The FAA is currently under tremendous political pressure to raise minimum helicopter altitudes throughout Southern California-- a move that will cause air traffic conflicts near Class D airports. The Association fears that the FAA will accede to this pressure regardless of the danger it poses to the flying community.
The FAA has approved helicopter arrival and departure routes for the Torrance Airport. Flight altitude on the routes and in the traffic pattern for helicopters is 600' MSL so as not to conflict with fixed-wing traffic around the airport (at or above 1,100' MSL). The Torrance Air Traffic Control Tower controls all flights within 5 miles of the airport.
One Torrance homeowner decided that a change was needed to make helicopters fly higher over his house. Citing a graph from a Helicopter Association International (HAI) pamphlet, he stated that HAI recommended that helicopters fly at least 2,000 feet above ground level to keep noise below 60 db at ground level for "Low Ambient Noise Areas".
Ms Ricarda Barnnet, co-chair of the Acoustic & Environmental Committee of Helicopter Association International--the organization that produced the pamphlet--said that the "Low Ambient Noise Areas" identified in the pamphlet referred to areas like National Parks, National Wildlife Areas, Waterfowl Refuges, etc. She stated specifically that it did not refer to a city environment like Torrance or Torrance Airport. Furthermore, she said that the altitude recommendations apply only to open country cruise flight and could NOT be construed to be a recommendation that applied to an airport area environment where such altitudes would conflict with fixed wing traffic.
In November 2010, as a result of the homeowner's continuing pressure, a city-sponsored committee (the "Helicopter Committee") commenced a review of these routes and changes were recommended in early 2011. The proposed changes eliminated the altitude separation between the helicopters and fixed-wing traffic.
Robinson Helicopter, located on the Torrance Airport and the largest helicopter manufacturer in North America, expressed serious safety concerns in a 31 JAN 2011 letter to the City Council about the city's plan to remove altitude separation between helicopter and fixed-wing traffic.
The Torrance Airport Commission, also because of serious concerns about the safety of these proposals, voted unanimously to REJECT them. In spite of the Commission's concerns, the City Council voted to approve the proposals. On 24 FEB 2011, the city wrote the FAA to request implementation of their plan and proposed a 6-month "trial period."
Reflecting the concerns of the Airport Commission and Robinson Helicopter, the FAA responded on 15 APR 2011 and noted that Federal Law (14 CFR Part 91) requires that helicopter pilots MUST avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic. Before the FAA allows any testing, they require an "aeronautical analysis" of the proposal--a process that takes at least 120 days. The FAA also requires the city to hire a qualified consultant to perform noise screening using an Integrated Noise Modeling tool for the altered routes. The FAA also requires the City to provide them with full details of the proposed "test" prior to any implementation.
Expressing the same safety concerns held by the FAA, Robinson Helicopter, and the Torrance Airport Commission, 52 aircraft owners, operators, and users of Torrance Municipal Airport sent a letter to the FAA on 29 APR 2011 . The letter insists that the "FAA should NOT approve any changes that will in any way compromise or reduce safety of airport operations."
At least one neighboring city has also gone on record opposing some of the proposed changes to the helicopter routes. The City of Rolling Hills Estates opposes any changes which would increase helicopter flights and noise over their city.
The City of Torrance, determined to institute the revised helicopter flight paths and altitudes, sent a second letter to the FAA on 26 JULY 2011. The letter attempts to sidestep concerns about removal of altitude separation by claiming no conflict would exist. It states that "[a]s a result of the desire to keep fixed wing traffic north of the airport at all times regardless of airport configuration (11L/R vs. 29L/R), the traffic patterns do not allow for a south downwind arrival or departure."
In truth, the south traffic pattern is used daily for arrivals from Torrance Beach and Point Fermin. When the north traffic pattern is busy, the tower also often requests fixed-wing pilots arriving from the north to overfly the airport and enter the south traffic pattern for the south runway. The truth is totally at odds with the City's statement that they "found no conflict with fixed wing traffic within Class D, regardless of altitude." The situation would constitute a serious collision hazard if the city's proposal were implemented.
