Chip Moeser hiked fifteen miles from Lake Placid in early July to spend the night at Duck Hole deep in the High Peaks Wilderness. He was looking for quiet, but in the late afternoon, a helicopter started descending from overhead.
“It was coming in like it was going to land,” Moeser said, adding that it got as close as ten feet to the ground before taking off.
At first, he had assumed it was a state helicopter. In fact, it was owned by Go Aviation, which this summer started flying helicopter tours out of Lake Placid and Lake Clear.
“It’s pretty upsetting,” Moeser told the Adirondack Explorer. “It’s a lot of work to hike to places like that, and you do it to get away from things like that.”
When he returned from his trip, he posted a photo of the helicopter on the Aspiring Adirondack 46ers Facebook page. “My intent wasn’t to start any beef. I was just curious what the rules were,” he said.
But the post set off a torrent of outrage that a helicopter would be flying so low over the Wilderness Area. It also drew the attention of Go Aviation employees, who defended the company.
Brendan Carberry, Go Aviation’s vice president of operations, told the Explorer that the pilot saw a bright light that he thought might be a signal mirror and flew low for a closer look in case there was a person in need of help.
“We’re actually required to make our best effort to check that stuff out,” he said. “That’s the only time we popped down close to any Wilderness Areas.”
But that’s not how it appeared to Moeser, who took a photo with his cell phone. He said he was the only person in the area. “It looked like they saw me and took off,” he said.
Carberry said the pilot had seen another group at Duck Hole, not just Moeser, and flew low to make sure they were all right. He rebutted Moeser’s implication that the pilot didn’t want to be seen.
“If he was looking to get away from being photographed, I don’t think he would have flown toward the guy taking the pictures,” Carberry said. “There is nothing to hide. The tail numbers are visible. If someone takes a picture and reports it, that’s totally fine. I understand people’s concern.”
Airspace over the Adirondack Park is managed by the Federal Aviation Administration, but there are no minimum height requirements for planes or helicopters when flying over wilderness areas. However, the FAA’s recommended minimum height for planes and helicopters flying over “noise-sensitive areas” — such as parks and wilderness areas — is two thousand feet. The guideline is voluntary.
Carberry said Go Aviation’s helicopter pilots normally do fly above two thousand feet when over the backcountry in the Adirondack Park, but descriptions of tours on the company’s website suggest otherwise.
For example, here’s the description of a thirty-mile tour called the Ridge Rider: “Fly low over the treetops of the Mackenzie Mountain Wilderness Area where views stretch from 100 feet to 80 miles in the blink of an eye and then head back to the airport following the Whiteface Veteran’s Memorial Highways.”
Another tour, the Adirondack Heli-Safari, aims to give passengers a chance to see moose, bear, deer, and other wildlife in their natural habitat — “flying low and slow over the Raquette River while keeping an eye out for antlers amongst the foliage.”
And the company says copters on its Lake Placid/High Peaks tour will fly “up to a height of 1000 feet.”
Asked about these descriptions, Carberry said low is a subjective term. “When people think of flying, they think of being in a big airliner thirty thousand feet off the ground. Flying 1,500 to two thousand feet off the ground feels quite low, especially if we go over toward Whiteface, and you’re two thousand feet and the top of the mountain is still level with you.” He clarified that the helicopter will be as low as 1,500 feet only when flying over a hill.
As of early August, Go Aviation, operating as Adirondack Heli Tours, had flown about twenty-five to thirty times in the Adirondack Park, Carberry said.
Adirondack Council spokesman John Sheehan said the council received complaints in June about low flights over the McKenzie Mountain Wilderness, though he doesn’t know if they were Go Aviation helicopters. He hasn’t heard any complaints since. “The idea that someone might operate at treetop level is discouraging,” Sheehan said.
Neil Woodworth, executive director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, said a company video shared on social media appears to have been taken close to the treetops. “Obviously that kind of flying would be very, very disturbing in an area that is supposed to be motorless and motor-free,” he said.
