wing traffic anywhere on the South Shore,” Mr. Brundige said. “Otherwise, aircraft can arrive and depart on the Echo route.” Air traffic control, he said, “does not want to have any conflicts with helicopters and fixed-wing traffic south of the airport.” Two-way traffic on the Echo route is managed by separating the altitude of inbound and outbound flights by 1,000 feet, he said.
Appearing via video conference, Blair Payton and other officials of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council proposed an alternative route, later abandoned, that would pass over Calverton National Cemetery, where more than 200,000 veterans are buried. “It’s really not disrespectful to the deceased to fly over it,” he said. “And one thing for sure, they’re not going to complain about noise.”
“I think that it’s almost impossible to eliminate the noise complaints entirely,” he said, “but I think if we split it up — I mean, split the misery. I know we’re noisy. The rotors are choppy, but there’s no other way to do it.”
This would not have been music to the ears of members of the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee, who during a May 6 meeting expressed a mixture of frustration and resignation as another summer season draws near. Several members of the committee are among those across the East End who would like to see traffic restricted or the airport closed. “I don’t want to put all of the burden on any other community, but it’s clearly not fair that all of the burden is on Wainscott,” said Anthony Liberatore. “That’s what happened last summer, it was unbearable and it’s not equitable, and it’s really not safe.”
The sky over Barry Raebeck’s house “is like an airshow,” he said at the May 6 meeting. “I’ve seen, many times — many times — jets, seaplanes, helicopters crisscross over my backyard, in the sky, going in three directions simultaneously. What you have is the Wild West. The routes are recommended, but they are not specified. . . . The current mess that everyone is subjected to is a symptom, but the cause is an airport that’s way, way grown beyond its necessity,” he said.
In another development, the East Hampton Community Alliance, East Hampton Aviation Advisers, the National Business Aviation Association, and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association have again committed to a “pilot pledge” to “fly neighborly practices” by promising to follow the voluntary routes and altitudes, weather and traffic conditions permitting. Those adhering to the pledge are to observe the curfew, maintain the highest possible altitudes as practicable, and to fly no lower than 1,000 feet for piston and turboprop aircraft and 1,500 feet for turbojet aircraft until maneuvering for landing, among other practices. There are additional pledges specific to aircraft type.
The pilot pledge was introduced two years ago. By most measures, it has been successful, said Erin King Sweeney of the East Hampton Community Alliance, describing “a commitment by the aviation community to be a good neighbor and respond to reasonable requests of the neighborhood.” There is always room for improvement, she said, but “this is our voluntary attempt to show good faith.”