The city's second letter to the FAA was presented to the Airport Commission on 11 AUG 2011 for information only--no request for approval THIS time. An airline pilot and former Airport Commissioner voiced the objections of the aviation community to the Commission, but city staff determined to ignore those concerns and the serious issues involved. It should be noted that this second letter was NEVER PUBLICLY REVIEWED by the Helicopter Committee prior to its signature and transmittal to the FAA by airport officials.
Responding to the false statements made in the city's second letter (26 JUL 2011) to the FAA, over 30 Torrance Airport users sent another letter to the FAA voicing the truth about these false statements and, again, expressing serious concern about their safety if the city's proposals were implemented.
On 29 July 2012, the city held another meeting of the Helicopter Committee and sponsored Mr Rob Henry (FAA's Manager of the Airspace & Procedures Group) to share their plans for gathering data during a 180-day testing period this summer and fall. These tests would not begin until modifications to the control tower are completed and the communications equipment tested (which occurred 1 October 2012).
During his presentation, Mr Henry stated that increases in helicopter route altitudes would not be possible because of conflicts with fixed-wing traffic.
On 23 and 24 April, 2013, the City held an "invitation only" Safety Mitigation Panel (SMP) meeting with the FAA to present their plan for a 6-month test. The West PCH Route and the South East Route were "evaluated" for risk. Representation from, or observation by representatives of Torrance Airport Association (TAA), Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), California Pilots Association (CPA), and Professional Helicopter Pilots Association (PHPA) was rejected.
The Association has learned, however, some disturbing details of the Safety Mitigation Panel meeting that call into question its conclusions:
Barry Jay, president of the Torrance Airport Association, has advised the City and the FAA that, “The Torrance Airport Association strongly objects to any proposal that reduces/eliminates the vertical &/or horizontal separation of fixed wing and rotorcraft.”
On June 30, 2013, the Association asked a number of very pertinent questions about the plans for testing and the process involved in approval and operations of the these tests. On July 3, 2013, Ms Robin Rush, FAA's tower chief at Torrance, stated: " ... the City of Torrance will hold a public comment period and outreach to both residents and stake holders to answer questions and address concerns."
Some previous public meetings with residents present have been monopolized by a very vocal handful of homeowners and have turned ugly. On one occasion, police were required to intervene. This is not a proper venue in which to discuss the serious issues of flight safety!
On 8/12/2013, members of the flying community met with David Suomi (FAA's Acting Western/Pacific Regional Administrator) and his staff to express the community's issues and concerns about the proposed changes and the safety evaluation. As a result, some questions about the process were answered but additional issues and concerns surfaced. One of these was that the City of Torrance will have major responsibility for planning, executing, and evaluating the 6-month test period. The FAA has little knowledge about those plans.
On 8/19/2013, the community sent a letter to the Torrance Mayor and City Council listing its concerns with the planned 6-month test period requested by the City. Since there is no data to show that helicopters on the current routes exceed the Torrance noise ordinances, the flying community questions the need to make any changes--especially changes that pose a risk to those in the air and to those on the ground, as well. To date, there has been NO RESPONSE FROM THE CITY to the request from the flying community to meet with city officials.
On 9/14/2013, the Association obtained a new draft report from the FAA's Safety Risk Mitigation (SRM) Panel that raises the helicopter operating altitudes on the West PCH route from 600 MSL to 900 MSL (versus the proposed 1400 MSL). The FAA is ready to ". . . assure that the change . . . does not introduce any safety risk into the NAS." The flying community strongly disagrees. This change only reduces the traffic conflict along the beach, but does nothing to eliminate the traffic conflicts in the other four areas!
On 9/19/2013, members of the flying community sent a letter to John Allen, FAA's Director of Flight Standards in Washington, DC. In the interests of safety of those in the air and on the ground, it asks him to halt the proposed test and unsafe changes to helicopter minimum altitudes. Again, NO RESPONSE FROM THE FAA!
The fact that the City of Torrance has refused to allow TAA, AOPA, CPA or PHPA to participate in this process further heightens fears that the safety concerns of the flying community at Torrance will be ignored to produce a politically-driven outcome.