While strolling on the sidewalk in your home city, you may have occasionally looked up to see a helicopter flying over you. It may have been incredibly close and loud, or it may have been far away in the distance.
Many people have complained about the proximity of helicopters to their homes in urban areas, largely due to the noise. We often hear complaints within our communities that aircraft, including helicopters, should not be able to fly so low and disturb the public peace.
Most helicopters flown over cities will belong to law enforcement, medical, news, tourism, or corporate VIP flights. Apart from Police and Medical helicopters which have exemptions, most helicopters need to maintain at least 1000ft above the highest obstacle within a 2000 foot radius from the helicopter.
So why exactly do helicopters fly over urban landscapes and what are the rules when it comes to them doing so? In the United States, what does the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) say is the proper way for rotary-wing aircraft to fly over cities? What do pilots need to be aware of when flying between buildings? This article seeks to answer these questions.
Are Helicopters Allowed to Fly Over Cities?
Helicopters can certainly fly over cities and they do so on a regular basis. São Paulo, one of the largest and most congested cities in Brazil, is known to be the ‘Helicopter Capital of the World’, where it has been estimated that there is one helicopter per 17,000 people!
When large metropolitan areas become so busy with road traffic the wealthy and corporations begin to use helicopters to allow for faster commuting. When time is valuable a helicopter is the perfect way to beat the traffic, especially if the destination building is next to a heliport or has its own rooftop helipad.
In the US, helicopters are allowed to fly what may appear to be very close to buildings and obstacles in the city, so long as their operations are conducted without hazard to persons or property on the ground. To a person on the ground, seeing a helicopter coming into land within a city environment may feel that it is way closer than it actually is.
For most helicopters, the FAA dictates that the pilots must follow certain rules set out in the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 91.119. Apart from the purposes of landing and taking off a pilot must:
- For Congested Areas – if an aircraft flies over a congested area such as a city, town, or over an open-air assembly of people, they must fly at least 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
- For Other Areas – while aircraft are flying over other than congested areas, they must keep an attitude of 500 feet above the surface. The exceptions to this are if they are flying over open water or sparsely populated areas where they can fly as they wish.
However, helicopters can fly lower than these minimum requirements as long as they comply with any altitudes or routes prescribed for helicopters by the FAA. In busy airspace, the FAA can create low-level aircraft routes or helicopter routes that allow aircraft to fly low through the city but follow a prescribed route.
The best example of a helicopter route is in London, England where the River Thames acts as the official heli-route through London. Helicopters must not wander from this corridor, must obey altitudes set by air traffic control (ATC), and report to ATC at designated landmarks along their route.
In the U.S. the FAA recommends that helicopters generally do not fly lower than 1,000 feet above ground level when flying over cities. However, this is not practical most of the time due to the unique purposes for which helicopters fly in urban environments.
This document published by the FAA states that helicopter operations have “unique operating characteristics”. The most important is the ability to conduct emergency landings during engine failure emergencies. It also states that helicopters’ use by law enforcement and emergency medical service agencies necessitates “added flexibility”.
When landing, helicopters can generally land anywhere the pilot wishes as long as they comply with the above rules. They will also need to follow any local regulations put in place by the city in which they are flying. California, for example, prevents landing within 1,000 feet of a school without a permit unless in an emergency.
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Helicopters with more than one engine can generally fly wherever the pilot wishes over most cities in the world. This is due to the fact that if an engine fails they have another engine to allow them to continue flying. However, for single-engine helicopters, the pilot must be able to glide or autorotate to a clear area in the event of an engine failure without harming those on the ground.
Over densely populated cities finding a clear area like a park, ball field, school playing field or parking lot that is empty to land in can be challenging. It is for these reasons that so many helicopters crash when trying to complete an emergency landing in a dense urban area.
Why Do Helicopters Fly Over Cities?
