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Boston’s BHCA Complains to FAA about Medical Helicopters Flying Overhead to MGH

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According to an article that recently appeared in The Boston Herald, many residents of Boston’s historic, upscale Beacon Hill district are fuming over “noisy” helicopters they feel are invading their airspace. FAA officials have been called to investigate what some residents call the “dangerous practices” of medical and news helicopters.

The Beacon Hill Civic Association wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt stating that they often receive complaints that medevac helicopters – rotor aircraft carrying patients in need of urgent, life-saving medical care – often fly directly over the Beacon Hill area rather than following the designated flight routes along the river. The chairman of the BHCA, Jon Achatz, claims that he is often woken up by the helicopters in the morning and that his fellow residents complain about the aircraft flying at too low an altitude.

Achatz went on to say that when he is sitting outside on his terrace, he often has a helicopter within a few hundred feet producing noise loud enough to drown out any attempts at conversation. His association accused hospital and news helicopters of violating the FAA’s designated flight paths, minimum altitude, and emergency landing areas. Furthermore, they claim that the medevac helicopters in particular not only disturb the peace, but expose residents to “potentially devastating damage, injury, and loss of life” in the event of one of the helicopters having to make an emergency landing.

“It seems clear to us that if these helicopters continue circling over our neighborhood, tragedy will be unavoidable,” BHCA President Ania Camargo wrote in the letter.

Massachusetts General Hospital, located in Beacon Hill, is a Level 1 trauma center, a Level 1 pediatric trauma center, and a Level 1 burn center. In short, that means they provide care for the most critical patients – “the sickest of the sick,” as Dr. Alasdair Conn, MGH’s chief of emergency medicine put it.

The helipad at MGH sees over 500 landings a year. Air medical transports here typically include patients who have suffered heart attacks, major trauma, severe burns, spinal injuries, critical newborns, and other situations where every second can make a difference.

“Does the mortality go up if they don’t get here in time?” said Dr. Conn. “Yes.”

He pointed out that the people being transported into MGH by air ambulance are “really critical patients” and require the rapid transport that the medevac choppers provide.

The hospital released a statement in response which claimed that the pilots who utilize their helipad on a regular basis are knowledgeable of the recommended approach routes and follow them as permitted by factors such as the wind.

Although the Beacon Hill Civic Association (which noted in its letter to Randy Babbitt that it was formed in 1922 by a “small but concerned group of neighbors” to preserve the historic character of Beacon Hill) mentions several complaints about air ambulances, some Bostonians feel the Beacon Hill residents are being disturbed mostly by news helicopters, which hover for long periods of time, rather than the air ambulances that speed back and forth from the hospital.

Indeed, the organization complained of “low flying” and “hovering” helicopters after an emergency landing of a news helicopter on Boston Common in January, and the rescue of a Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority worker who fell down into a concrete shaft at the Charles/Mass. General Hospital rail station in March. In the former case, the Civic Association said they were “dismayed” that several news helicopters hovered low and put the neighborhood at risk, staying in the air for five hours despite the entire rescue taking only about two and half hours.

The association’s letter also complained about noisy helicopters hovering to take publicity photos of the city skyline.

However, the BHCA very explicitly complained in their letter to the FAA that “’medevac’ helicopters transporting patients to Massachusetts General Hospital routinely fly directly over Beacon Hill” rather than along the river like they’re supposed to. Given that MGH is, again, a level 1 trauma center, level 1 pediatric trauma center, and level 1 burn center, this complaint is more than a bit controversial. Some residents of Boston’s other neighborhoods have an differing viewpoint, and see the complaint letter, or at least the parts criticizing the medevac helicopter pilots, as being selfish and uncaring.

One Boston area resident writing about the uproar says he feels the news and traffic helicopters should obviously follow the designated rules at all times, but that the Beacon Hill residents should be more understanding when confronted by loy-flying or noisy police choppers if those aircraft are in the midst of responding to emergencies. “But the last category,” he continued, “air ambulances need to get their passengers to hospitals quickly,” and “If that means flying… over rich people’s homes, then so be it.”

A few days ago, The FAA said that it had received the organization’s letter and was working on a response to it.

Clearly there are several strong viewpoints here — What’s your opinion on this story?

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Discussion
  1. ak muller

    4 / 24 / 2011 8:30 am

    Hi there, I am a resident of Beacon Hill (for 20 years) and I am one of the people who called to complain about the helicopter hovering noise recently.

    Here’s my perspective.
    I would NEVER complain about the medical helicopters. They are not that frequent and they come with living in the city and near a trauma 1 hospital.
    The helicopters are loud b/c they are low, but they move quickly and it’s over fast. It’s really a non-event from my perspective.

    What I do mind is the news helicopters.
    Not because I think their hovering might put me in danger by crashing, that is a bit alarmist for me.
    What bothers me here is the noise factor because they hover for so long. That incident you mention in your well researched (better than our local paper did) piece w/the train worker stuck in an underground shaft was so ridiculous. I called that day to complain.
    My alarm goes off at 6:30 each morning but that morning, I got more and more away and finally fully awake at 6:00 am because of the constant sound of helicopters over head. No story mentions it was 6:00 am (or earlier, not sure when they started). That’s just not civilized. There’s a city rule that no one can start construction (in their home, outside I think too) until 7am. It’s just common decency when you live on top of each other like we all do in a city.
    THEN: it went on and on and on. I left the house at 7:20 and they were still hovering and when my husband woke up at 7:30 (he’s a deep sleeper) he said it was still hovering and did for some time longer.
    So, if the first thing is the early and ongoing noise. The second thing is WHY: why is this necessary?
    I understand it’s in the “mission” of news organizations to be on top of the news but there was nothing to see–it was one guy underground, what kind of footage was the helicopter even shooting?
    At what point does the a news organization trying to capitalize and overly sensationalize a news story take precedence over the public good, public noise pollution, city livability?
    Let’s save these hovering news helicopter practices for major news events that really inform the general public.
    And please don’t think the majority of us Beacon Hillers feel that the medivac helicopters are bothersome, no one I know complains about that, I am embarrassed by that part of the letter and can see why we got mocked in our local papers.

    Thx and again, good job reporting all aspects of the story, not just one.

    Reply

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