The heli boom
The increase in traffic is not just on the roads. Irish airspace is filling up with helicopters, and regulations are thin on the ground.
In the past five years the number of helicopters registered with the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) has doubled, from 56 in 2000 to 113 by 31 December 2004. In 2004, 38 new helicopter owners registered their aircraft and there have been 16 new registrations so far this year. Ireland has more helicopters per capita than the United Kingdom. Most of the helicopters are privately owned, with only a small amount registered to the four commercial helicopter countries in Ireland.
There has also been a large increase in the number of helicopters being rented privately for concerts, races, weddings. At the Galway races this year there were up to 300 landings per day.
The regulations and laws in Ireland governing helicopter landings, and noise made from them, are very relaxed. There are no regulations set down by the Department of the Environment on noise pollution as a result of helicopters, despite the fact that helicopters are very noisy, intrusive and frequently land in built-up residential areas. The Department says it is a matter for the local authorities. With regard to gaining permission to land your helicopter, you only need it if you are building a helicopter pad or are landing in the same place regularly. You can land on anybody's land once so long as you have their permission. (In reality you can keep doing this until the local county council are notified.)
The IAA said they get some complaints about low-flying helicopters. If they have the registration of the aircraft they can follow it up, "but we have no statutory power when it comes to noise".
Although the use and registration of helicopters has boomed, there hasn't been a requisite rise in planning applications for helicopter pads. Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said there had been "no notable increase", and Dublin City Council felt they hadn't seen an increase either. Dún Laoghaire said there had been two complaints about the use of helicopters – in Booterstown (the property developer MacNamara) and at a GAA club. The county council started enforcement action against them and the cases are before An Bord Pleanála.
In the past few years helicopters have become smaller and therefore cheaper, making them more affordable, this is in part why there has been a large rise in ownership. The other reason is Ireland's new wealth: a majority of the helicopters are owned by individuals, mainly property developers. A spokesperson at Eirecopter, one of the commercial helicopter businesses, said the rise in helicopter use has been "fuelled by the building boom."
The property developer Bernard MacNamara found himself at the centre of an ecological row this year when he landed his helicopter on land beside a bird sanctuary on Booterstown marsh, south Dublin. He was forced to remove the pad after protests from local residents and conservationists. Other high-profile helicopter owners are Ben Dunne, Larry Goodman, Eddie Irvine, Jim Mansfield of the Citywest development.
Helicopters range in cost from €90,000 for a second-hand model to €2.5 million for the latest models. There is a waiting list here to buy one popular model, the Bell 407, which costs over €1 million second hand. On top of the original cost there is the maintenance, insurance and piloting. The average helicopter requires maintenance after every 50 hours of flying, with a top-to-bottom check costing between €1,000 and €2,000. Most people hire pilots but there has also been an increase in people learning to fly helicopters. One company, Eirecopter, which operates at Weston in Leixlip, has 125 active students, each of whom will pay up to €20,000 to get their full private pilot's licence (PPL).
Renting helicopters is also very popular, costing about €540 an hour. A return trip to Galway would take two hours and 20 minutes of flying and about €1,200 – so in a helicopter of four, that costs €300 per person.
Other contributors to the increased activity in the skies, especially at night time, is the use of Garda patrol helicopters. Weather reports for radio stations contribute to activity during morning and evening rush hour.
Since 1999, the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) has conducted 19 investigations into helicopter crashes, half of these since 2002. Currently there are another two to three under investigation.
This rise in helicopters in Ireland will also make the skies more dangerous and the likelihood of crashes greater. Although helicopters as an aircraft are no more dangerous than airplanes, the places they land and take off make them far more likely to crash. Weather is also a factor. If conditions are bad, an airplane is forced to land as they have to travel at a certain speed. Helicopters have the ability to travel very slowly, in comparison, and so can keep going in bad weather conditions. "It's inevitable that if we have more helicopters in the air there will be more accidents," said Jurgen White of the AAIU.