The Federal Aviation Administration and National Park Service are joining forces in an effort to encourage private helicopter tours over the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Governors Island — all national parks — to self-regulate how they conduct their flights.

But Friends of Liberty State Park and NYC-based Stop the Chop NY/NJ, which opposes “non-essential” helicopter traffic over lower Manhattan and nearby Brooklyn residences, oppose the plan as environmentally unjust and as ill-advised from a security standpoint. The FAA and NPS are soliciting public comments through midnight Nov. 21.

Commercial flight operators would be asked to sign a voluntary agreement that specifies “where tours can fly, altitudes, flight directions, and reporting requirements … to ensure protection of national park resources … and visitor experience without compromising aviation safety.”

If the agreement is adopted, tour pilots would fly no closer than “1,000 feet laterally of the high-water mark” of Liberty, Ellis and Governors Island and fly at least 500 feet above ground level in a clockwise direction within a half-mile boundary of Liberty and Ellis.

The same flight restriction would apply to Governor’s Island “unless on arrival to or departure from Downtown Manhattan Heliport.

Additionally, “helicopters shall not circle or hover within the half-mile … boundary around (all three islands) except as consistent with the general traffic flow around the islands.”

Twice a year, tour flight operators would be required to submit to the FAA and NPS reports on the number of commercial air tours conducted at the national parks and any such further information the federal agencies may request. It’s up to FAA’s Flight Standards District Office to investigate any reports of non-compliance, which could then result in grounding of an operator’s flights.

Friends of Liberty State Park and its president, Sam Pesin, labeled the proposed draft an “unconscionable, unacceptable and ruinous” plan, asserting that “helicopters are already inescapably intrusive into people’s quality of life enjoyment of LSP” by disturbing people using the park “for picnics, barbecues, playgrounds, walking, running, biking, taking in nature’s beauty, and the priceless Caven Point wildlife habitat refuge,” not to mention disturbing the park’s employees. An estimated 5 million people visit LSP annually.

“This is also a Homeland Security and environmental justice issue,” the FOLSP statement said, “with tourist helicopters flying over a popular urban park, heavily used on all nice weekends by people of densely populated Jersey City and Hudson County.”

“This NPS/FAA draft agreement, written with only the powerful special interest helicopter tourism companies at the table, doesn’t address the root issue of too many tourist helicopters every day, including the tourist and commuter helicopters which fly daily over Jersey City neighborhoods from a Kearny (heliport) and no real way to lessen their noise unless there are laws to reduce or ban non-essential helicopters.”

A statement released by Stop the Chop NY/NJ echoed that concern, concluding that while the plan aims to “(create) a buffer around three parks to protect tourists, the unintended negative consequence will be to bring the sightseeing helicopters closer to land on both sides of the Hudson, resulting in more noise and air pollution for New York and New Jersey residents.” 

The statement also faults the agreement for failing to provide caps on the number of sightseeing tour or “any terrorism prevention plans even as it notes the high terrorism risk to the parks.” Nor, it says, have the FAA and NPS furnished any scientific studies showing how the (excess) noise and air pollution would impact residents and the environment.”

Jersey City Heights activist Charles Balcer said the FAA also needs to regulate the increasing volume of helicopter flights emanating from an expanded Kearny heliport—mostly Manhattan-bound tour flights — that pass over residences in the Heights and Journal Square, in particular. 

He estimated the number of such trips at “100 a day, back and forth, to and from Kearny.” And, he said, tour pilots have to negotiate passage through air space monitored by major airports in the area. “There’s also news choppers operating. It’s very congested, going up and down the Hudson — there’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Another city resident, Jayne Freeman, offered this observation: “Liberty State Park is truly the only place locals can go for some open space and quiet. Whether you’re walking, biking, or just lounging around on a blanket with lunch, you expect to experience a sense of tranquility, at the very least. That peace is shattered by the staccato whirring of helicopters overhead, reminding one of police activity, crimes in action, terrorism, and war. It’s disruptive, it’s annoying, and it’s an intrusion into the space we treasure for its notable absence of noise.” 

Other groups protesting the proposed agreement include Communications Workers of NJ, Local 1037; Jersey City Parks Coalition, Bike JC, NY/NJ Baykeeper, and Empower NJ.  

To date, neither Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop nor Gov. Phil Murphy have issued any public comments on the draft agreement.

Photo by Engin Akyurt

Ron Leir has been a journalist since 1972. That includes a 37-year stint as a reporter, copy reader and assistant editor with The Jersey Journal, followed by a decade as a reporter with The Observer in...