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HILO, Hawaii Island — Travelers entering Hilo International Airport on Sept. 19 encountered an unusual sight: about a dozen protesters waving signs with messages such as “Stop the Chop,” “Dirty Tourism” and “Stop Helicopter Noise.”
Several times during the three-hour protest, the objects of their animosity passed overhead: tour helicopters.
Copter noise has been a controversy on the Big Island for decades. The tour copters — along with police copters used in marijuana raids — have become so ubiquitous that one local entrepreneur began selling “Birds of Puna” T-shirts with silhouettes of the various models of copters that frequently appeared over the district. But residents claim that it’s getting worse.
“I was born and raised in Puna. Helicopter noise has never been this bad,” said County Councilwoman Jennifer Ruggles, whose North Puna district is particularly impacted by copters on their way to the lava flows of Kilauea Volcano.
“When I went door to door, that was the one of the No. 1 issues people brought up,” she said. “It was up there with roads and the bad economy.”
The numbers do seem to be growing steadily. In 2013, for instance, the Federal Aviation Administration reported 12,410 flights over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park alone. In 2114, that number grew to 13,400; in 2015, 14,630; last year, 15,489.
But there’s still plenty of room to grow. According to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Superintendent Cindy Orlando, the FAA has authorized up to 26,664 overflights of the park annually.
The issue is especially acute, Ruggles says, for the district’s many veterans, who “moved to Puna for peace and quiet.” Copter noise, she says, can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder: “The Department of health has gotten hundreds of complaints from veterans, and the Department of Health has said it can’t do anything.”
Many of those at the sign-waving claimed that 40 or more “birds” fly over their homes every day — often roof-rattlingly low. One day in 2016, claimed protester Storm Steiger, 238 copters flew over his house in one afternoon; in the two days before the rally, he said, 60-80 copters had overflown the house where he and his wife live in Hawaii Paradise Park in lower Puna.
The barrage of noise has been so bad that they’ve decided to sell their home and leave Hawaii, Steiger said.
Most of the protesters were from Puna, which the choppers regularly fly over to reach the lava flowing from Kilauea to the sea. But they’re not the only ones affected. In addition to lava tours, some companies offer “waterfall tours.”
One protester, Karl Mendonca. lives in the tiny plantation community of Piihonua, along the Wailuku River in North Hilo.
“I get assaulted each day, seven days a week, with 40-60 helicopters on average,” he said. “Choppers follow the river up past Rainbow Falls and the Boiling Pots.”
“There’s actually no peace in my home on the days when they’re flying,” said sign-waver Nicole Albright.
“The helicopters disturb our dogs, and sometimes cause me pains in the ears,” added her young son.
The protest was organized by Hawaii Island Coalition Malama Pono, or HiCOP, which formed about a year ago to deal with the chopper invasion. Over the past month, in addition to the sign-waving, HiCOP sponsored a public meeting for residents in Keaau, staged a “meet and greet” event at the Hawaii County Fair and met with Alan Yamamoto of U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono’s staff.
The goal is to convince the FAA to adopt a rule requiring tour helicopters to fly offshore, instead of over the island’s residences. HiCOP members point to a similar rule that the FAA adopted for the entirety of Long Island in New York.
Bob Ernst, one of the group’s founders, said copters could exit both Hilo and Kona airports over land controlled by the airports and fly from there to the lava entries along the Puna Coast: “It’s beneficial to them because it’s much better weather, they fly the most beautiful coast in the world, and they stop the complaints.”
Off-coast routes would preclude some waterfall tours. But Mendonca maintained that sites like Rainbow Falls could be reached by bus or rental car, and the view from the ground is more spectacular anyway.
One person who was willing to respond was photographer/videographer Mick Kalber, who may have logged more helicopter hours than anyone but a pilot. He’s been shooting lava footage from copters since 1984. He normally flies on Paradise Helicopters, whose website features one of his most well-known shots: glowing fissures in a lava lake forming a giant smiley face.
Routes over the ocean, Kalber said, were “not financially feasible for those guys … It takes too long to get there and it uses too much gas.” Flying straight to the active lava flows, he said, takes “10 to 12 minutes if you get from the airport to the lava overland. Over the ocean, it’s twice that.”
One alternative, he suggested, was to fly higher. “If you go straight, flying higher costs more money, but it’s a far cry from flying over the ocean.
He said he thought Paradise was “trying to be a good neighbor.” The copters, he said, fly higher over subdivisions such as Hawaiian Acres and Fern Forest, which lie between Hilo Airport and Puu Oo, a cinder cone that contains an active lava lake.
Not all pilots have been so considerate, maintain some residents. Sign-waver Steven Lacquier said his home was near a 90-foot radio tower and some tall albizia trees.
“I’ve actually seen helicopters fly beneath the tops of the albizia trees, even with the radio tower,” Lacquier said. “It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it’s serious. They just fly too damn low.”
All nine of the island’s County Council members have sent letters to Hawaii’s congressional delegation supporting HiCOP’s proposed offshore routes. HiCOP’s website also claims to have support for the offshore flights from three of the island’s four state senators and five of its state representatives.
The general consensus among the lawmakers is that the problem had to be handled at the federal level.
“We’ve been meeting with representatives from (Sen. Brian) Schatz and Hirono and officials from the FAA and the tourism industry,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman, who added that an offshore flight plan was “part of the solution but doesn’t have to be all offshore … If they voluntarily did a third of their routes off shore, it would give great relief to the community, and they would have a new flight to sell.
“I’m glad that HICOP is making some noise,” Ruderman said. “We need some relief.”