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Renton grads' week of helicopter flights draws noise complaints

About 1,000 graduating seniors from Renton and surrounding high schools got a late-night helicopter ride over Renton, part of their graduation-night celebration.

The idea was to keep them busy – and safe – on what can become a dangerous night of unsupervised partying.

“We look at potentially keeping 1,000 DUIs from happening,” said Michael O’Leary, owner of AirO Inc., which offered the four-minute flights through the grad-night packages typically organized by parents of the seniors.

But the noise from those dozens of helicopter flights over six nights has generated enough complaints from those trying to sleep that O’Leary will meet with Mayor Denis Law about the future of the flights.

“There is no sleeping. It shakes the house,” said downtown resident Norman Petersen, who lives in a two-story house on Williams Avenue.

“It was crazy,” he said of the flyovers he said lasted from 2:30 a.m. to 4 a.m.

Already, parents at one Renton high school – Lindbergh – have inquired about booking the flights next year, he said.

This year, the three Renton high schools – Hazen, Renton and Lindbergh – graduated on June 13.

There are no regulations preventing the helicopters from flying at any hour of the day or night. O’Leary said he notified the FAA about the flights, as well as the City of Renton through the airport management.

Law said he’s having City Attorney Larry Warren look into what the city can do about the flights. Right now, the company has “carte blanche” to fly at any time and “we can’t do anything about it,” Law said.

“I am hoping to talk him (O’Leary) into using a little common sense,” Law said.

Law said he is concerned about the noise impacts on downtown residents and doesn’t want to exacerbate noise issues that have already been raised about the city-owned airport. The airport’s page on the city’s Website has a spot to make noise complaints online.

“It’s total disregard for other people,” Law said of the early morning flights. “There is no question it had a significant impact on a lot of people.”

O’Leary was apologetic about the impact on residents.

He said the flights received only a couple complaints last year, the first year they were offered. This year, the company received about a dozen complaints from the same person, he said, among others. As a result of complaints, he changed the flight pattern away from that home.

He’s trying to figure out now why there were so many complaints. He did admit that one night the flights lasted for about three hours, rather than the more typical one hour from 2:30 a.m. to 3:30 a.m. because of the need to get so many students in the air.

Last year, he used one helicopter for the flights; but this year he used two to accommodate the increased demand.

The price for the ride was $25 to $35 per person, he said.

O’Leary said his company has worked “very hard” to keep the noise impact down. He was willing to deal with any complaints because he felt he was doing a service to the seniors, their parents and the community, he said.

“I am hoping the majority of the citizens understand it was for a good cause,” he said.

Typically, O’Leary said he turns down such late-night or early morning flights. But he personally made the decision to offer them if it meant keeping the seniors in a safe place, he said.

Maybe next year they can offer shorter flights or maybe offer them earlier, he said.

“We will figure out if there is a compromise,” he said.

Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050, or at dean.radford@rentonreporter.com.

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