La Jolla residents noticing more night helicopter flights

By Dave Schwab

Staff Writer

Coastal residents in La Jolla are contending with an increasingly vexing problem: low-flying helicopters at night.

“There’s always been aircraft and helicopters that go along the coast at night, but in the last six months it has increased to the point where we started putting a notepad next to the bed and taking notes when helicopters would fly over,” said Ed Quinn, who lives on Camino De La Costa.

Quinn’s helicopter “log” for nine days July listed more than 30 flyovers, with multiple flights on several days staggered between 8:30 p.m. and 6:24 a.m.

Conceding that nighttime flights may be a necessity on occasion - and citing a June 1 WindanSea Beach drug bust where smugglers offloading marijuana from a boat were caught as an example - Quinn noted their frequency and intensity is becoming hard to bare.

“It’s not only that they fly close to the shore but over houses at a very low level at 9, 11 (p.m.), 3:30 a.m. and wake you out of a sound sleep,” he said. “The whole house would shake because they’d be so low.”

A number of private and public helicopters are operated by all levels of government - local, state and federal - at all hours of the day and night in San Diego: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection (CPB), San Diego Fire-Rescue and the San Diego Police Department.

Jackie Dizdul, a spokeswoman for the customs agency, said because of operational security, that she could not provide detailed information about specific missions flown by air interdiction agents, such as specific times and locations of patrols or other missions.

“CBP conducts many missions utilizing various helicopters and other aircraft,” she said. “Of these, an extremely important mission locally is securing the San Diego coastline against any maritime threat that may present itself, to include not only illegal narcotic and alien smuggling activity, but any threat, up to and including terrorists or terrorist weapons.”

Even so, Quinn said a “shocking pattern” is developing that is “continuing and escalating” with early morning flights that “shocked us and other neighbors.”

“There’s got to be some of compromise that can be made,” Quinn said.

A spokesman for Assemblywoman Susan Davis, D-San Diego, said they have received La Jollans’ complaints of low-flying helicopters at night and are investigating.

A Coast Guard spokeswoman, Petty Officer Allyson Conroy, acknowledged that one flight Quinn recorded on July 14 could have been a crew “conducting a search pattern for a mayday call” but that the times didn’t coincide specifically with what he reported.

She reviewed the rest of his log and said no others matched.

She added in an e-mail that “when the flight crews are looking for something/one in the water, they have to fly low enough to be able to see - it is not uncommon for them to fly as low as 300 feet. If they are searching for something/one close to the surf/shoreline, they will sometimes fly directly over the beach.”

The Coast Guard conducts normal flight patrols day and night for search-and-rescue and law enforcement missions, although there is no pattern to the Coast Guard’s flight schedule.

“It is dependent on working with our harbor partners, including Customs and Border Protection,” she said.

Conroy added training is not usually conducted after 10 p.m.

Though unable to give specifics, CBP’s Dizdul noted that, of the recent early-morning flyovers reported in the La Jolla area, that “it is highly likely that many, if not all, of the instances involved assets belonging to other law enforcement, military, or other entities.”

Bill Dalby with Montgomery Field Airport Operations said as a general rule that all aircraft must be at least 1,000 feet above the ground when flying above populated areas. He noted helicopters are required to observe Visual Flight Rules, meaning they must “remain clear of clouds.”

Dalby added private helicopters can, but very seldom do, fly at night along the coast.

“Law enforcement helicopters that have night vision and a mission that requires them to fly low are the ones doing a lot of patrolling up and down the coastline at night,” he said.

Dalby added helicopters flying north to south along the coast have to fly below 1,800 feet or above 3,200 feet to be clear of a flight corridor dedicated to Miramar military air space.

A spokesman for MCAS Miramar did not return calls for comment.