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October 20, 2014

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Helicopter noise could last another three years

The buzzing from dozens of helicopters over residential Las Vegas neighborhoods should come to an end -- but it could take three years, a Clark County official said Tuesday.

The Clark County Commission heard reports from several members of an advisory committee on helicopter noise and collected six recommendations to ease the problem. But the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency with the final authority over what flies, and where, has scotched the recommendations that could end the estimated 60 to 90 chattering choppers above the homes soon.

Randy Walker, aviation department director, told the commission that it could take three years or more for a final solution to the problem -- a helicopter pad in a "non-urban" area near Sloan or outside Henderson.

"The heliport is the most promising option we have," Walker told the commission.

The option is supported by the FAA, the county, residents incensed over helicopter noise and most helicopter-tour companies, he said. The process of acquiring land near Sloan or at Railroad Pass outside Henderson is the problem, Walker added.

"Optimistically, we could have it done in three years," Walker said. "We're going to do everything we can to get this off."

Another possibility is establishing a spot for Grand Canyon-bound tourist flights. Some of the other recommendations presented Tuesday by the advisory group are less practical, according to the county, the FAA or the helicopter tour companies.

The other recommendations are:

FAA spokesman Donn Walker said his agency doesn't want to bother residential neighborhoods with its helicopter rules, but for his agency, it is "safety first."

The helicopters "are butting right up against controlled airspace," Walker said. "You can't fly into that airspace without our permission, and that's for a very good reason. That's to keep planes from colliding."

Walker said the noise issue has been around for years in Las Vegas and in other cities, and isn't likely to go away soon. More and more aircraft are flying over increasingly sprawling housing, and that is especially true in a town that is growing as fast as Las Vegas, he said.

"Our overriding priority is to guarantee the safety of the airspace, the people flying in it and the people on the ground," he said. "When it is possible, we take into account the concerns and needs of the people who are affected by aircraft flying above them. Sometimes, we just can't."

One partial solution would be for the touring companies to buy new, quieter helicopters. Sullivan, with Sundance Helicopters, said the new helicopters can cost $2 million versus $1.5 million for an older, noisier chopper.

The maintenance and fuel costs also can be an issue, as well as finding parts for the quieter craft, he said. Nonetheless, he said, some companies are considering going to the quieter helicopters.

One, Maverick Helicopters, has already purchased the new helicopters and may soon begin flying tourists in them.

Walker, with the FAA, suggested that some helicopter companies could consider moving out to one of the regional airports in North Las Vegas or Henderson.

That proposal would not suit some companies, who want to maintain a presence as close to the Strip as possible, said Hilarie Grey, a spokeswoman for McCarran.

The bigger problem with the FAA's suggestion is that it does not solve the problem, she said.

"That's the problem with the noise issues," she said. "There's no good solution, you're just moving the problem over somebody else."

In the absence of quicker solutions, commissioners and some residents expressed frustration.

The county is "hogtied," Williams said. "People think we can do more than we can do."

Reid, who took office in January, said he isn't convinced that the county has done everything it can to correct the problem. He asked the county management to consider hiring an attorney to take the residents' side against the FAA.

"This has been a very frustrating experience for me," he said. "It's easy to understand the problem. The trick is to solve it."

Ben Contine, a resident of a neighborhood near downtown and chairman of the advisory committee on the noise issue, said he has been working on the problem for three years.

Despite the news that it could be another three years before a new heliport is built, Contine said he is still encouraged by the county's effort to secure a new site.

"At least we have a time frame," he said.

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