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Helicopters Under Resident Scrutiny

Ever heard the rumble of a helicopter overhead and wondered what it was doing on Molokai? From tour companies to the military to environmental efforts, Friendly Isle skies are open to a wide variety of helicopter activity. Helicopters are used on Molokai to help fight fires, crime, the spread of invasive species, and other positive efforts. However, some residents of the island’s east end describe the high volume of helicopter activity from tour companies as annoying and even invasive.

[The helicopters cause] echo in the valley,” said Pilipo Solatorio, a resident of Halawa Valley. “It’s like being at the airport. It ruins the peace, tranquility and culture of the place.”

The Tour Scene
Four Maui-based companies – Air Maui, Alex Air, Blue Hawaiian and Sunshine – offer helicopter tours of Molokai’s spectacular scenery.

“It’s so beautiful over there and you can’t see it any other way,” said an employee of Air Maui, who wished to remain anonymous.

Normal tour routes of the island are weather dependent, but usually go into Halawa Valley, cross to the north shore along the sea cliffs and often into Wailau Valley. Weather permitting, pilots then generally traverse across the island to the south shore and back to Maui, according to spokespeople for several companies.

Tour company spokespeople said they fly over Molokai on an on-demand basis. Clients request if they would like to see Molokai, and frequency varies day to day.

Resident Concerns
Lee Mott is a resident of Mapulehu, and said helicopters fly directly over his house every day.
“I swear there was one every five minutes for 40 minutes,” Mott said of one particularly busy day. 

John Wainwright, a Waialua resident, said he cannot take nap because of the roar of helicopters.

“Phone calls have to wait until they pass,” he said, describing the level of noise caused by the choppers.

“Why are they coming over here disturbing our peace and quiet? It’s not right,” said Wainwright, adding a helicopter passes over his house about every 15 minutes most mornings.

Director of Operations at Alex Air, Chris Reed, said he tells his pilots to stay away from residential areas – “there’s no reason to fly over those areas,” he said, adding that residents do occasionally call with concerns about noise.

“We pay attention to that and tell pilots… never fly over that house again,” Reed said.

Wainwright said he has called the companies multiple times to complain, adding,  “They’re always very polite and try to accommodate me.”

For Solatorio, aside from the noise, his main concern about helicopter activity in Halawa is that of safety.
“It’s dangerous because people go up to falls and [the helicopters] come in low,” he said.  “It causes vibrations and boulders roll – people can get hurt.”

He also expressed worry for the safety of those flying, saying pilots fly very low into the valley.

“I don’t care how good a pilot you are, don’t mess with Mother Nature,” said Solatorio.

Tour companies contacted by the Dispatch said they rarely do landings on Molokai, and only at the airport. The Air Maui employee said they are mindful of the community, and when a landslide washed out Wailau Valley last summer, Air Maui flew two Molokai residents over free of charge to assess the damage.

Regulations
Federal Aviation Regulations (FAA) regulations govern all air traffic. While there are no minimum altitudes most helicopter pilots must adhere to, regulations state the helicopters must fly without posing a “hazard to persons or property on the surface.”

Tour helicopters, however, must follow different rules, according to FAA Pacific Division Public Affairs Manager Ian Gregor.

“Air tour aircraft are subject to a unique set of rules,” he said via email. “They must, unless otherwise authorized by the FAA, fly at least 1,500 feet AGL [above ground level] over Hawaii.”

These special rules were adopted for the state in the mid 1990s to “address our concerns about the high air tour accident rate,” according to Gregor.

But Molokai residents say helicopter tour pilots often appear to fly much lower than 1,500 feet.

“You could throw a rock at them,” said Solatorio.

Mott said he thinks they fly over his house at about 500 feet.

Both Solatorio and Mott agree it would be much better if the helicopters would just fly higher.

Other Helicopter Activity
Helicopter activity on Molokai isn’t all bad news. Environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Department of Land and Natural Resources use helicopters to aid in conservation efforts. The Fire Department uses helicopters to fight brush fires. The Police Department does air patrols for marijuana a few times a year as part of the “Green Harvest” program.

Maui-based helicopter contract company Windward Aviation employee Sharon Franko said Windward comes to Molokai at least twice a month to work with local organizations including the Kalaupapa National Historic Park and The Nature Conservancy. Other contract companies, such as Pacific Aviation, also collaborate with local organizations.

The military also flies helicopters in Molokai airspace. Marine Corps media officer Lt. Diann Olson said Marine helicopters transition to training areas using the channel between Lanai and Molokai and train  for night vision optics at Kalaupapa. In addition, the Marines have a landing zone adjacent to the Ho`olehua Airport which is currently being reviewed in an environmental impact statement process as a helicopter training site.

The Army does pre-deployment training around the airport, according to MAJ David Bolender.

What You Can Do

There are several options for residents concerned about tour helicopter activity. Helicopter Environmental Liaison Organization (HELO) serves as an independent hotline – a go-between for concerned residents to communicate with helicopter tour companies. Representatives from the organization meet regularly with tour pilots to relay public complaints. HELO can be reached at 808-878-3195.

People with safety concerns can call the FAA’s Honolulu Flight Standards District Office at 808-837-8300.
Tour companies contacted by the Dispatch said residents can also call them directly with concerns.

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