Lawrence Hayes wasn’t the only one with his eye on the sky this month. The whirl of chopper blades has Shelburne residents looking up and scratching their heads of late.
Mary Catherine Jones’ professional life revolves around sound. Jones operates Voice Over Vermont, a small audio recording studio based out of her home in Shelburne. She’s used to scheduling around noises like a neighbor mowing their lawn. Her house is near the Shelburne Airport, so she is used to occasional aircraft noise too, including the loud sound of low-flying aircraft during the annual rabies vaccine drop.
Bill Frantz, of Shelburne, has been working from home during COVID-19. His days involve frequent Zoom meetings and phone calls. But that’s proven difficult with the sound of a helicopter flying overhead.
Frantz lives near the Shelburne Airport and couldn’t help but notice the noise of a low-flying helicopter circling above his home day after day last month. After reading Front Porch Forum, he saw that someone thought the aircraft was part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Wildlife Services rabies vaccine effort. Each year the Department drops vaccine packets from low-flying aircraft into the woods to help lower rabies transmission among wild animals.
But Frantz realized it was something more when the chopper continued to circle the town for over a month — at different times of the day, including some evening hours.
He put on his sleuthing hat and took to “FlightAware” an app that allows people to track flights in their area.
Frantz discovered that the mysterious helicopter was registered to Beta technologies, an electric aviation company based in South Burlington.
He reached out to Beta’s CEO, Kyle Clark, to learn more about the flights and see if they could move to a more rural setting.
Clark replied the fliers were interns trying to get their training hours in before heading back to school. The Burlington International Airport’s training runway was “shut down” and the airport was short-staffed. But Clark said he’d speak with the pilots.
The Burlington International Airport has several construction projects in progress, said Nic Longo, the Deputy Director of Aviation. One of its runways is closed and the airport has simultaneously had an increased number of takeoffs and landings this year, he added.
With busier runways and less capacity at Burlington International Airport, some flight training groups choose to go off site to state airports, Longo said.
After texting Clark, Frantz did not feel like the number of flights over his home changed. He then took the matter up with Shelburne officials and Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Shelburne.
“I’m all for education and people learning to fly. I think it’s a wonderful recreation and hobby. But we live in a state where we have plenty of open space,” Frantz said. “It’s disconcerting when there is blatant disregard for a respectful request to cease, or at least lessen, the occurrence.”
Questions and answers
After learning the origin of the mysterious circling choppers, Jones, too, reached out to Beta’s CEO.
“We have asked that they limit their use of Shelburne Airport for training to minimize disturbances in the town and fly the pattern a bit higher to minimize noise when it is used,” Clark wrote in an email.
To date, Jones has only needed to reschedule her own recordings due to the flights. But some days she has talent in her studio. If she were to have talent visiting and a helicopter began to circle overhead, she said she wouldn’t be able to record.
“I have to pay them for their time whether they open their mouths or not, and that’s not okay, because I don’t have margins that will allow that,” she added.
Jones hopes Beta will be willing to share a flight training schedule ahead of lessons. This would help her and other Shelburne residents schedule their work around the noise, she said.
“I genuinely hope that there’s a way we can all work together without having to knock out some of the businesses that maybe have a smaller voice,” she said.
Reached by email, Clark confirmed the helicopter flights were for interns, the number of which would go down shortly.
“The reality is that it was only a few parts of a few days. We have grossly reduced this after some respectful complaints, as we want to be good neighbors,” he wrote.
Beta’s goal is to create a future based on environmentally sustainable aviation, according to Blain Newton, who works on the company’s finance and operations.
“When you’re developing an aircraft you want the engineers that are developing and designing it and building it to have a sense of the implications of their design decisions,” Newton said. “What I mean by that is, you wouldn’t want to drive in a car that was designed and developed by someone who’s never driven a car.”
In that spirit, the company works to get its employees some sky-time in the aircraft. Several workers and interns have even gone for their pilot’s license, Newton said.
The company is careful to follow FAA regulations, like appropriate flight altitudes, Newton added.
“Because of the broader relationship we have with the FAA and trying to get the commercially viable, EV aircraft certified we’re hyper-focused on staying within the laws of flight with the FAA,” he said. “To our knowledge we have not broken any of the regulations.”
But the company does do hover testing — flight at a lower altitude — over the airport, he said.
As for Jones’ request for a flight training schedule, it is unlikely the company could provide communities with a schedule a week in advance due to the weather windows the aircraft must fly in, Newton said.
“Inevitably, weather will come up here in Vermont that’ll change, and we’ll just end up being overcome by events. I do think that we’ll work to be respectful of the community and be good neighbors,” he said.
Beta Technologies encourages the public to come by and visit.
“We love hosting folks to show what we’re doing, to get people excited about it in the community, to see if there’s opportunities to partner,” Newton said.
According to a log on FlightAware, a helicopter with the wing number N754MH, registered to Beta Air LLC, has flown each day between Aug. 13-31, as of the 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 31. The log shows flights as early as 4:52 a.m. and as late as 7:49 p.m. Most of the flights originate and terminate at the Burlington International Airport.