Column: Are copters really that bad?

A seaplane flies over Mattituck Aug. 22, one of several aircraft observed over a three-hour period. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)
A seaplane flies over Mattituck Aug. 22, one of several aircraft observed over a three-hour period that night. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Three hours into an exhaustive stakeout to document the greatest threat to North Fork life — helicopter noise — I reached an inauspicious conclusion: On this night in Mattituck, the loudest noise was neither helicopter, seaplane, nor any other flying craft that pollutes our precious skies. 

The biggest culprit? A train.

Helicopters, one might presume, would have been the second loudest nuisance. Not quite.

That distinction would go to the Mattituck Fire Department’s alarm, which belted out a screeching horn at 5:58 p.m. (An intoxicated man somewhere in town needed medical attention.)

You’ll have to excuse me if I’m not ready to concede helicopter noise as some kind of catastrophe threatening our very existence. It would seem that way based on the outcry from residents at public forums, in letters to the editor to this paper and in online comments. Even an editorial written by this newspaper last week used the term “war zone” in the opening paragraph.

Huh? A war zone?

The battle-clad police officers in Ferguson, Mo., firing tear gas at protestors is like a war zone. In 2012, when the charred remains of more than 100 homes lay scattered on the ground in Breezy Point, N.Y., following Superstorm Sandy, that was like a war zone.

The intermittent hum of helicopter blades disrupting our bucolic North Fork lifestyle during the summer is not like a war zone.

I must be blessed with some kind of antidote to noise. I’ve lived in Wading River this summer, within walking distance of Long Island Sound, and can’t recall any moment when helicopter noise impacted my day. Although in a basement apartment, I’m shielded from most noise in the outside world. (Thunderstorm? What thunderstorm?)

Clearly, though, helicopter noise is a rampant problem sweeping across the East End, I’ve read, destroying property value, ruining backyard barbecues and rupturing the ear drums of helpless residents. So I figured I better explore the problem a bit more.

On a recent Friday, after my day in the office ended, I drove down by Mattituck High School, armed with a notebook, pen and alert ears. Looking at a map, Mattituck appeared an ideal spot for helicopters traveling from the west to cut across for a direct line to East Hampton Airport, the destination for nearly all the traffic, I’m told. And Friday evening on a summer weekend seemed like an opportune time to hear all those yuppies from Manhattan swooping over our homes like it was the invasion of Normandy.

A few minutes past 5, on a cool, gorgeous night, I parked near the tennis courts ready to count every passing helicopter. I planned to rank the noise on a scale of 1 to 5; one being slightly audible, unlikely to be heard indoors, and five being loud enough to disrupt a conversation with someone a few feet away.

The playing fields at the school were empty. The distant hum of traffic along Main Road, and a sweeping breeze, cut ever so slightly into the silence. After a few minutes, at 5:12 p.m., I heard the first sound of a helicopter. I scanned the sky to locate it, finally noticing the white speck against the blue sky to the east. The chopper quickly was gone. I scored it a 1.

Two minutes later, I spotted another helicopter to the west. It was louder, and flew pretty much directly overhead of my position. Still, it passed quickly and the noise was hardly deafening. I gave it a 2.

In the first 16 minutes, I tracked four helicopters and one small plane.

The action quickly picked up at 5:33 with a helicopter passing to the south, followed by a low-flying seaplane heading northwest. The seaplane quickly passed and was audible for only about 15 seconds.

In a little over three hours, I counted 15 helicopters, four seaplanes and two other small planes. (A few jumbo jets were audible, but we’re not seriously going to complain about that, right?)

I rated two helicopters a 3, the rest either a 2 or a 1. Without a doubt, the loudest noise was the train that rolled past Mattituck around 6:26 p.m. (Another train at 7:58 p.m. didn’t lay on its horn as much).

I suppose I picked a lousy location. But then again, one noise advocate at the Aug. 11 forum in Southold specifically pointed out that helicopters shouldn’t fly over Mattituck High School.

“No student, teacher or faculty member should be at risk because of some pilot’s quote-unquote choice to take the shortest route to get to and from East Hampton Airport,” the woman said.

How exactly are students at risk? Are surface-to-air missiles routinely shooting down helicopters? And isn’t the so-called problem greatest in the summer, when school’s closed?

I’m confused.

At this point, I imagine the noise advocates are crumpling this paper, filled with rage, slamming their fists while screaming, You just don’t know!

Look, I’ll admit, there are solutions to be sought to mitigate the traffic overhead. Fine. But can we stop acting like the future of civilization is at risk?

Joe_Werkmeister_2012.jpgJoe Werkmeister is the web editor for the Times/Review Media Group. He was the 2013 recipient for best column from the New York Press Association. He can be reached at 354-8049 or [email protected]