Does Helicopter Noise Bother Veterans More than Others?

Opponents of tourism helicopters--like the one pictured--in New York City claim the helicopter noise triggers veterans with PTSD, but those claims are difficult to verify (David Roza)

Opponents of tourism helicopters–like the one pictured–in New York City claim the helicopter noise triggers veterans with PTSD, but are those claims true? (David Roza)

Last year, more than 59,000 tourism helicopter flights took off from the Downtown Manhattan Heliport.  New York City residents have plenty to say about those flights; the noise distracts park-goers and disturbs veterans, the emissions from helicopters are bad for the environment, the minimal screening for passengers poses a security risk to the city.

On January 31st, those complaints drove the New York City Economic Development Corporation and the Helicopter Tourism & Jobs Council to make an agreement that will reduce the number of helicopter tourism flights over the city by 50 percent by January 2017. Fewer tourism flights will certainly mean less noise and less emissions. But one of the complaints made—about how veterans are negatively affected by the helicopter noise—is difficult to verify.

“There are many vets in New York City wrestling with mental health issues,” said Paul Rieckhoff, a former army infantry officer who served in Iraq. “And one of the worst things for a veteran to have to hear is a helicopter.” Rieckhoff lives in Battery Park, the neighborhood closest to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, where all of the helicopter tourism flights take off and land. “The number of helicopters I see on a regular weekend are more than the ones I saw in Baghdad,” he said.

When Rieckhoff—the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the country’s largest post-9/11 veteran’s group—spoke at an anti-helicopter rally on the City Council steps last July, he caught the ear of City Councilman Carlos Menchaca, who was paraphrased in a Gothamist article saying “the noise from overhead helicopters is of particular concern to the veterans of New York City, some of whom suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).” Rieckhoff’s complaint may sound compelling, but is it true?

“Everyone has a flight-or-fight response,” said Dr. Irina Komaravskaya, a psychologist and the director of New York University’s Steven & Alexandra Cohen Military Family Clinic, which provides free care for veterans and their families. “And in PTSD, people get stuck in that, like that sense of danger they keep experiencing never passed.”  But the physician, who has worked at the clinic since it opened three and a half years ago, added, “I cannot say that we find veterans who specifically react to helicopter noise.”

Komaravskaya also said that many urban sounds—such as cars sirens, construction, or even someone yelling on the street—can startle veterans who associate loud sudden noises with immediate danger. “Most people can tell themselves, ‘oh, that’s just construction,’” Komaravskaya said. “But with veterans who experience post traumatic stress, that process might be much harder.”  However, the doctor added, “Helicopter noise hasn’t come up specifically.”

There are 189,808 veterans living in New York City, according to the 2014 American Community Survey. However, that number does not include people still serving, and most veterans advocacy groups say that there are 250,000 veterans living in the city. As Komaravskaya said, it would make sense that helicopter noise, a standard sound of America’s wars, would bring veterans back to the stressful memories that make it hard to re-enter the civilian world.

But if there is an impact on them from helicopter noise, NYCityLens could not find any veterans who can speak to it. Neither Councilman Menchaca’s office nor Rieckhoff, who addressed the issue so publicly, have identified any specific veterans bothered by the noise. And none of the three leaders of three different veterans’ groups (including Rieckhoff’s) could recall any colleagues who suffer specifically from helicopter noise either.

In addition, Matt Howard, a former marine who served in Iraq and is the co-director of the advocacy group Iraq Veterans Against War, sent out an email written by this reporter to 15 veterans who are part of the New York City Chapter of IVAW, asking if anyone was directly affected by the helicopter noise. There was no response, and Howard said he did not know any veterans who were affected by the helicopter noise. “That’s not an issue,” he said about the noise, as far as he knew.

One veteran who said she was mildly affected by the helicopter noise was Kristen Rouse, a former Army captain and founder of the veterans’ advocacy group NYC Veterans Alliance. But not in the way you’d expect. Rouse explained that if someone was walking with her and they heard a helicopter overhead, “they would have to listen about helicopter stories from Afghanistan, where I spent nine months hitchhiking on helicopters,” she said. “Does it traumatize me? No, but it definitely gets my attention, and I assume the same is for other veterans.”

One former Army ranger, a Battery Park resident, barely blinked, however, as he walked his tactical-vest-sporting Siberian husky Kelly by the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, where tour helicopters were taking off and landing every five minutes. “These ones here are 50 percent quieter than the Black Hawks and C-47s I heard,” he said, not comfortable giving his name but adding that he left the army two and a half years ago. “When I heard them they were usually picking me up from a mission, so they don’t bother me.”

An 82nd Airborne division veteran who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2003 and 2009, who also wanted to remain anonymous, said that the helicopters “honestly don’t bother me in the slightest.” The vet carried a backpack with a pixelated camouflage pattern and sported a distinctive grey-green Army beanie. The former paratrooper was walking through Battery Park to the South Ferry on his way home to Staten Island. It’s a regular commute for him since he works at the Department of Sanitation and studies at Manhattan Community College, where he is part of a veterans’ group. “The guys I served with, even the ones that are uneasy, I can’t imagine these helicopters in this area bothering them,” he said. “A couple helicopters going by isn’t as bad as enemy fire, the car noises are more annoying than the helicopters!”

Chad Weaver, a pilot for the tour companies Zip Aviation and Manhattan Helicopters who flew army helicopters in Iraq, also dismisses the idea that helicopters disturb veterans.

“If anyone heard helicopters, that would be someone coming in to rescue them,” he said. “It just doesn’t make much sense to me that the sound of a helicopter would trigger a person suffering from PTSD.”

“If there are guys affected by the noise I hope the reduction helps,” said the 82nd Airborne vet.