Debate hovers over helicopters |

Debate hovers over helicopters

Amanda Fehd / Tahoe Daily Tribune / Claudio Bellotto is the owner/pilot of HeliTahoe.

Claudio Bellotto first learned how to fly in the Italian Air Force about 36 years ago.

“Flying is the oldest dream of man,” he said while preparing to load into his twin-rotor red helicopter. “It’s the defeat of gravity.”

The aircraft lifted like a feather above the tarmac of the South Lake Tahoe Airport last week and headed for Emerald Bay. Meadows and houses gave way to the sea of blue that is Lake Tahoe. The lake’s famed clarity stretched out below. Hundreds of yards from shore, passengers could still see its sandy bottom.

Last year, opportunity knocked and Bellotto came here to do something no one else was doing at the time: helicopter tours based at Tahoe.

His company, HeliTahoe, provides sightseeing tours, pilot training, aerial surveys, and even weddings while hovering thousands of feet over Lake Tahoe. Bellotto has a firm handshake, a characteristic Italian accent and jovial nature.

Recently, he’s been the subject of a little news here. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has received complaints about helicopter noise and concerns the aircraft could disrupt a bald eagle nest in Emerald Bay.

The agency says it is looking closely into the matter. Anecdotal evidence says there are problems with aircraft that come from out of the basin, not the local tour operator, said TRPA spokeswoman Julie Regan.

“That particular company is very much aware of the bald eagles, the issues with the wildlife and the overall environmental sensitivity of the areas,” she said. “They have shown a willingness to work through the issues.”

Bellotto remains loyal to his trade.

“No one has the right to prevent people from enjoying this breathtaking view,” he said. “What you see there makes you feel like you are really blessed.”

Last month, when he got the only complaint in one year of operating here, he said he immediately raised his altitude by 600 feet and changed his course so he was not going over the eagle nests.

His helicopter, a 2004 Robinson R44 Raven II, is the quietest model on the market, he said. The tail blade and rotors are designed to minimize sound. Pilot technique is also key: helicopters can be flown efficiently while minimizing power.

Helicopter noise came up during public comments at a recent meeting of TRPA’s Governing Board. The Grand Canyon was cited as one example of an area that has banned helicopters altogether, but the Tahoe Daily Tribune could not confirm this.

According to the Grand Canyon Association, a nonprofit that supports educational programs in the National Park, helicopters may not fly into the Grand Canyon, but they can fly over it. A quick look on the Internet shows there are several companies selling helicopters tours there.

A new regional plan that is expected to be finalized in 2008 could produce new – or more refined – regulations regarding noise impacts on recreation and wildlife. The Pathway 2007 forum has a noise working group looking at the issue. The forum’s meetings are open to the public.

TRPA is not considering banning helicopters, Regan said, but could try to regulate where they can go once they are here, if they find a problem exists, especially with the eagles.

“We value and appreciate the public concerns we’ve heard,” she said. “We can’t arbitrarily set a new rule unless we go through a thorough investigation of the extent of the problem.

Bellotto and Mike Weber, a South Lake Tahoe City Councilman and TRPA board member, said that only the FAA has the authority to regulate the skies.

TRPA asserts its right to regulate Tahoe’s skies based on its federal mandate, but it knows whatever moves it makes will be more effective with support from the Federal Aviation Administration, which has more enforcement ability.

“If we want to delve into this issue, we need to work collaboratively with FAA and all of our partners here to come up with solutions,” Regan said. “This has not been an outcry until most recently.”

Emergency operations, like CALSTAR, a nonprofit helicopter ambulance service, are exempt from certain rules. As Bellotto was quick to note, the helicopter is the only aircraft that has saved more lives than it has taken.

As proof of its right to regulate Tahoe’s airspace, TRPA’s lawyers cite a 1987 opinion by a federal court.

The court concluded that “Congress necessarily created, for environmental reasons, a narrow geographical exception to the open-sky policy embodied, in part, by the Airline Deregulation Act …

“It would be unreasonable to conclude that Congress would ratify the creation of TRPA, a bi-state agency, to establish and maintain strict environmental standards, including noise, air pollution and transportation standards, and not to give TRPA the power to regulate the number and frequency of airline flights into the Tahoe Basin.”

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