Don't tell Vic Miller about the joys of urban living. Don't tell him -- because he won't be able to hear you.
Vic lives just off Florida Avenue, near The Washington Hilton Hotel, that hotbed of bustling traffic, perpetual meetings and endless tourists. But Vic says the noisiest part of being a Hilton neighbor is what's passing over his (and its) head. The air near the Hilton is full of helicopters -- and they aren't getting any quieter with age.
There are military copters. And police copters. And medical copters. And let's-take-a-tour-of-the-city copters. There seem to be more of them whenever a dignitary is visiting the hotel (which is almost every day). Worst of all, the copters always seem to swoop low near the hotel, thus jacking the neighborhood noise level up from a dull roar to a maddening cacophony.
Why so many of these flying machines? And what are owners and authorities doing to make the skies over Adams-Morgan quieter, safer or both?
Jan Allsman, a procedure specialist at the Washington National Airport tower, which controls helicopter traffic within a seven-mile radius of the airport, said the largest single kind of copter traffic in the Hilton area is military.
"I imagine it is mostly shuttling VIPs back and forth," Jan said. "But all traffic except police is usually restricted to the routes on the military chart." Those routes follow the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers to a large extent and are expressly designed to minimize noise.
One of the most frequent users of Hiltonian air space is the Washington Hospital Center. Its Critical Care Transport System ferries patients from outlying hospitals to the WHC, which is set up to treat trauma patients.
Sue Potaw, the trauma nurse coordinator at WHC, said its copters "have priority when we have a patient." That means the copter can fly the shortest distance between two points. Since the WHC is only about two miles east of the Hilton, much of the emergency copter traffic from the west passes directly over Vic Miller's neighborhood.
Sue insists, however, that WHC copters "follow FAA guidelines, and our pilots are top-flight people who are very safety conscious." She adds that the WHC copters are among "the quietest and safest on the market."
Police copters seem to be the burr in the saddle. Because they must often get within close eyeshot to be of any use in an arrest or a chase, they are allowed to fly at treetop level.
Nothing will dampen an elegant back-yard cocktail party faster than the engine noise from one of these. But as a police spokesman put it, "Which is worse? A brief buzz over your cocktail party or an armed robber who gets away?"
Is there any hope for Vic's eardrums in the future? Probably not much more than there is now.
Bob Barton, an aviation safety inspector for the FAA, says that the helicopter industry and the Helicopter Association International are both "extremely noise-conscious." However, almost every copter now flying in the area already meets FAA noise standards. And it's tough to make engines a whole lot quieter than they are right now, Bob adds.
So, Vic, if you're waiting for copter owners to spend money for noise abatement that they don't have to spend, you'll be waiting for a long time.