Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

The chop-chop-a-chop-a of skyway helicopter noise is a familiar conversation pauser in our neighborhoods. We hear it in my neck of East Falls Church, and it prompts fear of some crisis afoot.

After years of complaints, it appears that local lawmakers, the Defense Department and the Federal Aviation Administration may be preparing at least partial relief.

The issue arose this spring among denizens of the online listserv Nextdoor. “The helicopter noise is becoming nearly intolerable, even extending well after nightfall,” one wrote. “There is an FAA noise ombudsman you can complain to, and I suggest we do that.” (See faa.gov/noise/inquiries.)

Added another: “This seems to be either commuting or flight training, and in either case there is no reason for post-10 p.m. nightly low-altitude flights over the same neighborhood every time. Could they at least fly higher so our windows don’t shake, or vary the route?” 

Came the rebuttal: “Helicopter noise is part of living next to D.C. and the Pentagon. I suggest you get used to it.” Another defense: “The sound of freedom! Plus I would rather have [law enforcement] choppers out looking for bad guys than having the bad guys run around free!”

Back in January 2019, area Members of Congress asked the Government Accountability Office to examine ways to ease noise from the choppers. From 2017-19, the auditors found, the top contributor to helicopter traffic was the military (37.4 percent), followed by air medical (20.9 percent); “other aviation activity” (which means unattributed civilian craft,15.9 percent); state and local law enforcement (14.6 percent); federal law enforcement and emergency support (6.3 percent); and news gatherers (4.9 percent).

GAO documented that the FAA and operators “lack complete information about helicopters in the D.C. area.” While the FAA and some helicopter operators meet annually—most recently in September 2019—to discuss operational and security issues in the D.C. area, FAA officials and these operators stated that helicopter noise issues have not been discussed. They called helicopter noise “a small percentage” of aviation-related complaints.

GAO recommended that the FAA direct its Office of the Environment and Energy to develop a mechanism for exchanging helicopter information with operators. The FAA agreed on the need for data sharing, promising action this year and highlighting its work with Helicopter Association International to promote training in how to “Fly Neighborly” (which means during civilized hours).

Our Rep. Don Beyer, who has called helicopter noise his constituents’ most common complaint, said, “The idea of a system to report and track noise complaints across the region was widely supported by my constituents at a town hall I hosted” in Fairlington.

Last December, Congress passed the annual National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Pentagon to develop a “noise inquiry website” on which citizens can make formal noise complaints. (Reagan National Airport and Dulles International Airport have similar websites.) The website will record complaints on a map and Excel spreadsheet.

The Defense secretary must also establish a DoD helicopter noise abatement group to collect data and indicate any trends. 

In late May, Beyer spokesman Aaron Fritschner told me that the secretary’s office is “working on a report which they have told us to expect in July.” It will cover the feasibility of adjusting helicopter flight altitudes, identifying complaint trends for taking corrective action and analyzing FAA data to ensure compliance with established flight paths.

Chop chop.

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AHC Inc., the nonprofit steward of affordable housing, held a touching graduation ceremony June 8, honoring 31 Arlington public high-school-age kids among its properties’ residents who collectively earned $3 million in college scholarships.

A banner at the Bluemont Park picnic pavilion listed their names—many the children of immigrants—and shouted “Congratulations to the Class of 2021!”

“Since kindergarten, they’ve been called AHC grads,” said Celia Slater, the organization’s communications director, noting that the acceptances include tickets to Harvard and Yale. Social services for residents are provided readily at the housing sites, she noted. “We’re changing the trajectory of family lives.”