Visitors to Arlington National Cemetery who were expecting peace and quiet during their visit to this sacred place are getting an unpleasant surprise these days -- the intrusive racket of low-flying helicopters.

Although the U.S. Army controls vehicular traffic through the cemetery, it has no control over helicopters. That control is vested in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Nor does Arlington County have any say over operation of air traffic out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The Helicopter Route Chart for Baltimore-Washington dated March 7, 1991, however, stipulates: "All aircraft arriving/departing or transiting the South Arlington area shall not overfly Arlington National Cemetery, Aurora Hills, Virginia Highlands, Fairlington, Shirlington, Claremont or apartment buildings." During negotiations with the FAA, it was agreed that the proscription would not apply in case of emergency, such as a plane crash or a wreck on I-95 in which helicopters would be needed by rescue personnel or police in performance of their normal duties.

But now, despite the 1991 agreement, the FAA apparently has decided to authorize the flight of sightseeing helicopters over the prohibited areas. Representatives from the National Air Traffic Control Center have said that they are permitting sightseeing helicopters to overfly the proscribed areas, including Arlington National Cemetery. Representatives of Capitol Helicopters Inc. also say that they have no limitation on their flights over the area, including the cemetery.

Because of restrictions on flights over the White House or Capitol Hill to the east of Reagan National, most planes that are "waved off," or forced to delay landing because of weather, or air traffic, must fly to the west -- into the same area as the sightseeing helicopters. This conflict in air space could have dire consequences not only for those in the airplane or helicopter but for those under their flight paths.

Rep. Jim Moran recently wrote to the FAA about this potentially dangerous situation. The FAA reply, dated June 7, was unresponsive about the authorization of sightseeing helicopters but did include the information that 258 wave-offs occurred at Reagan National between Sept. 1, 1998, and March 5 of this year. On some days wave-offs occurred as many as eight times. Data on the busiest period at the airport, when the most wave-offs are likely to occur, were not included in the information provided.

Like its decision to expand the number of previously agreed-upon flights at National, this unilateral decision by the FAA has serious implications for the public safety. It would be in the interest of the FFA, the flying public and those who seek to pay their respects at Arlington National Cemetery to comply with the Helicopter Route Chart and prohibit sightseeing helicopter flights out of Reagan National.

-- Denis T. O'Sullivan

lives in the flight path of sightseeing helicopters flying out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.