MYRTLE BEACH — Executive Helicopters, parent company of Huffman Helicopters, crossed its first hurdle Wednesday at obtaining a new lease, which is set to take effect at the start of November if Horry County Council approves all parts of it.
The Horry County Airport Advisory Committee unanimously approved recommending the new five-year lease for Executive Helicopter to the county’s administration committee, which will review it at its next meeting Friday before it goes to full council.
The recommendation follows months of discussion following establishment of a competing helicopter tour company in Horry County that sparked complaints from nearby neighborhoods about noise.
Wednesday’s recommendation did not come without a $14,000 consultant bill and a few concerns, still, about noise complaints. This time the complaints are coming from the southern part of Horry County and northern part of Georgetown County near the Murrells Inlet Marsh Walk.
Executive Helicopters leases 182,000 square feet, or three parcels, from the county at Myrtle Beach International Airport – two are hangars and one is flat ground where the helicopters take flight. One hangar is used for maintenance and another hangar, located in the old DHL hangar, is for flight school.
The new lease calls for Executive Helicopters to spend about $40,000 on improvements for its flight school hangar. The company also plans to create about 65 new jobs.
“It’s their intention to grow that business, and it seems like it’s cracking with that intention,” said Mike LaPier, director of Horry County Airports. LaPier said the company pays the airport nearly $83,000 annually to operate its at the airport, and the airport receives 5 percent of all activities, including the tourist flights. “[Executive Helicopters owner] Jeremy [Bass] has been very receptive to general concerns about noise and the frequency of those flights.”
Horry County Council voted this summer not to renew its current lease with Executive Helicopters, which does business as Huffman Helicopters, mostly because the lease did not address hours of operation and had flight patterns that went over neighborhoods. Those patterns drew some complaints about noise, though Bass has said he has not heard about more than six over the years. The proposed lease limits hours of operation between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.
Bass changed the route of his flights at the peak of the debate this summer. Bass’ business runs out of the Myrtle Beach International Airport. A competitor, Helicopter Adventures, operates under different terms and often flies along Business 17.
Executive Helicopter has a memorandum of agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that shows its flight pattern goes from the airport directly to the beach and then pilots can head either north or south along the shore. FAA regulations set 300 feet as a minimum flight height, but Executive Helicopters has agreed to fly at 1,200 feet.
“He’s agreed to do this with the county to address their concerns,” LaPier said. “He’s done everything he can to avoid any heavily populated area.”
Advisory committee member Myra Starnes said she likes what Executive Helicopters is doing with the lease, but fears the county may back itself in a corner with this contract.
“Whatever the county does here, we’re setting a precedent,” Starnes said. “We’ve got to look at the larger picture. I don’t think council is going to pass it if we don’t have a master plan.”
Councilman Marion Foxworth was a spectator at the meeting and said his concern is that the county is receiving 5 percent of all sales that Executive Helicopters makes.
“It ties our hands at council level,” Foxworth said. “We can’t do anything with any other helicopter company if we have dirty hands with another.”
He said he receives more complaints, particularly at a 10-to-1 ratio, about Executive Helicopters’ flights than Helicopter Adventures.
Committee member Ari Pieniek said the noise complaints should decrease as long as Executive sticks to its flight plan.
“They (residents) knew from day 1 that if you buy something by the airport, there’s going to be noise,” he said.
LaPier said the Department of Airports will spend about $14,000 to bring in Ted Baldwin, a senior vice president with the Burlington, Mass.-based environmental consulting firm Harris, Miller, Miller, and Hanson to talk to the county’s Public Safety and Administration committees this week.
Baldwin specializes in airport noise analysis, according to his biography on the company’s website. The company touts itself as “an international leader in environmental noise and vibration control, air quality analysis, airport and airspace planning, and climate and energy solutions,” the website states.
Advisory committee member Jon Bourne commended Executive Helicopters for coming forward and making changes to the lease without a long drawn-out battle.
“I think this is a fantastic effort,” he said.
Fellow committeeman Benjamin “James” Duffey said Bass has worked well with the airport on this new lease, saying he’s a “very good tenant” and “very good player.”
“What’s to stop him from picking up and going to find another place to run his operation?” Duffey said.
Contact JASON M. RODRIGUEZ at 626-0301 or follow him at Twitter.com/TSN_jrodriguez.