As aircraft accidents go, the recent mishap involving an Air Florida tourist helicopter wasn’t bad.
The pilot and both passengers escaped unharmed on April 20 when the Robinson R44 helicopter lost power at 600 feet and pilot Steve Kilcourse guided the chopper down on a grassy median along Kirkman Road.
But that kind of close call worries Orange County leaders, concerned about safety in Central Florida’s skies crowded with heli-tours that give visitors a bird’s-eye view of theme parks.
County planners met last week with an aviation consultant hired because of those anxieties to help draft rules for the landing and takeoff pads required for sightseeing helicopters.
The Air Florida emergency also troubled Tom Shoriak and other residents of Williamsburg, who say they often hear tourist choppers over their neighborhood, near SeaWorld Orlando.
“It’s like we’re living in (Viet) Nam,” he said.
While operators argue that a helicopter tour is safer than driving on Interstate 4, accidents happen.
According to National Transportation Safety Board records, 49 people have died in fatal air crashes involving sightseeing helicopters in the U.S. since 2002. Most occurred above popular tourist destinations, including Hawaii and the Grand Canyon.
None occurred in Florida, though in March 2015 a helicopter similar to Air Florida’s chopper crashed into a house in College Park, killing the pilot, his wife and a friend on a personal sightseeing tour.
Central Florida visitors have at least half a dozen options for aerial sightseeing excursions.
Patrons pay as little as $24 to get a sky view of Shamu’s pool at SeaWorld, Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter’s Wizarding World and Universal’s new water park, Volcano Bay.
The priciest flights are $355 per adult and fly guests over Lake Apopka and Windermere as well as the theme parks. Some promise views of Disney fireworks.
Federal rules forbid flights over the Magic Kingdom, although tours can buzz over other Disney properties.
Mark Dilbert, 39, treated his son Andrew, 7, to a birthday ride in a helicopter over SeaWorld and Universal.
The Fort Lauderdale family spent four days in Orlando, visiting theme parks. The flight was his son’s final thrill before heading back to South Florida.
“We saw the whales and I pointed out rides that he liked,” Dilbert said after the tour by Air Force Fun.
Federal Aviation Administration records show eight helicopter tours are authorized to fly above the nation’s busiest tourist corridor. Four fly out of Kissimmee.
A ninth is awaiting approval from Orlando to put two helipads near the Fun Spot America theme park. The permit application estimates the operation could put another 30 helicopter flights a day in the sky.
Another proposal seeks to put a helipad atop the parking garage near the Orlando Eye, the 400-foot-tall wheel along I-Drive.
Chuck Whittall, president of Unicorp National Developments, proposed the helipad at his I-Drive 360 complex to increase entertainment options for visitors.
County commissioners approved his request to build Starflyer, a 450-foot-tall attraction at the complex, which also includes Madame Tussauds wax museum and Sea Life Aquarium Orlando, but then frowned on his planned heli-tour.
They cited safety concerns.
“They’re coming in and going out nonstop,” said former commissioner Scott Boyd, who wrestled with complaints about helicopter tours during his eight years on the board. His term ended in November.
In February, the commission approved an updated vision plan for I-Drive that prohibited new helipads in the tourism corridor. The plan declared heli-tours are not “an amusement ride use …”
The county will pay Orlando-based AVCON Inc., $28,500 to provide expert advice on heli-tour rules.
In the past, the county wrote special conditions into helipad approvals, forbidding nighttime tours and banning flights over Williamsburg and other neighborhoods.
But flights stray.
Boyd said he once posed as a tourist to look into complaints from residents who argued the tours ignored county restrictions. The chopper flew over Williamsburg.
“What they’re saying is true,” Boyd said of residents griping about the heli-tours. “It’s a problem.”
Stan Rose, a safety specialist with the trade group Helicopter Association International, said the county shouldn’t restrict the number of heli-tour companies.
“If everybody’s doing things the right way … there’s plenty of room for competition,” he said.
He pointed out that federal rules supersede local governments “once the helicopter’s an inch off the ground.”
City, county or state authorities can impose their authority on the ground — regulating locations and spelling out special terms for operating a helipad.
FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen said citizen complaints about helicopter air tours generally don’t result in federal violations because rules for helicopters are less restrictive than those established for other aircraft which fly higher.
“There are no specific routes or altitudes for air tours in the Orlando area,” Bergen said in an email.
Helicopters typically fly under 2,000 feet because people who go up want to see what’s down below.
Over congested areas, the minimum safe altitude is 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle, Bergen said.
Orlando rules for “vertiports_”as the city’s code defines a helipad —require a review by the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority. They also take into consideration the helipad’s proximity “to tall buildings, other navigation hazards and existing uses which would present a public safety hazard…”
New York City prohibits helicopter tours shorter than eight minutes and Sunday flights. Clark County, Nev., home to Las Vegas, requires prospective tour operators to provide a technical report that addresses noise, the number of daily flights and potential adverse impacts.
Irish tourists Willie and Gretta Clarke bought a short helicopter ride to cap off their U.S. holiday, which included a Caribbean cruise and three days in Orlando.
The trip was a gift for Willie’s 60th birthday.
“It’s really once in a lifetime for us,” Willie Clarke said of the helicopter ride. “You can’t get them in Ireland.”
Their six-minute, $98 flight buzzed over Universal Studios, the Orange County Convention Center and SeaWorld.
“You really can see everything,” Gretta, 63, said of the flight. “But I think it should be longer for the money.”
Austi Tarter-Leclercq, who runs Maxflight Helicopter Services in Kissimmee, estimated that Orlando-area tour operators launch “a couple hundred flights” a day. The FAA was unable to provide an accounting of daily heli-tour flights.
“We’ve done thousands and thousands of tours as an industry here and not had any incidents,” Tarter-Leclercq said. “I think we do a pretty darn good job.”
She heaped praise on the Air Florida pilot for safely landing without injury to persons on board or on the ground.
“These guys are super-safe,” Tarter-Leclercq said of her pilots and her competitors. “They’re amazing, all of them.”