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Calls to Ban Helicopters Met With Resistance At Buzzing East Side Heliport

By Jill Colvin | October 6, 2011 7:58am
A helicopter parked at the East 34th Street Heliport.
A helicopter parked at the East 34th Street Heliport.
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DNAinfo/Jill Colvin

MANHATTAN — Calls by local leaders to ban non-essential helicopter flights into and out of Manhattan were met with resistance from industry leaders Wednesday, as business returned to normal at the East 34th Street Heliport.

A growing number of local politicians, including Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and several City Council members, have called for an outright ban on flights, following Tuesday’s crash, which killed Sonia Marra, 40, of Sydney, Australia, and left  two others in critical condition.

“Yet another terrible tragedy involving a helicopter should send us a clear message in flashing neon lights,” Nadler said in a statement, slamming the flights as “dangerous” and “unnecessary.”

But industry officials, supporters and passengers said fears about safety are overblown and cautioned that limiting commercial flights would be a huge financial blow to a city that depends on helicopter clientele.

“This is a city that has to be open to business and open to tourists,” said Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself an avid helicopter pilot, who defended the flights at a press conference at City Hall.

He noted that three to four people die every week in the city in vehicular crashes, but that “nobody expects you’re going to ban automobiles.”

“Helicopters are a very safe way to travel based on the number of miles that they fly and trips that they take,” he said.

Jeffery Smith, chair of the Eastern Region Helicopter Council, stressed that calls to ban tourist flights are also misguided because the Bell 206-B was a private helicopter, meaning that it was governed by a different set of rules than tour flights.

“Any banning of tourist flights would not have prevented this tragedy,” he said in a statement.

Some residents near the East 34th Street Heliport said they were rattled by the accident and would never want to fly. But for most, life was back to normal, with one helicopter after the next descending on the tarmac, yards from the water’s edge, as private black cars waited with their chauffeurs.

“There’ve been accidents before. It’s part of life,” said Howard Cowan, 65, after arriving from a business trip to Springfield, Massachusetts.

Cowan, who lives on the Upper East Side, said that even after incidents like Tuesday’s, he feels more comfortable in the sky than on the road.

“Buses scared me more,” he said.

Genevieve Alexander, 32, a helicopter pilot for nearly a decade, said she’d been assuring concerned friends not to worry because all pilots go through extensive, rigorous training before they can fly.

She also stressed that the crashes are very rare.

"Helicopters come in and out of here all day long, every day. To have an accident even once in a while is very unfortunate, but there could be an accident behind me," she said, pointing to the FDR before setting off on a flight.

“It’s a very safe industry," she said.

She noted that because of the numerous restrictions already in place to fly in the city, pilots coming into and out of Manhattan are typically the cream of the crop.

“This is like a beehive… so you definitely have to be on top of your game," she said.

Karyn Schoenbart, who lives on Long Island, said she travels by helicopter about four times a year and wasn’t dissuaded from flying Wednesday.

“I’m not a worrier and I think that the best time to fly is after an accident,” she said before boarding a flight for a business trip.

Jack Hartunt, 54, who was visiting the city from Chicago, was still flying high moments after landing from his very first helicopter flight, from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

He said that while Tuesday’s tragedy gave him pause, it wasn’t enough to call of the trip.

“I couldn’t believe how much faster [it was],” she said of the flight. “It was fun.”

But Angel Bonilla, 50, who said he had came to pay his respects to Marra, the woman who died, said that while he likes to watch the thunderous machines as they come and go  “non-stop” throughout the day, he would never choose to take a ride.

“Too many accidents happen. This ain’t the first,” he said, noting that he’s witnessed several close calls during bike rides over the years past the stretch.

The city typically averages about one helicopter crash a year, though fatalities are quite rare.

Several major accidents in recent years have elicited similar calls for action — most notably a crash between a small plane and a sightseeing helicopter run by Liberty Helicopter in August, 2009, which killed all nine people on board.

That helicopter had taken off from the West 30th Street heliport — which has since been banned from operating tourist flights.