For those with a spare $550 or so, helicopters offered a quick and painless way to get to and from last year’s inaugural Formula One race, an alternative to what many thought would be grinding road traffic.
Those traffic fears, for a lot of reasons, turned out to be overblown. With the U.S. Grand Prix’s second running less than two weeks away, race officials expect that the skies around Circuit of the Americas will see far fewer aircraft this year.
“As happens at big events, the first year is huge” for helicopter use, said Steve Henry, owner of Henry Aviation, who ran helicopter operations at the track in 2012 and will do so again this year. “It’ll fall off 40 percent or something close to that, which will be a lot less crazy than last year.”
Henry said between 800 and 1,000 people took helicopters to and from the track last year, using about 40 helicopters that brought passengers from as close as Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, just four miles from the track, and as far away as California. Henry expects 20 to 25 helicopters and no more than 600 passengers this year.
Two of those helicopters will be based at a temporary helipad atop a parking garage in Barton Oaks Plaza near MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1) and Bee Cave Road. Fins Up Aviation, which had hoped to run helicopters from that spot last year but backed away after neighbors objected, in September was granted a city of Austin permit for up to four round trips an hour, from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., during the Nov. 15-17 race weekend.
John Lawson, owner of Fins Up, said he expects nowhere near that many trips to occur.
“I’m estimating about 12 takeoffs each morning and 12 landings in the afternoon” on Nov. 17, race day, said Lawson, who is teaming up with Alamo Helicopters of San Antonio to run the operation. Lawson said that because of lighter demand on the practice and qualifying days, his helipad might see only half that many takeoffs on Nov. 15 and about 70 percent on Nov. 16.
The Austin permit, approved under a new process set up by the City Council in June, drew about a dozen negative comments, primarily from Barton Hills residents concerned about the noise and the possibility of flights at low altitude over their homes.
“Such air traffic is an invasion of my home,” Kathleen Capobianco said in a July 18 emailed comment to the city. “Actually, how dare you even consider this outrageous request so close to a residential area?”
Fins Up agreed to route the helicopters south or north over MoPac (depending on wind direction), then east over Ben White Boulevard or Lady Bird Lake to get to the track. The closest the helicopters will get to a residence, about 800 feet, will be at the landing site, Lawson said, and they will not pass above houses there. The aircraft will ascend and descend on steep paths, he said, lessening the duration and volume of noise at ground level.
Fins Up gave the city’s Aviation Department, whose director has final say over helipad permits, emails from officials with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department and from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department saying that they foresee no negative effects on wildlife in the nearby Barton Creek greenbelt from the helicopter traffic. And two real estate companies that own or manage Barton Oaks Plaza buildings near the landing site wrote the city saying they were aware of the helicopter operations and expressing no objections.
The MoPac landing site, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and the track property will be the only helicopter facilities within Austin this year. Last year there were flights from the Embassy Suites at South Congress Avenue and Barton Springs Road, but that will not be a permitted site this year. Lawson said helicopters looking to land there last year did a lot of circling, generating complaints.
“That created a whole lot of anger,” Lawson said. “There will be no circling” at the MoPac location.
McCrae Aviation Services Inc. will be running helicopters from Barton Creek Resort & Spa southwest of Austin, where there is a permanently permitted helipad on a golf course driving range. Helicopters used that site during last year’s race as well. Mark Richard, McCrae’s owner, said he expects about 50 people to fly in and out of that location during the race weekend, the bulk of them on Sunday. He has no reservations yet for the Friday practice day at the track, Richard said.
“Last year a lot of people got frustrated” by delays exiting the track on helicopters, Richard said, “and I think that’s dampening demand.”
Henry said he anticipates helicopters also will fly to and from the track using Dryden Airport, on FM 969 east of Austin, from Austin Executive Airport near Manor and possibly from the San Marcos Municipal Airport.