News & Politics

The Pentagon Might Finally Do Something About Helicopter Noise Around DC

Allowing helicopters to fly at higher altitudes could be a "game changer," says local Congressman.

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In a new report on a longstanding local complaint, the Department of Defense says it will study the possibility of allowing military helicopters to fly at higher altitudes as part of an effort to reduce helicopter noise in the Washington region.  

The report, released last week, was completed as a result of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which included an amendment requiring the Secretary of Defense to recommend ways to lesson the impact of helicopter noise in the area. 

All told, the Army, Marine Corps, and the Air Force reported nearly 22,000 helicopter operations in the Washington region in 2020, according to the report. And on account of the large number of commercial passenger jets that also travel in and out of the DC area, the Federal Aviation Administration requires helicopters to fly at lower elevations in the region’s airspace. These altitude limits can be quite low; over the Potomac River, for example, helicopters can fly no higher than 200 feet above sea level. 

Don Beyer, a Democratic Congressman from Virginia, called the Department of Defense’s pledge to examine the possibility of increasing these altitude limits for helicopters “a real game changer.”

However, the Department of Defense also noted that allowing helicopters to fly at higher elevations could trigger negative consequences. As the department  wrote in its report, “existing minimum and maximum altitudes for helicopters are set to maintain safe separation for helicopters between commercial passenger airplanes and ground structures.” As such, the report continued, “an increase in maximum or minimum altitude could reduce safety for all aircraft operating in this airspace.”

In addition to studying the altitude issue, the Department of Defense also pledged to continue analyzing helicopter noise complaints in the region, obtain flight track data to check for compliance with local aviation procedures, and work to ensure that military helicopters are being operated in accordance with “fly neighborly” procedures.

“The recommendations in this report reflect priorities my constituents have sought for years to reduce helicopter noise in Northern Virginia, and would make a real difference across the region,” Beyer said in a statement. “I thank the Department of Defense for undertaking and releasing this report, and urge the rapid implementation of these recommendations.”

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Senior Writer

Luke Mullins is a senior writer at Washingtonian magazine focusing on the people and institutions that control the city’s levers of power. He has written about the Koch Brothers’ attempt to take over The Cato Institute, David Gregory’s ouster as moderator of NBC’s Meet the Press, the collapse of Washington’s Metro system, and the conflict that split apart the founders of Politico.