Answer Man Wonders Where The Whirlybirds Have Gone

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By John Kelly
Sunday, March 19, 2006

In Fairfax County, on the north side of Lee Highway between Nutley Street and Prosperity Avenue, there is a six-story, plain brown office building. On the roof is a wind sock. Sure enough, a Google search identifies this as a helipad operated by an outfit called Roubin and Janiero. I don't mean to pry into this company's business, but: Why do they have a helipad? Does it ever get used? And can anyone with a sufficiently tall building operate a helipad on top of it?

Christopher Bright, Oakton

Sometimes when he sits in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Answer Man dreams of flight.

Wouldn't it be wonderful to simply leave the wretched Earth behind? To watch the traffic and the red-faced drivers get smaller and smaller until they are as puny and insignificant as insects?

With a helicopter, you can. Of course, helicopters are noisy and heavy, which is why there are some rules about where they may roost. The Sept. 11 attacks have also put a crimp in the romance of helicopters, at least in the Washington area.

You can find registered heliports by going to http://www.rotor.com , the Web site of the Helicopter Association International. There are 18 in the District, 74 in Maryland and 144 in Virginia. The majority are at hospitals, but some are on office buildings, including the one at 8550 Lee Hwy.

Washington's first rooftop helipad opened in 1965, atop the FAA building on Independence Avenue SW. Najeeb Halaby , head of the FAA, took reporters on an inaugural test flight honoring what he called "a moment of pride and progress." (He had one complaint about his jaunt: "There's not much sunbathing, damn it.")

There's an old helipad on top of The Washington Post building. Probably the last time it was used was in 1975, when striking press operators surrounded The Post after destroying the paper's presses. Owners of other newspapers offered to print the paper, if the printing plates could somehow be delivered. The solution was to use the building's helipad.

In his autobiography, "A Good Life," Ben Bradlee recounted the dramatic scene: "The roof of the 15th Street building began to look like a MASH unit in Vietnam, with choppers coming in and out all day and half the night. Angry picketers on the sidewalks below shook their fists and shouted in vain."

The great thing about helicopters is that they can land just about anywhere, but if you want an official heliport, you have to get permission from the FAA and abide by local zoning laws. The roof of your building may also need special reinforcement.

The Roubin and Janiero Building went up in 1982 and included a helipad because the owner wanted one for his personal use.

"It's really not used anymore," said Julia Blackwell , property manager for Roubin Associates. "It's been years."

It would be difficult to use in any case, since it falls within a circle 15 miles from the center of Washington. Since Sept. 11, this has been restricted airspace. Aircraft may not fly there without Transportation Security Administration approval. The inner seven miles are off limits to everyone but police, military and EMS choppers and pilots with hard-to-get waivers.

Flying in Washington "used to be great," said John Guazzo , general manager of chopper charter group HeloAir. "We used to fly over the river, over the Tidal Basin. We used the heliport on South Capitol Street. And Reagan National is so close to the city it serves. So, it was great, but now it's not."

That our fascination with helicopters, at least as handy commuter vehicles, has waned is evident in the high-rise at 8060 13th St. in Silver Spring. When it opened in 1965, it was called the Gramax Heliport Building, a wonderful name that sounds like the workplace of a James Bond villain.

The Gramax developer said he was hoping it would be a hub for regular service to National, Dulles and Friendship -- what we call BWI -- airports. Answer Man doubts that ever happened. What is clear is that after the building underwent an extensive renovation and opened as an apartment building, it had a new name: Gramax Towers.

Julia Feldmeier helped research this column. Send your questions toanswerman@washpost.com, or write John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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