City halts charter helicopter landings

Flights stopped on roof of Inner Harbor garage

Company never got approval

August 01, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

A top Baltimore official ordered an Odenton charter service yesterday to stop landing helicopters on a downtown parking garage after learning such flights had been happening without city approval dating to May 2001.

Prompted by an inquiry from The Sun, zoning officials told the company, Capitol Rising, not to land or take off at the 10-story garage next to the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront Hotel at Inner Harbor East.

"Helicopters do crash," said Michael Savino, superintendent for zoning enforcement. "And, God forbid, it crashed and blew up the hotel or landed on Little Italy or God knows what, the city would be sitting with egg on its face."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Sun about the city's decision to halt a charter company's helicopter landings on an Inner Harbor parking garage should have said that WBAL-TV's news helicopter is based at Hoby Wolf Airport in Eldersburg. The Sun regrets the error.

Savino added: "I find it incredible something like this would get installed or even put on a building without approval." Though airborne helicopters are hard to miss, he said, his office responds only to complaints and had not gotten any.

Steve Walker, Capitol Rising's founder and chief executive, acknowledged that he did not get necessary approval but promised to seek it. "We'll fix it," he said yesterday in an interview.

Walker said the helipad, in a gated area with 20 unused parking spaces, was meant to be temporary until a permanent spot was ready atop an office building planned for a site across the street.

Walker had begun talking to planning officials about that permanent site. But planning officials and Savino said they were unaware the helicopters were currently flying to the garage.

Walker and the garage owner -- a partnership controlled by bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr. -- could ask the zoning board for "conditional use" approval at the garage. Or they could amend the garage's development plan. Either tack would require public hearings, officials say, and an examination of such issues as airspace congestion and the garage's capacity to handle helicopters.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Arlene Salac said landings are allowed, provided the garage owner approves and pilots talk to air-traffic controllers. Lt. Darnell Brock, head of the city's police helicopter unit, said he has "never had any problems" with Capitol Rising.

Even as the city moved to stop Capitol Rising, which is based at Tipton Airport, planning officials said its service has merit. Because it can take two hours to drive from Baltimore to Northern Virginia, they say it makes sense for busy corporate executives to fly to meetings downtown.

"Most major cities -- Boston, Philadelphia, those places -- have helistops that serve the business community," said Susan Williams of the planning department. A helicopter pad here would be fine, she said, if it "doesn't disrupt surrounding neighborhoods."

Helicopters are a common sight downtown, whether flying the injured to Maryland Shock Trauma Center or taking off from Police Headquarters on East Baltimore Street. Helicopters used by WBAL-TV and WJZ-TV take off from Martin State Airport in Middle River.

There has been tension in the past between helicopter operators and residents. A decade ago a charter service gave aerial tours of Fort McHenry and "buzzed" South Baltimore along the way, Williams said. "I can understand community concerns," she said.

Walker stressed that his enterprise is aimed at business people, not tourists. He said he has met with the Fells Point Task Force and residents of Scarlett Place condominiums to explain his operation.

Walker announced his service in January of last year. For about $200, someone could go from, say, Tysons Corner, Va., to the Inner Harbor. That May, he made test runs ferrying venture capitalists from Northern Virginia to the Marriott for a conference.

His goal had been to land on the roof of the 32-story Marriott, said hotel general manager William Walsh. The hotel rejected that idea for safety reasons. Yet the Marriott also worried garage landings would disturb guests. On a test flight, hotel employees gathered in a room adjacent to the stop. Noise was not a problem, Walsh said.

The helistop looks like a parking deck with a few differences. It has a windsock to help pilots gauge wind direction when landing the five-passenger Bell Long Ranger or the six-passenger Agusta 109C. Six red lights ring the perimeter, and a gate keeps cars away.

After the May 2001 conference, flights ended until this spring, Walker said. That is because he was negotiating with the Paterakis partnership. Then came Sept. 11 and a spike in insurance rates that caused further delay.

Flights resumed in April on a limited basis. Walker estimated the total at fewer than a dozen, though managers of nearby restaurants say they have been more frequent. Most of the trips were for the Marriott. Also, location scouts for the movie Red Dragon went up to see the city from the air, Walker said.

Walker did not advertise much, he said, because he knew the garage lacked city approval and did not want to "overdo it." He had hoped by now to win local permission for a permanent helistop nearby; then he had planned to ask for temporary permission on the garage. The permanent site is to be atop an office building Paterakis' H&S Properties plans to build across President Street.

Walker said he will immediately ask for the city's blessing for temporary use of the garage.

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