Carberry said the video was shot from a drone, not a helicopter, which he described as a marketing mistake. “Naively, we didn’t think about marketing what could potentially be a huge annoyance, but we were just kind of excited about our new venture,” he said.
He said the helicopters often follow routes that have been used for years by private pilots in small planes and by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. “We’re going places that people are already flying to begin with,” he said.
Carberry chalked up a lot of the negative reaction to the way the tours have been marketed. “People didn’t already realize we’d already been there,” he said. “There’s already lots of air traffic above the Park that goes unnoticed. The marketing made it seem as if the business was going to be kind of a new kind of nuisance or intrusion, and that certainly wasn’t our intention. We’re just excited about flying.”
Both Woodworth and Sheehan said they are not out to drive Adirondack Heli Tours out of business. Rather, they are concerned that low-level flights could disturb hikers and wildlife.
“It’s a great way to see the Adirondacks in places where it won’t disturb wildlife, and it can be a very effective scientific research tool for getting a good sense of tree cover, forest practices, whether logging is being carried out in a sensitive manner, and in cases of insect infestation when you’re trying to judge what’s happening,” Sheehan said. “There are lots of very beneficial possibilities for having that service in Lake Placid. The one thing we were concerned about is the possible disturbance over wilderness.”
Woodworth, like others interviewed, said he would not object to Wilderness Area flights that are above two thousand feet. He added, however, that “the more they fly outside our Wilderness Areas the better. We would hope that they would go along with the spirit of the State Land Master Plan and not disturb Wilderness Areas.”
Environmentalists are less concerned with flights over Wild Forest Areas, where some motorized use is permitted, though even these areas may have remote places where helicopter noise could be a disturbance.
“In Wild Forest it may be appropriate to fly in some places at lower heights,” Sheehan said. “There are some sensitive areas of Wild Forest that pilots ought to familiarize themselves with and maybe avoid them as much as they can, but a lot of this can be resolved with some basic education and understanding of the resource their customers want to see.”
Go Aviation also operates tours for special events, such as bass-fishing tournaments on Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. However, helicopter tours are a small part of its business. It also runs an aircraft-maintenance business at a hangar at the Lake Clear airport.
The company intended to run tours out of the Lake Placid airport, but suspended those after a dispute with the town of North Elba. Currently, it is operating only out of Lake Clear when doing Adirondack-based tours. North Elba Supervisor Roby Politi said Go Aviation set up a motor-home office at the Lake Placid airport without permission and was told to leave.
Carberry described the conflict with the town as a misunderstanding. He said pilots have the right to pick up and drop off passengers at the airport, and the company hopes to resume flights out of Lake Placid when they come to agreement with town officials.
Steve Short, the manager of the Lake Placid airport, said local residents had complained about the noise from the helicopters. The operation also was criticized in letters to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
“Helicopters are kind of a fun thing and they are kind of useful for some things, but I’m not sure what their place is in a place like the Adirondacks where a lot of people don’t like to be disturbed too much when they are out in the wilderness,” Short said.
Short leases the airport from the town and runs his own sightseeing business there, Adirondack Scenic Flights, which offers tours in small planes.
Sheehan said he hasn’t heard any complaints about sightseeing planes. “Airplanes tend to like to stay up higher than that if they can because they think it’s safer,” Sheehan said.
Carberry said Go Aviation has received no complaints running its tours out of Lake Clear, and said helicopters also like to stay up high when flying in the backcountry for safety. He encouraged people with concerns to reach out to the company. “Anytime someone reaches out to us with noise complaints, we certainly try to address it,” Carberry said.
Photos from above: A Go Aviation helicopter flies low over Duck Hole in the High Peaks Wilderness, courtesy Chip Moeser; and Go Aviation helicopter, courtesy Brendan Carberry.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.