There are many reasons why you may see a helicopter flying over a city and these are some of the most common reasons:
Helicopter sightseeing is a very popular tourist attraction for domestic and international tourists alike. Some of the most popular helicopter flights in U.S. cities include tours over Manhattan and Las Vegas. Other popular cities for a helicopter joy flight include Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Sydney in Australia, and Cape Town in South Africa.
In fact, it was a tour flight around Manhattan in 2002 that made me begin my flight training! (Yes, I know I look young!…and skinny too!)
Tour flights will follow assigned routes that usually vary to ensure the same areas are not flown over constantly. Set altitudes may be assigned to keep helicopters vertically separated when flying toward one another.
Helicopters are commonly used in cities to transport people in remote or outlying areas into hospitals located in cities. Helicopter travel is far quicker than land ambulance and by allowing patients fast transport to major specialist or trauma centers many lives are saved.
The police departments regularly fly helicopters over cities for law enforcement purposes. Helicopters equipped with powerful searchlights and thermal imaging cameras are used to conduct routine surveillance, take aerial photographs to be used as evidence, conduct search-and-rescue missions, locate suspects and follow suspected vehicles.
If you wish to know more about Police Helicopters and how there are used please check out my article here:
Helicopters are routinely used in the cities for news reporting. They are very commonly used to report on traffic in the mornings and afternoons during rush hour. They may also be used to capture news involving motor vehicle accidents, police crime scenes, and even car chases using powerful gyro-stabilized video camera systems.
The helicopters are usually owned or leased by the news networks and will be up flying constantly during the rush hour periods and be on-call for immediate launch when a news story breaks.
Corporate and VIP Charter
When time is money a helicopter is the fastest way to get into a busy city. Large cities like London and New York are famous for their VIPs being flown into downtown heliports.
Helicopter shuttle services can be used to transport those willing pay or company executives from outlying airports with the journey taking a matter of minutes rather than hours in a car or limo.
Are Helicopters Allowed to Fly Between Buildings?
Despite what you may otherwise see in the movies, rotary-wing aircraft require quite a lot of space to fly safely and effectively so generally No, Helicopters will not fly between buildings in cities unless they absolutely have to and if there is enough space to conduct safe operations.
However, this doesn’t mean helicopters will never fly in those areas. There are many reasons why you may see a helicopter flying between buildings in a downtown core.
Here are some of the most common:
They may fly low conducting planned training missions involving many agencies as part of a disaster plan or they may be conducting law enforcement operations that require an immediate landing to protect human life.
Generally, police pilots and observers have a much better view from above the buildings and use the camera to look straight down.
Many downtown hospitals are specialist trauma centers that have been around for decades. New construction taking place around them in the years since the surrounding buildings may be taller than the rooftop helipad of the hospital.
The St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, Canada is a great example of this. The MedEvac helicopters of Ornge have to fly set routes in and out of the hospital to ensure obstacle avoidance at all times.
Although rare, there are times when a crane is not tall enough or can fit in the tight confines of a downtown street to lift a piece of equipment like an HVAC unit onto the roof of a building. This is when a helicopter can be used.
Permits must be approved by the city and the FAA to allow a waiver and an aerial construction plan to be issued to allow the helicopter to work within the confines of the city buildings.
The work zones have to be blocked off to allow the areas to be clear of bystanders and traffic therefore most construction lifts of this type are conducted in the early morning before they impede rush hour.
Up until 2014, any new tall building constructed in Los Angeles had to have a helipad built on top of it. The thinking behind this was to allow for easy medical evacuation and to assist in VIP transport allowing city planners to try and attract wealthy businesses to the city.
Over time the general population and architects grew tired of the flat and boring city skyline that this created and applied for the rule to be abolished.
Flights into and out of these numerous helipads saw helicopters regularly flying what seemed like ‘Between the Buildings’ and I’m sure at times many pilots took advantage of this and ‘Showboated’ a little when celebrities and the likes were on board!
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