DESTIN — The two tourist helicopter companies operating from Destin are limiting themselves to eastward routes along the Gulf of Mexico coastline, avoiding routes they had flown along and across the western end of Destin and the Gulf Islands National Seashore near and on neighboring Okaloosa Island.
Timberview Helicopter/Destin Helicopters, which operates from Destin Executive Airport, and Beach Helicopters, which operates from a landing pad just off U.S. Highway 98 a short distance west of Destin Commons, have in recent days not been flying routes that had taken tourists westward among the condominiums lining Gulf Shore Drive, across Destin Harbor, over the wildly popular Crab Island in the East Pass, and deeper into the Gulf Islands National Seashore. Crab Island is within the Seashore.
It wasn't clear Tuesday why the two helicopter tour operators had apparently abandoned their westward routes. Approached Monday evening, a man and a woman sitting outside the Beach Helicopters office who identified themselves as the business owners, but did not provide their names, declined to answer questions about their current tour routing.
"We're not interested in commenting on that," the woman said.
A telephone call to Timberview Helicopter/Destin Helicopters was not immediately returned.
But according to John Greene, air traffic manager at Destin Executive Airport, both companies now are flying only eastward routes, ranging from a few miles up to 30 miles. Those routes take the helicopters into neighboring Walton County.
The Federal Aviation Administration, the only government agency that can enforce airspace regulations, has previously been involved in discussions with local elected officials, government staff members, citizens and helicopter tour operators, but it was not clear Tuesday whether the agency had played a role in the helicopter tour companies curtailing their routes.
A call to the FAA's Flight Standards District Office in Birmingham, Alabama, which covers the Destin area, was not immediately returned Tuesday. But in mid-June, Pat Bruce of the Birmingham FSDO said the FAA was investigating complaints about the local helicopter tour operators. Those comments came after a June 12 meeting of the Okaloosa County Aviation Board, an appointed body that advises the county government on operations at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, Destin Executive Airport and Bob Sikes Airport.
That meeting included representatives of the FAA, the tour operators, local officials and the National Park Service, which oversees the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The National Park Air Tour Management Act, a 2000 federal law, governs flights over national parks, but only the FAA, not the NPS, has control over the nation's airspace.
Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage said Monday that some months ago, the county and the tour operators entered into a letter of agreement regarding helicopter routing, which included westward routes in and around Destin. But, Stage said, the tour operators have not adhered to the agreed-upon routes, and although the county recently rescinded some problematic westward routes, the county has no power to enforce where the helicopters fly, because of the FAA's primary role in controlling the nation's airspace.
Stage could not say Monday why the tour operators apparently have opted to fly only the eastward routes from Destin. He did say, though, that county officials are drafting a letter to the FAA regarding the tour operators. He would not comment on the specifics of the letter, which will be reviewed by the Okaloosa County Commission at an upcoming meeting before any decisions are made on sending it to the FAA.
In the meantime, Stage said, he is glad that for whatever reason, the helicopters are not flying westward, where they had been known to circle condominium buildings, fly across the center of the harbor, and buzz the people and boats crowding Crab Island.
"I'm thrilled," Stage said, adding that he's certain that the public also is relieved. Over the years, Stage said, county officials have fielded hundreds of complaints about tour helicopter operations.
In the end, Stage said, what county officials want is for the tour helicopter operators to adhere to FAA and National Park Air Tour Management Act regulations as a means of avoiding tragic tour helicopter accidents like those that have occurred elsewhere across the country in recent days.
On April 29, for example, a tour helicopter crashed in suburban Honolulu, Hawaii, killing all three people on board. Just days later, on May 4, a tour helicopter crashed into the Chesapeake Bay near Kent Island, Maryland, killing two people. One month later, on June 3, a tour helicopter crashed in Franklin County, Arkansas, killing three people and injuring another, and on June 17, a tour helicopter made an emergency landing in the water off Key West, slightly injuring the pilot and two passengers.
"We are not going to have something happen like (what) has happened five or six times in the last few months," Stage said.