Copter buzz annoys fans Aircraft noise keeps some spectators from enjoying football game

'Everything was safe'

August 11, 1998|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Joe Mathews and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

As players fought for yardage on the field at the Ravens stadium this weekend, news crews jockeyed for position in the sky, creating what some called a perilous traffic jam in the air, buzzing and aggravating many of the 65,938 fans and threatening public safety.

"If you are in the top seat, you were closer to the helicopters than to the playing field," said Baltimore Police Maj. John J. McEntee, who complained to federal authorities about the low-flying choppers and planes.

Pilots said as many as nine aircraft flew around the edge of the stadium seating bowl at once, and fixed-wing planes towing advertising banners sandwiched between two sets of helicopters flying 400 to 1,000 feet above the 185-foot high top deck.

Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration said the aircraft had permission to be there and were guided and spaced by air traffic controllers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, about five miles south. Flying directly over the stadium was forbidden.

"Everything was safe," said Arlene Salac, an FAA spokeswoman. "They were being handled by our air traffic controllers, and they would not allow anything that would be unsafe."

But that's not how fans who christened the new stadium and arena neighbors saw it.

A helicopter pilot hired by WBFF-TV 45, the city's Fox affiliate, said he pulled out of the crowded pattern after an hour.

"I didn't like any of what was going on there," said Stephen Miller, who flies for Helicopter Transport Services, based at Martin State Airport in Middle River. "The aircraft were too close together. The big concern was the aircraft that were flying so low."

Many news organizations, including The Sun, used their own aircraft or hired pilots to get panoramic pictures of the first game at the new $220 million stadium.

"We wanted a beauty shot of the stadium filled to capacity," said Gail Bending, news director for WJZ-TV (Channel 13), which broadcast the game and owns a helicopter armed with a powerful zoom lens that can shoot close-ups from 1,000 feet in the air.

But other aircraft were flying much lower, particularly ones with still photographers aboard. Those were given the lowest clearance, 400 feet, and pilots said one small red chopper skirted the rules. Police said officers patrolling in their helicopter called Foxtrot warned him that he was low.

"There was one that was definitely too low," complained Jim Slusser, director of security for the Maryland Stadium Authority. "We do have to be concerned with the public safety side of it."

That helicopter was a small Red Robinson 22, which FAA records show is owned by Raven Helicopter Service Inc., based in Marriottsville. It is not affiliated with the Ravens team.

The company president and pilot, Charles L. Dawson III, said he never flew below 400 feet, though he said he went higher when police warned him. "I agreed to back off to keep everybody happy," he said.

The FAA said no changes in flight patterns or ground rules will be instituted. But McEntee, the city police major, said he will call news organizations to negotiate a compromise for fewer aircraft and higher flight patterns.

Dawson would not identify who he was flying, but praised air traffic controllers for maintaining order. "It was busy, but they kept the planes separated and layered," he said.

But fans in the upper deck complained that the constant noise distracted them from the game and caused safety concerns.

"The helicopters kept coming so close all game," said Scott Parson, 36, of Manchester. "I felt like they were buzzing us all game." Added Jim Nossell, 42, of Parkville: "They were coming in way too close."

It wasn't just fans who were annoyed. Homeowners who live near the stadium, inconvenienced by a shortage of parking spaces, had little use for the added sounds Saturday night.

"The helicopters were the talk of the neighborhood yesterday," said Dick Leitch, a past president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association who has lived there for 20 years.

The choppers could be heard even by those who locked themselves in their houses and closed their windows. "This is an area that is used to all the noises associated with a city," Leitch said. "It's difficult for one noise to stand out in your mind, but this stands out. It was that annoying."

Dawson said he and other pilots operated within proper guidelines. "We have a job to do," he said. "We're there once a year, and then you'll never see us again. The last thing we want to do is irritate anyone on the ground."

Pub Date: 8/11/98

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