Saturday, October 26, 2013

Horry County, South Carolina, to look into restricting flights over schools

Some Horry County officials are looking into writing an ordiance that prohibits helicopters from flying over area schools.

CONWAY — Horry County officials hope to work with the city of Myrtle Beach to draft ordinances petitioning a flight standards office to implement a temporary flight restriction for low-flying aircraft, like helicopters, from flying over schools when children are present.

It’s a new move, one being called a “long shot” by County Councilman Al Allen, but it comes at the requests of some residents who say the fight with the choppers, specifically Helicopter Adventures off 21st Avenue North, has been a long one.

“It’s a long shot, but it’s a good case and a good possibility,” Allen said. “Washington has them. They even have one over Disney World.”

But Freddie Rick, owner of the helicopter company, said the temporary flight restriction is not needed because he made changes to the route, which did fly over the schools in the summer, back in August, and has the GPS proof that his pilots are not flying over the schools.

Horry County will look into petitioning the Flight Standards District Office in Columbia for a temporary flight restriction over schools, especially the Myrtle Beach Attendance Area where the company’s popular $20 flight route hovers over. As of Friday, the city had not heard of the effort, said Mark Kruea, spokesman for Myrtle Beach.

Allen, who is a commercial pilot himself, said the city and county councils can point out the potential safety hazard because of the close proximity of the Myrtle Beach schools and note the activity and congestion of students there during school hours as mitigating factors for the flight restriction. Residents, including Leslie Anderson, claim they have asked the company, headed by Freddie Rick, to change their routes away from the school.

“I’ve written him a letter to please, just as a matter of safety more than noise, try and avoid the school area,” she said, adding she specified the area between Grissom Parkway, Oak Street, 29th Avenue North and 38th Avenue North. “Give us the school and ball fields and fly anywhere else you want to fly. I just feel like the school should be off limits. With a single engine, just like a car, no matter how much maintenance you do, you can’t guarantee that nothing will happen.”

Rick said he has met with Anderson and invites her and any county official to examine the GPS mapping of his routes and the newly purchased equipment his helicopters use for proper tracking.

“I will absolutely guarantee, without a shadow of a doubt, that we’re not flying over a school. Period,” Rick said. “And now, not only can I say it, I can back it up with GPS data that I get several hundred data points a second.”

Companies like Helicopter Adventure have agreements of flight patterns that they enter into with the air traffic control tower at Myrtle Beach International Airport. A map on their website shows the shortest pattern, or the popular $20 deal, hovers above the area of concern, but Rick said that’s an old map that is scheduled to be updated this week. The tower enforces and monitors the agreement, but federal regulations allow the company to fly one quarter of a mile on either side of the predetermined route.

Councilman Marion Foxworth said he has noticed a change in the pattern.

“Up in the air, a half a mile corridor is not that big of a deal,” Foxworth said. “But on the ground, a half a mile could be the difference between an abandoned ground field, a school complex, a heavily traveled tourist destination, a crowded beach front or a quarter of a mile off shore. And pilots flying the same thing all day long, they’re going to have variations... And to expect them to not fly over small areas like that, I think, is asking too much. The fact remains that amusement helicopter rides in a downtown urban setting makes no sense from a public policy standpoint at all.”

Councilman Gary Loftus, who is also a pilot, said the county should look into the restriction.

“A TFR is an avenue certainly worth exploring,” Loftus said.

Helicopter Adventures just completed its second summer, but battled hard to simply open its doors in 2012. Shortly after starting the operation in May 2012, Rick changed the flight routes to fly away from the neighborhood and followed the proper process before opening. The company is in a legal battle with area resident Rick Hinde, which is over whether the helicopter business is allowed through the zoning in the area. It remains in the S.C. Court of Appeals.

Before that, the Horry County zoning administrator said initially that Helicopter Adventures fits in county zoning, then the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals said it doesn’t. It went to an Horry County judge, who ruled in January 2012 that it is allowed in that zoning, and a month later declined Hinde’s request to reconsider that ruling. Hinde appealed to the S.C. Court of Appeals.

Earlier this year, the county council announced in the heat of tourism season that it was not going to approve the lease it had with Huffman Helicopter. Eventually, the county and the helicopter company settled on a lease, where its owner, Jeremy Bass, had already agreed to re-route its flights over the ocean.

Councilman Brent Schulz, who owner Freddie Rick said he reached out to speak to Friday, said Thursday some action needs to be taken.

“This is a major situation we’ve got and if we could at least move it away from the schools, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said.