Floating helipad returns to Destin

Tom McLaughlin | Northwest Florida Daily News
A helicopter approaches a floating platform in Destin’s East Pass on Wednesday morning.

Timberview Helicopters has anchored a floating helipad in East Pass just south of the Marler Bridge.

Owner Justin Johnson says he’s got his required permits and he’s eager to start giving folks a glimpse of the Emerald Coast from the air — without Destin and Okaloosa County meddling in his business.

“We really just want to be allowed to operate legally, like we are, and left alone by the city and county, who seem to want to come after us all the time,” Johnson said.

 He should get his wish, as city and county officials seem resigned that their hands are tied when it comes to regulating an offshore helicopter business.

“We’re not getting much done in that department,” County Commissioner Kelly Windes said.

But Johnson may yet have to deal with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a handful of federal agencies, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

Timberview Helicopter’s long battle with the county and Destin began after the sightseeing business began offer rides last year from Destin Commons.

Okaloosa County eventually shut down the operation and forced Timberview to move to Destin Airport.

So last August, Johnson’s company began sending up helicopters from a barge anchored near Crab Island.

The helipad presented a conundrum for opponents because it was out of county and city jurisdiction and met the uninspected vessel requirements of the Coast Guard and lighting specifications of Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

This year, Johnson said he’s had his offshore helipad inspected by the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Master Chief Glenn Bucklin at the Coast Guard’s Destin station confirmed that the Timberview’s barge once again is up to snuff.

“As far as the Coast Guard is concerned we’re happy,” Bucklin said. “He’s met all our requirements.”

Bucklin did say that the Army Corps of Engineers and DEP also would have to issue permits for Timberview to operate from East Pass.

Johnson said the DEP had informed him it had no jurisdiction and that he was “doing something” in terms of working with the Corps of Engineers that he didn’t want to discuss Wednesday.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and money on all this,” Johnson said. “We know there are a lot of people trying to hurt us and shoot us down.”

Cliff Wilson, the assistant director of DEP in Northwest Florida, said Timberview has not filed a permit application and no permit has been granted.

Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers office in Pensacola did not provide requested information Wednesday about its role in permitting the business.

Johnson said his company will get around an FAA notice requirement by moving the helicopter landing barge around every so often.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said her agency requires a flight operation to file notice “only if it plans to conduct more than 10 flights daily for more than 30 days at a location” or if “the operator is using the landing zone intermittently for fewer than 10 flights daily and no more than three days a week.”

For years, the beach immediately west of where Johnson has docked his barge has been considered a shorebird nesting sanctuary. U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent Patty Kelly expressed concern Wednesday about the helicopter taking off and landing so close to a protected area.

She said not only do helicopters tend to drive birds permanently from nesting sites, but birds flying into helicopters is a known hazard.

Kelly said she planned to contact Air Force officials, who monitor the environment on the Eglin Air Force Base property where the bird sanctuary is located to discuss any issues presented by Johnson’s barge.

Johnson said the Corps of Engineers has assured him his business presented no danger to fish or wildlife.

“We don’t fly over the bird habitats,” he said.