Park rangers leading tours of the star-shaped Fort Jay frequently had to halt their presentations this summer as noisy choppers droned overhead, said Patti Reilly, the National Park Service's superintendent on Governors Island.
"Air tour operators buzz close over the island repeatedly throughout the day, causing disruptions of up to a minute in length when visitors must hold their ears or cannot hear the ranger," Reilly said Wednesday at a City Council hearing.
"This can happen repeatedly during a 45-minute walking tour, outdoor dramatic performance or reenactment, and each time it completely breaks the mood and the experience," Reilly continued. "Visitors may no longer be able to experience the tranquility that first attracted them to the island if these air tours continue."
The city Economic Development Corp., which owns the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, implemented new rules for tourist helicopters in the spring of 2010, banning tourist flights over land — including banning flights over Governors Island. Police and private helicopters are exempt from the ban.
But Reilly and Rob Pirani, executive director of the Governors Island Alliance, both said they regularly see tourist flights cut across the island in violation of EDC maps, including right over Fort Jay, a historic garrison in the middle of the island.
Tourist helicopters that take off from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport — currently the only takeoff point in the city for tourist flights — are supposed to follow a pre-approved route along the narrow Buttermilk Channel that avoids flights over Governors Island.
But the problem has worsened in the past year and a half, since the city made the heliport near South and Broad streets the only tourist takeoff point, Reilly said. Dozens of tourist helicopters take off every day from that heliport, according to city estimates.
As a result, visitors to Governors Island often complain about the helicopters in comments they leave with the National Park Service.
"We're concerned about the helicopter noise," Pirani said at Wednesday's Council hearing.
Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who chaired the hearing, said she would look into the issue and speak with the EDC.
An EDC spokeswoman said the Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for controlling the city's airspace. While the EDC has some influence over tourist helicopters, the agency cannot restrict flight paths of private, media or police helicopters.
U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, State Sen. Daniel Squadron and others have called on the city to ban all tourist flights from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, citing safety and quality-of-life concerns.
Nadler has also been working for years to get FAA to limit all helicopter traffic over national parks, including Governors Island. The FAA was required by Congress to implement a management plan for air traffic over national parks, but has not yet done so, Nadler said.
"Unfortunately, the FAA has dragged its feet for years and refused to step in to regulate an industry which it simultaneously works to promote," Nadler said in a statement Wednesday.
"To continue to ignore the problem of unregulated nonessential helicopters over our parks and waterways is to continue to play Russian Roulette with the safety and quality-of-life of New Yorkers and visitors to our city."
The FAA did not immediately return a call for comment.