DESTIN — A National Park Service official is asking a Federal Aviation Administration attorney and other FAA officials for help to address what she called "reckless disregard for safety" on the part of at least one unidentified local helicopter tour operator whose flights include routes over and across the Gulf Islands National Seashore, including the Destin area.
Karen Trevino, who heads the National Park Service's Natural Sounds and Night Skies Division, was among the officials who attended a special meeting Wednesday of the Okaloosa County Aviation Board, an eight-member body appointed by the County Commission that includes County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel. The aviation board was established two years ago to advise commissioners on operations of Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, Bob Sikes Airport and Destin Executive Airport.
Earlier this year, the board had asked airports staff members to look into helicopter tour operations. Wednesday's meeting, which included representatives of the FAA, a number of Destin residents, some tour helicopter operators, Ketchel and Commission Chairman Kelly Windes, was held to update the board on the staff's progress. Ketchel, Windes and Trevino attended the meeting by conference call.
According to Ketchel, she and other commissioners have regularly fielded complaints from residents concerned that the tour helicopters fly too low, fly too close to condominiums and do other things that create concern. But jurisdiction over those helicopters lies with the FAA, not the county, she said.
In an email to the FAA officials and other National Park Service officials, Trevino contends her agency "has been dealing with ... safety issues from a helicopter operator at Gulf Islands National Seashore for 7 years with no response from the local FSDO (Flight Standards District Office, an area FAA office)." Northwest Florida is covered by the FSDO in Birmingham, Alabama, which was represented at Wednesday's aviation board meeting.
Pat Bruce, the Birmingham FSDO representative who attended, said Thursday the FAA was investigating complaints about local helicopter tour operators, but declined to elaborate, in part because the investigations are ongoing. He referred further questions to FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen in Atlanta, who said by email, "We don't discuss open investigations."
However, Bergen defended an apparently previous FAA investigation of local helicopter tour operations. The FAA, she wrote, "found no evidence that helicopter air tours over Destin, Fla., have violated Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs). The FAA has investigated residents' complaints that the helicopters are flying too low. The FAA determined that the helicopters are flying over the water and 500 feet offshore."
But Trevino, who appears to have written her email during the advisory board meeting, told its recipients that "from what we are hearing from the county commissioners and the aviation board (most of whom are pilots and have extensive aviation experience), they have raised the issue with the FSDO repeatedly over the years ... ." According to the email, the FSDO and the unidentified tour operators met as recently as April of this year "where commitments to comply and enforce (applicable federal regulations) were made by both but kept by neither."
Also according to Trevino, "In spite of 'grave concerns' raised by the aviation board (apparently at Wednesday's meeting) ... and credible documentation provided by the board, the public and the park as well, the FSDO was not willing to take any action; he simply offered a lot of obfuscation and passing the buck — which didn't go over well with anyone in attendance, including NPS."
According to Ketchel's email, she, Windes and the National Park Service on Wednesday "demanded action from the FAA, the sole agency having jurisdiction of aircraft in flight."
"We're demanding safety, period," Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage said.
Windes was particularly appreciative of the hard-line approach to helicopter tour operations adopted by Trevino, calling it "the best chance we've seen" in some time to finally address the safety and lifestyle issues created by those operations.
According to Windes, the FAA's Birmingham FSDO has been "full of excuses" regarding helicopter tour operations, to the point that the aviation board "basically got a bellyful of it."
Neither of the helicopter tour operators with facilities in Destin — Beach Helicopters and Timberview Helicopter/Destin Helicopters — responded to telephone calls seeking comment.