BRIDGEPORT — To hear the leaders of the Chicago Helicopter Express tour company tell it, their proposed move into an industrial riverfront stretch in Bridgeport wouldn’t cause much of a stir.
The helicopters are quieter than an electric toothbrush, they said, with noise from takeoffs and landings blending into the existing din in an area surrounded by expressways and train tracks.
But the prospect of a bustling helicopter hub in the neighborhood has some South Side residents screeching mad, with residents calling the proposal everything from "dirty and noisy" to an "exercise in idiocy" on Facebook postings.
Their concerns echo pleas by residents in other major cities to reduce the amount of chopper noise.
In New York City, residents fought against the clatter of sightseeing helicopters, forcing pilots to take a new flight path away from Manhattan and into some residential neighborhoods. Still, residents living under the new flight path have lodged complaints accusing the copters of flying too frequently and low enough to see the pilot’s facial hair.
In Los Angeles, a yearslong battle over noise from tourist, paparazzi and real estate helicopters has culminated in congressional action requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to revise flight plans, promote quieter flying and devise a formal noise complaint system if voluntary efforts don't work, the L.A. Times reports.
But Chicago Helicopter Express CEO Trevor Heffernan has said his operation would be different.
According to its proposal, the company’s helicopters would rapidly rise from one of its 14 launch pads on the banks of the Chicago River at 24th and Halsted streets, then follow the Stevenson Expy. toward Lake Michigan — “ensuring zero disturbances to the local community.”
The company already operates at the north suburban Chicago Executive Airport. Its proposal to create a riverside launch pad, hangar and water taxi dock on a vacant 4.6-acre plot of land is scheduled to go before the city's Plan Commission on Thursday.
Jamie Abbott, acting director of the Chicago Executive Airport, said the helicopter company is encouraged to fly above north suburban main roads on its approach to and from the lake in an effort to cut down on noise.
But that hasn’t stopped locals from complaining about potential noisy helicopters via email and phone — something Abbott said the company has historically worked to rectify.
“I think the head pilot [Grant McDonald] is very good and very accommodating. He wants to do whatever he can to address the noise issues. He talks to residents directly,” Abbott said. “It’s moreso that the repetitive action … that usually gets people upset.”
In remarks to a packed house of Bridgeport residents, Heffernan last week touted his fleet of Eurocopter EC-130 helicopters, which he said were designed specifically for touring over urban areas and contained a specially designed tail rotor system that reduces noise.
Plus, he said, the company would erect sound barrier walls at the west end of the heliport.
By Heffernan's estimates, the noise from the operation would peak for roughly 40 minutes spread throughout the day, when the tour choppers arrive and depart the South Side hub.
"We come into the site, we transfer passengers, and we're back out. Our helicopters aren't sitting at the site running all day long. They're out flying tours," he said.