What it means — and doesn’t mean.
I was at Wickenburg Airport for a short time yesterday and was dismayed to see another helicopter pilot practicing autorotations using a left traffic pattern for the taxiway parallel to Runway 23. In Wickenburg, it’s right traffic for Runway 23, keeping the airplanes on the northwest side of the runway. There are fewer houses out that way; a left traffic pattern would have you overflying dozens of homes.
Someone else at the airport told me that the owners of the homes southeast of the runway had asked this pilot several times not to overfly their homes. They were bothered by the noise of his buzzing aircraft just 500 feet over their houses over and over again. He replied that he was supposed to “avoid the flow of fixed wing traffic.” When one of the nicest guys on the airport suggested he fly on the other side, this pilot’s response was, “Fuck you.” Whoa. Seems like someone has an attitude problem.
But is he right? Should he be doing left traffic patterns if the airplanes would be doing right patterns?
FAR Part 91.126, “Operating on or in the vicinity of an airport in Class G airspace,” says, in part:
(a) General. Unless otherwise authorized or required, each person operating an aircraft on or in the vicinity of an airport in a Class G airspace area must comply with the requirements of this section.
(b) Direction of turns. When approaching to land at an airport without an operating control tower in Class G airspace —
(1) Each pilot of an airplane must make all turns of that airplane to the left unless the airport displays approved light signals or visual markings indicating that turns should be made to the right, in which case the pilot must make all turns to the right; and
(2) Each pilot of a helicopter or a powered parachute must avoid the flow of fixed-wing aircraft.
To some, it might appear that Part 91.126(b)(2) gives helicopter pilots permission to fly wherever they want in Class G airspace, as long as it’s not anywhere near an airplane. Maybe that’s what our attitude-challenged helicopter pilot at Wickenburg thinks. But I’d argue that it’s simply not true.
Why Avoid the Flow? Why Not Join It?
Helicopters are advised to avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic mostly because of the significant differences in the way they operate. Helicopters are usually slower than airplanes, they tend to operate at lower altitudes, and they don’t need a runway to land or take off. Putting airplanes and helicopters together in a traffic pattern is like mixing oil and water: they just won’t blend.
But does avoiding the flow of fixed wing traffic mean creating a completely separate traffic pattern? Sometimes, it does.
Does it mean making yourself a noisy nuisance over a residential neighborhood on the side of the airport that normally doesn’t have aircraft flying over it? I say it doesn’t.
And what if there aren’t any airplanes in the traffic pattern? I’ll argue that there’s nothing to avoid so why not use their established, community-preferred traffic pattern?
And that was the problem yesterday: the bad attitude pilot was the only aircraft in the traffic pattern for the entire time he was flying yesterday. There was no fixed-wing traffic to avoid.
There was no reason to overfly those homes.
Although I’m not a big fan of Helicopter Association International (HAI), I do want to commend them on their attempts (although usually feeble) to share information that’s useful to the helicopter community. Among that information is “The Fly Neighborly Guide” they offer as a PDF download from their site. Here’s a blurb about the program from their site:
The Fly Neighborly Program addresses noise abatement and public acceptance objectives with programs in the following areas:
- Pilot and operator awareness
- Pilot training and indoctrination
- Flight operations planning
- Public acceptance and safety
- Sensitivity to the concerns of the community
The point is, lots of people hate helicopters because they’re noisy. (In reality, they’re not all that much more noisy than an airplane. But because they usually fly lower, they seem louder.) By using techniques that help us fly more quietly and avoiding noise-sensitive areas, we’ll blend in with the environmental impact of aircraft traffic much better.
What does that mean to me? Well, here are some of the things I try to do:
- Maintain speed above 80 knots in my R44 to avoid “rotor slap.”
- Not fly low over homes, schools, or businesses.
- Vary the flight path I use to approach or depart the airport.
- When flying traffic patterns, choose a pattern that does not repeatedly overfly the same noise-sensitive areas. (Yes, the other day when I was practicing autorotations at Wickenburg, I shared the same standard traffic pattern with three airplanes.)
I do need to point out here that anyone who buys a home within 3 miles of an airport should expect some level of noise. If you don’t like aircraft noise, don’t buy a home near an airport. Period.
Why I Care
Why should I care that a bad attitude pilot is thumbing his nose (and perhaps making other hand gestures) at people who complain about his inconsiderate flying?
Well, it’s like this. Right now, at Wickenburg, there is no published noise abatement procedure. Look in the Airport/Facilities Directory and see for yourself. (Try not to notice that the diagram is inaccurate on so many levels.) That means pilots have the freedom to make their own decisions about approaching and departing the airport. We’re not forced to follow some idiotic plan set forth by an ignorant non-flyer in response to noise complaints.
But if Mr. Bad Attitude keeps ignoring the complaints and overflying the same homes again and again, the complaints will get escalated. I’m not too worried about the town doing anything — they’re extremely ineffective when it comes to solving airport-related problems. But eventually, it’ll get up to the FAA. Enough people know it’s not me — a bright red Robinson R44 looks nothing like a little white Schweitzer 300 — so I won’t get in trouble. But the FAA might actually do something to make the complaints go away. Since Mr. Bad Attitude isn’t technically doing anything wrong, the only way to fix the problem is a noise abatement program. The FAA will push the town to make one and we’ll be stuck with it.
What’s also bad is that his continued inconsiderate behavior makes everyone in the helicopter community look bad — including me and the two other helicopter owners based in town. It could cause problems in Wickenburg or other communities for helicopter pilots and operators. It could affect businesses like mine or emergency services. (Come to think of it, one of the reasons our hospital lost its helicopter medevac base was noise complaints. So if you have a heart attack in Wickenburg, you’ll just have to wait an extra 20-30 minutes for help to come.)
And all this is why I care.
When helicopter pilots are advised to “avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic,” that doesn’t mean we should avoid flying in empty airplane traffic patterns. It means we should avoid flying with airplanes.
It also doesn’t mean we should use FAR 91.126(b)(2) as an excuse to become a nuisance by repeatedly overflying noise-sensitive areas.
If there’s no conflicting aircraft, common sense should prevail.