Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Helicopter’s Image Must Be Improved Worldwide

The helicopter industry in Europe is facing many of the same issues that proponents are battling in the U.S. It would make sense for industry and user groups to work more closely on both sides of the Atlantic to counter the threats and unfriendly perceptions that are combining to limit the functionality of the helicopter.

On a recent research trip to the U.S., I found that three common issues top, or nearly top, concerns in Europe and the U.S.

• Drones, from the unregulated private sector through to the increasingly vocal and activist commercial sector, are already seeking airspace restrictions in order to fly beyond line of sight and in populated areas. And threatening to overtake the helicopter’s oft-touted versatility for urban transportation (if it ever were to be allowed) is the progress by such as Airbus and Uber in developing man-carrying drone-based systems for transportation in crowded cities.

• Increasing airspace, city planning and noise restrictions that have prevented the development of conveniently-located heliports in urban areas.

• Public acceptance of helicopters, which are often perceived as noisy, anti-social toys for the rich and famous.

All of us in the helicopter industry can tell stories about angry neighbors calling the police because a helicopter is swirling around their homes and disturbing them. But when that complainer is laying with a broken leg on the ski slope the helicopter can’t get there quickly enough.

I even know about doctors working in hospitals who complain about helicopter noise as soon as they leave work for the day and return to their urban homes. But Matt Zuccario, president of the U.S.-based Helicopter Association International, topped it all when he told me that the mayor of New York City had received so many complaints about sightseeing helicopters that he forced tour operators to reduce trips by 50% and completely cut out flights on Sundays. HAI calculated the moves would cost $50 million in revenues.

But let me describe what I saw just one weekend before. We were staying at a mountain lake in upper Bavaria and trying to enjoy the peaceful quietness of this wonderful alpine region. But we couldn't, due to the fact that a twisty, scenic road leading to the lake acts as a magnet for motorcyclists and hobbyist Schumacher race-car drivers. On this day there was even a vintage motorcycle competition adding to the noise of the normal Harley Davidson weekend rebels. It was one rolling thunder of "sound," louder than a dozen jackhammers. Of course plenty of exhausts were modified to be even more “powerful.” And the tourists? Were they moaning about the noise? No, most of them smiled, others were greeting the drivers and taking pictures.

Why is it OK for villages or cities to attract noisy car races, to drill holes in your exhaust to assure your machine can be heard kilometers away, and yet the noise from a helicopter is unacceptable?

It seems that helicopters are still seen as toys for wealthy people who want to avoid traffic jams when heading to their 65th floor office downtown or rushing to grab a lunch in Monte Carlo.

But in the German Helicopter Association we know better. We have created the slogan "bee of aviation" to illustrate the value of helicopters. Society would be much poorer without the multiple services performed by helicopters, however these are mostly unnoticed (and unheard), as the majority of our duties takes place over unsettled areas. Powerline inspection, marking forests, firefighting, offshore transportation are among the examples. But we are endangered.

First and foremost is the constant increase of restrictions and regulations because of the lack of public acceptance. Germany is a country of drivers, and automobile and motorcycle manufacturers have a positive image and a strong lobby. So we really do tolerate a lot from other industries.

Do I have to mention that Germany also is at the top in producing helicopters, but this isn’t of the same economic importance?

So how to improve the situation? We have to stress that helicopters aren’t fun toys for rich people but rather provide unrivaled services for society. We also have to make clear there is a real economic benefit from the use of helicopters.

Next time, when you overdo your downhill rush on the slopes and crash into the snow with one leg in front and the other behind, I hope the heliport at the nearby hospital hasn't been closed because the residents complained about the noise, leaving you to wait for the Bernhardiner dog to climb the mountain and rescue you with a barrel of brandy. Or that a drone will swirl by and ask whether you feel all right.

(Dr. Frank Liemandt - Aviation Week / EBACE Show News)

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