That special Country Club Plaza ambience: Diners and shoppers strolling amid faux Spanish architecture, lit special for the holidays, teeming with a mix of tourists and locals year-round.
And the thump-thump-thump of helicopters overhead.
Kansas City’s toniest district looks so picturesque from above that aerial tours of the Plaza now make up a regular part of its weekend soundscape.
“Sometimes, it feels like they’re circling up there nonstop,” said Sydney Cooley, who lives near 48th and Holly streets on the southwest edge of the Plaza. “When you’ve got your windows open, you can’t hear anything over it.”
She’s among a handful of people who’ve complained to City Hall and elsewhere, saying helicopters buzz too often and too low over their neighborhood.
There may be little that local officials can do about it.
Rules of the skies come from the Federal Aviation Administration, which essentially lets helicopters buzz around as they please as long as they’re operated safely.
Operators of the tour services, meanwhile, say they aim to be good neighbors. Two of the three tour companies said they’ve recently begun flying about 700 feet above street level, 200 feet higher than before, to lessen the noise that reaches the ground. The third tour company, Timberview Helicopters, did not return phone calls.
“We’re not here to upset anybody,” said Tim Brummit, the pilot and general manager of River’s Edge Aviation. “We just figured we’d try to solve the situation ourselves” by flying higher.
The number of complaints is small. Kansas City’s 311 service got three complaints in February. By comparison, it can field 45 calls a week about potholes. Some City Council members have received a few complaints.
The flights also have triggered a string of complaints on the Unofficial Old Hyde Park Neighborhood Watch page on Facebook. At least one gripe has been filed with the FAA.
That federal agency does impose strict requirements on how low a fixed-wing aircraft can fly. Small planes must remain at least 1,000 feet higher than “the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet” over congested areas such as the Plaza.
Yet helicopters are governed by far looser rules. When choppers fly “without hazard to persons or property on the surface,” FAA rules state, they can go lower than planes as long as they comply “with any routes or altitudes specifically prescribed for helicopters by the FAA.”
Queried about any particular regulations that might limit how choppers can fly over the Plaza, an FAA spokeswoman referred to the standard rules.
Likewise, the city has no rules that apply.
“I am unaware … of any jurisdiction that the city has over aircraft,” Kansas City Aviation Department spokesman Joe McBride said in an email.
He said city aviation officials have passed along noise complaints to the helicopter tour companies. In response, McBride said, those operators say they “will endeavor to increase altitudes and, when possible, lessen the time flown over residential areas surrounding the Country Club Plaza.”
Alec Kelley, an assistant to City Council member Jolie Justus, whose district includes the Plaza, said the issue is being studied but there are no proposals in the works to regulate the flights “unless it gets real bad and they start violating people’s well-being.”
When Cooley complained to City Hall, she was told that the city’s noise ordinance does not apply to aircraft but that officials from the Kansas City Aviation Department would be meeting with the tour operators.
“Basically, helicopters can be as loud as possible and fly as low as possible, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it,” Cooley said. “It’s frustrating.”
One complaint filed through the city’s 311 service said “most of us in West Plaza tried to be good sports about the loud helicopter tours over the holidays. The problem is that that noise continues, mainly on weekends, with loud, low flying over our neighborhood (one as I write this right now at noon).”
Stephanie Henry has lived near 49th and Jarboe streets, at the southwest edge of the Plaza, for more than a decade. The sound of helicopters, she said, became an annoyance in the last year. When she’s indoors, she can hear the choppers even when her doors and windows are closed, but the sound is particularly annoying when she’s entertaining friends on her deck.
“People stop what they’re saying and look up,” she said. “From our backyard, we don’t hear the car traffic. We do hear the helicopters.”
All three tour operators in Kansas City fly the Robinson R44 four-seater helicopter — room for a pilot and three passengers.
The Helicopter Association International suggests that pilots of the R44 “improve the quality of our environment and … dissuade the public from enacting overly restrictive ordinances against helicopters … (by producing) the lowest possible noise irritation to the general public while flying.”
It recommends that pilots “avoid flying over outdoor concerts, ball games, or other assemblies of people. When this cannot be avoided, fly as high as practicable, preferably over 2,000” feet above ground level.
An examination of an Uber-like service using helicopters in Greenwire, an online publication covering energy and environment issues, found the noise level of an R44 at 500 feet above ground level was comparable to the sound of a medium-sized truck moving through a neighborhood between 35 and 55 mph and heard from 50 feet away.
Johnny Rowlands, probably best known for his work chasing storms and trailing police pursuits for KMBC, runs KC Copters. It flies the most tours over Kansas City — a quickie look at the skyline, a longer ride over the Plaza, one over the Truman Sports Complex and a tour that covers it all. The rides cost from $200 to $300. River’s Edge offers tours ranging from 10 to 45 minutes for $130 to $495. Timberview tours run from $50 to $200.
The flights are particularly popular during the Christmas season when the Plaza lights glow, and for couples on and around Valentine’s Day.
The lower he can fly, Rowlands said, the better the tour.
“We’re in the business of making our customers happy. That involves giving them a good view of the Plaza,” he said. “Obviously, that doesn’t involve getting so low that you’re counting the Christmas bulbs. … But we think we’ve struck a happy medium where it’s not totally obnoxious on the ground.”
Ultimately, Rowlands and Brummit say the FAA requires them to fly safely, not necessarily high.
“We know helicopters create noise. We’ve very aware of that,” Rowlands said. “It would be unreasonable to not fly tours anymore. … Whatever we can do to make it as palatable as possible is our duty within reason. People operate businesses all the time that are an annoyance to other people. You just try to work out a compromise.”