The ongoing helicopter issue in Horry County remains a hot topic for area residents and politicians alike. One particular operation has drawn the ire of those living nearby. Even before the opening of Helicopter Adventures last May, neighboring homeowners raised safety and noise concerns. In September, they presented their case to the Horry County Board of Zoning Appeals and the board ultimately agreed that the heliport, in its present location, fails to meet zoning requirements for the AC district.
That decision was later overturned by Circuit Court Judge Larry B. Hyman, and is currently awaiting a hearing in the S.C. Appellate Court. Because the airport is privately owned and was allowed by the county, little has been done thus far in the way of rectifying issues relating to safety or noise.
While the heliport site itself seems dangerous to the casual observer, the Horry County Department of Planning and Zoning stands by their decision to allow it behind the NASCAR Speedpark. Planning and Zoning maintains that the AC district allows for a variety of uses including “sight-seeing depots”, which is how they classify the heliport. Helicopter Adventures is situated on a parcel of land owned by Burroughs and Chapin and zoned as Amusement Commercial.
The heliport fails to meet many of the safety requirements set forth in the FAA's own 'Heliport Design Guide.' Planning and Zoning never even consulted the guide before allowing the heliport, and simply zoned it in as an amusement -- failing to do their due diligence as to the numerous safety hazards present in the area. Because it was allowed by the county, the site itself did not have to undergo any type of formal FAA safety inspection.
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Aside from safety issues, the heliport is located within 1,000 feet of a well-established residential neighborhood. The FAA offers volumes of information and guidelines for proper land use around airports and frowns on such close proximity, but Horry County Planning and Zoning apparently had no qualms about allowing an airport so near homes. In a Safety Committee meeting last summer, department head Janet Carter stated that she was not familiar with the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations), and had never heard of FICON (Federal Inter-Agency Committee on Noise). How can Planning and Zoning allow an airport without ever studying the safety of the site, consulting with the Horry County Safety Committee, or conducting a noise impact study?
Unlike Horry County, the FAA does not classify the heliport as an amusement, but rather a PPR (Prior Permission Required) airport. It is a private heliport that on any given day sees more flights than MB International. None of the flights are cleared through the local Air Traffic Control Tower and are not trackable, as they all fly below radar. Pilots operate under VFR (Visual Flight Reference) as they navigate over and around densely populated areas on the ground. An agreement letter with the MBATCT states that all tours with the exception of the “Broadway Fun Run” be conducted at an altitude between 700 to 900 feet.. The “Broadway” tour is to be conducted at 500 feet. The proximity of the heliport in relation to Broadway at the Beach is such that the bulk of the tour is comprised of maneuvers required for take off and landing and are conducted at altitudes well below 500 feet. The sheer number of these $20 flights, combined with the congestion they create in the airspace above Broadway at the Beach, is unnerving.
If just one of these single engine helicopters were to experience a mechanical failure, because they fly so low and the area below is so congested, the outcome would likely be catastrophic! Data collected by the National Transportation Safety Board shows that helicopters crash, on average, 35 percent more often per hour in the air than fix winged aircraft. Broadway at the Beach plays host to millions of tourists each year; a bustling area packed with people on any given day. Tourism in Myrtle Beach is our lifeblood, and it will only take one unfortunate incident to tarnish our image. Are we really willing to risk our reputation as a safe, family friendly beach for a $20 helicopter ride?
In neighborhoods most severely affected by the noise, the incessant roar of helicopters goes on for 13 hours every day. It can clearly be heard inside many homes, drowns out normal conversation, interrupts sleep patterns, and generally ruins any type of outdoor activity. Residents argue that the constant noise violates most of the language, and certainly the intent of the Horry County Noise Ordinance as well as EPA guidelines. Countless phone calls, emails, letters, complaints, and utter pleas for help from anyone -- whether county officials, S.C. senators, or the FAA -- have largely gone unheeded.
While many sympathize and agree that the heliport is poorly situated and the noise obviously constitutes a nuisance, all claim their hands are tied. According to Horry County Chief of Police Saundra Rhodes, noise complaints are impossible to enforce because federal law preempts local law enforcement from citing pilots. Once an aircraft is 1 foot above the ground, the FAA has sole jurisdiction. Concerned residents are urged to address complaints with the FAA, only to be told there are no FAA mandates regarding noise. The same holds true for flight paths. While the operators have a voluntary agreement with the local ATCT, flight paths are not mandatory. Pilots are free to fly wherever and whenever they choose, and routes can be changed at any time based soley on the whim of the operator or wind direction.
The FAA, like most government agencies, is severely underfunded; they simply do not have the money to send inspectors out to investigate every claim. FAA representatives defer complaints back to the county level, insisting the problem boils down to a local Zoning and Land Use issue.
To be sure, Horry County is in a tight spot. By allowing the Helicopter Adventures heliport outside an Airport Environs zone, they have in effect, zoned in something that they have very little knowledge of -- and absolutely no control over. Clearly, the current location of the Helicopter Adventures Heliport is unsuitable for several reasons. First and foremost, the safety and well being of area residents and tourists must be given serious consideration. Second, quality of life issues for residents who find themselves trapped under the noisy flight paths of the helicopters can no longer be ignored. Finally, no business should be allowed to benefit monetarily at the expense of an entire community's safety and peace of mind. With Huffman Helicopter's lease currently pending committee review and more operators interested setting up shop in the area, it is high time for the powers that be make some very hard, and hopefully, well-informed decisions regarding helicopter operations in Horry County.
The writer lives in Myrtle Beach.