Myrtle Beach’s two helicopter companies may be noisy, but their sightseeing tours aren’t violating any Federal Aviation Administration rules, according to public records.
Horry County officials reached out to the FAA last month, asking if there was anything the agency could do to help them deal with the numerous complaints they’ve received about helicopters.
“We realize that helicopter tours have been hot topics in other parts of the country,” wrote Horry County Council Chairman Mark Lazarus in a letter to the FAA. “Our question to you is whether the FAA has any tools or suggestions on how to address this on the local level. Or, even better, is there a way for us to work with your agency to formulate some actions we can undertake to improve the situation?”
The FAA’s answer arrived last week. The response?
Both companies are following the law and the FAA can't do anything about the complaints.
“We realize flights such as this can produce noise complaints from the community,” wrote FAA Regional Administrator Douglas Murphy. “However, commercial air tour operators in the area are currently meeting Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) and Code of Federal Regulation (CFR) requirements.”
Murphy noted that the FAA’s district office visited the Grand Strand’s two aerial tour businesses, Helicopter Adventures and Huffman Helicopters, this summer. They met with area residents as recently as July.
Despite the local frustration, district officials “found no evidence that operators were not meeting applicable requirements,” Murphy’s letter states.
An ongoing fight
The battle over helicopter tours heated up last year when Helicopter Adventures opened on private property across from Broadway at the Beach. The move angered some neighbors in nearby Plantation Point who didn’t like the din of choppers.
Those residents took their concerns to the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals, and on Sept. 10, 2012, the ZBA determined that the company’s sightseeing offerings didn’t mesh with the zoning in that area.
The ZBA’s ruling prompted the owner of Helicopter Adventures to take his case to circuit court. On Jan. 16, Judge Larry Hyman sided with Helicopter Adventures and concluded that the ZBA had erred.
During the fight over Helicopter Adventures, some county councilmen said they’d received complaints about Huffman Helicopters, which leases space at the Myrtle Beach airport and has operated on the Grand Strand for more than 10 years.
The company’s lease became controversial over the summer when council members began debating whether to renew the agreement, which ends Oct. 31.
Most council members agreed to negotiate a new lease with Huffman, but not without some concessions, including new hours and modified flight patterns. The terms of the proposed lease include routes that take the choppers over the ocean and not above local homes.
As part of the agreement, Huffman would have to obtain council approval for future route changes.
The county also has a financial interest in the Huffman deal. During the initial term of the proposed contract, Huffman would pay a base rent of nearly $7,000 per month and an additional fee of 5 percent of the gross sales for all services.
Huffman’s owner agreed to the new terms, but some county council members remain uncomfortable with the arrangement.
The debate heated up again during Tuesday night’s council meeting.
Councilman Marion Foxworth said he’s worried about the county’s liability in the deal and how the arrangement could affect insurance coverage. He asked that some council committees review the contract further.
Foxworth also hinted that the deal might not have reached this point had it not been for former airport director Mike La Pier, who was released by the county on Friday.
“We’ve got a new day at the airport,” Foxworth said. “I don’t think we would be sitting here tonight under second reading of this lease as it’s constructed were it negotiated now. I think we ought to take another look at this.”
Other council members vehemently disagreed.
Councilman Al Allen said Huffman owner Jeremy Bass has been patient with the county.
“We want to punish a man that has a company that has been in good standing with this county,” he said. “He’s done everything he’s been asked to do. He’s played by the rules. This is political lynching and it’s wrong.”
Councilman Bob Grabowski sided with Allen.
“What we’re doing is we’re targeting the wrong company here,” he said. “He’s gone above and beyond. It’s even cut into his profit margin.”
While some council members blamed Helicopter Adventures for the noise problems, Foxworth pointed out that the FAA had cleared that business, too.
The council ultimately voted to continue moving forward with the Huffman lease. A final vote on the deal is scheduled for Oct. 1.
Owners insist they’re trying to cooperate
Apart from their debates in public meetings, council members have also privately pressured the helicopter companies to do what they can to appease unhappy residents.
On Aug. 26, Lazarus, Foxworth and councilman Brent Schulz sent a letter to Helicopter Adventures about the company’s helicopters flying over Myrtle Beach area schools and ballfields.
“Obviously, this is a serious matter due to concern for the safety of our children and others utilizing these facilities,” the councilmen wrote.
“As you recall, Mr. Lazarus and Tony Cox met with you and obtained assurances concerning flight paths to minimize the noise and safety concerns of the community. This is written to highlight the recent incidences and emphasize the need for continued cooperation on your part to do your best with respect to flight paths that avoid in particular these sensitive areas where safety issues, even though existing everywhere, are of particular concern. We trust that we can continue to rely on your assurances that all flights of Helicopter Adventures will well avoid these areas in the future.”
Helicopter Adventures owner Freddie Rick said he’s been cooperating with the county.
“One local resident complained about possible safety concerns of helicopters flying over schools,” he said. “We voluntarily adjusted our routes so that we do not fly over Horry County schools nearby and Broadway at the Beach.”
Huffman owner Jeremy Bass said he’s also made route changes to address the council’s concerns. Those modifications have hurt his business, he said, but he’s trying to keep the neighbors happy.
“We hope to be here a very, very long time,” he said. “We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time polling around the neighborhoods, talking to different folks, just seeing what sort of impact they’ve noticed. … We have [received] nothing but a positive response.”
Herald writer Tom O’Dare contributed to this report.
Charles D. Perry • 488-7258