Source: Angela Bartlett-Johnson via Facebook

Okaloosa gives Timberview Helicopters a 60 day window for new operating agreement in Destin

Source: Angela Bartlett-Johnson via Facebook

Update: Article has been updated on Wednesday morning with statements from Timberview’s attorney, Michael Schofield.

On Tuesday morning, the Okaloosa Board of County Commissioners voted to give Timberview Helicopters a 60 day window to come up with a new operating agreement for sightseeing tours at the Destin Executive Airport or cease operations. This comes after citizen complaints and safety concerns, according to Okaloosa County documents.

  • According to Timberview’s Attorney Michael Schofield, “Timberview Helicopters has not and does not violate FAA regulations, and no such history of violation is on file with the FAA.”

Prior to 2014, Timberview conducted air tours over Okaloosa County beaches and waterfront areas from off-Airport locations, although the company has most recently operated from the private helipad located on Highway 98 near Kelly Plantation Drive. 

Since 2014, Timberview has operated at the Destin Executive Airport under a series of Operating Agreements with the County. Under the current Operating Agreement for Sightseeing Flight Operations, dated April 18, 2017, Timberview is only authorized to conduct air tour operations from the Airport subject to a number of conditions. 

According to the county, at some point in late 2020, Timberview began additional operations from the Highway 98 location that had been used by another air tour operator, Beach Helicopters. 

“For a number of years, helicopter air tour operations have been the source of widespread community concern due to safety and noise concerns,” wrote Tracy Stage, Airports Director, in a memo to the Commissioners. “According to complaints from residents, Timberview helicopters fly at very low altitudes when traveling to and from the beach areas to the Airport and the 98 Pad, almost always below 500’ and often as low as 200’ above ground level and as low as 100’ above buildings.”

  • A Henderson State Park rep spoke during the meeting stating that the helicopter tours are their number one complaint from park goers.

According to Stage, these flights have been the cause of a large number of complaints and are highly disruptive to the quiet nature of the residential and recreational areas near the Airport and the 98 Pad. 

“Low altitude operations over very congested roadways, densely populated beaches and in close proximity to vessels, structures and parasails also raise a number of safety concerns,” he wrote. “Over the past several months, community concerns and complaints have reached new levels as the number of air tour operations has increased significantly from both the Airport and the 98 Pad.”

In May 2020, the DTS tower estimated that Timberview conducted approximately 4,400 operations from DTS. It is also noted in County docs that Timberview’s helicopters are not equipped with flotation devices and “fly so low that it may not be possible to land safely on the beach in the event of an engine failure.”

According to the Operating Agreement, Timberview agreed to:

  • Operate only between sunrise and sunset.
  • Abide by flight procedures set forth in a Letter of Agreement for Air Traffic Control Services and FAA Part 93 Rules attached to the Operating Agreement. 
  • The Operating Agreement also requested that Timberview “avoid low altitude flight over homes adjacent to the Airport”. 

In 2019, as a result of changes in flight patterns necessary to avoid flying over Gulf Islands National Seashore, however, the Letter of Agreement was cancelled. Timberview and the DTS Tower Manager entered into a new Letter of Agreement in late May 2021, but the County states that they were not invited to participate in the development of the Letter of Agreement and had no knowledge it was being drafted. 

  • It was recommended that the agreement include the Airport, Eglin Air Force Base ATC, the FAA, the City of Destin and the residents living in the vicinity of Destin Executive Airport in the process. 

“Mr. Stage and the County were in fact invited to participate in the new routes and Letter of Agreement, but declined to do so,” said Schofield on Wednesday. “The allegation that they were not invited is a blatant misrepresentation by the County.”

According to County documents, Timberview allegedly operated after sundown which goes against the agreement. 

“In recent weeks, Timberview helicopters have been observed by DTS Air Traffic Control Tower as operating air tours after sunset with increased frequency in violation of the Operating Agreement,” wrote Stage. “The County has also formally cited Timberview for violating this provision in December 2020 when Timberview advertised night flights to see fireworks in the Destin Harbor during New Year’s Eve celebrations.”

Separate from safety and noise concerns, the memo to Commissioners cites that Timberview has frequently violated the terms of its Operating Agreement. A summary sheet lists 20 key violations since 2016. 

Violations include:

  • Conducting commercial and other operations not authorized by the Operating Agreement.
  • Failure to maintain proof of insurance for helicopters at DTS.
  • Failure to observe a variety of Airport rules and regulations. 
Timberview Helicopters doing fireworks tours

“That history demonstrates a continuing pattern of violations to include safety and operational problems associated with Timberview’s operations,” continued Stage. “Over the years, Airport Staff have made substantial efforts to work with Timberview, the FAA, and other stakeholders to address concerns with Timberview’s operations. 

According to Stage, in addition to efforts to enforce safety and operational standards on the Airport, Airport Staff have worked with the FAA, the National Park Service, local Air Traffic personnel, and Timberview to revise flight patterns to avoid flying over protected national park property. The County says that they also made efforts to have the FAA investigate apparent safety violations by Timberview. 

  • With very limited exceptions, the FAA exercises exclusive jurisdiction over air safety and air traffic control, including flight paths, flight altitude, and safety. 
  • In the past, the County has sought informally and formally to have the FAA investigate Timberview’s operations and address safety concerns, but claim that the FAA has not taken any noticeable action or responded to the County’s requests. 

Now, Airport Staff proposes to file a formal complaint asking the FAA to take appropriate enforcement action and establish safe flight procedures for Timberview’s helicopters. 

Per Attorney Schofield, “Timberview Helicopters at all times has and continues to operate in full and complete compliance with all FAA flight rules and regulations.”

On June 7, 2021, the Destin City Council unanimously approved a Resolution noting the City’s concerns with helicopter operations over the City and the impact of those operations on the quality of life for City residents and visitors. The City stated its support for the County’s efforts to address issues relating to helicopter operations. 

Based on Timberview’s Operating Agreement with the County, the County can terminate the agreement on 15 days written notice. The Commission is willing to give Timberview a 60 day window to work out a new agreement on “mutually acceptable terms.”

This means that 60 days from today, if a new agreement isn’t made, Timberview would have to:

  • Cease all commercial activities at Destin Executive Airport (DTS), this includes sightseeing flight operations and aircraft repair operations. 
  • Remove any property, equipment, or supplies from DTS unless permitted to be stored in a hangar.
  • (This does not affect operations at the Highway 98 helicopter pad)

The Board of County Commissioners is hoping to get an update on the progress of a new agreement in 35 days.

“Timberview Helicopters has not breached any portion of the current agreement
with the County, despite the baseless allegations by Mr. Stage,” wrote Michael Schofield to Get The Coast. “Timberview Helicopters agreed to negotiation for a new agreement to continue to try to work with the County, as a good tenant at the Destin Airport.”

As originally included in the article on Tuesday: At Tuesday morning’s meeting, Timberview’s attorneys stated that there were no FAA violations against their client.

Original article used terminology from County documents that said “apparent violations of FAA regulations and standards”. We have updated it to read “citizen complaints and safety concerns”.

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