Councilman Eric Schmidt worked 11 years at Bell Helicopter and understands that the Fort Worth company’s aircraft can be loud.
But Schmidt, like other Keller residents, sees a problem with Bell’s current training setup: On a daily basis, the company has to make about 25 flights from its headquarters in east Fort Worth to an airfield near Texas Motor Speedway, passing over a miles-long swath of homes along Rufe Snow Drive.
Schmidt was one of about 50 residents at Keller Town Hall on Wednesday night where officials from Bell and the Federal Aviation Administration listened to the concerns and tried to address them.
The issue began in 2015, after Bell moved its training facility from Alliance Airport to its corporate headquarters off Texas 10 and Trinity Boulevard, where Bell has been located since 1951.
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Plans called for runways and a practice airfield to be built nearby. But the land Bell selected turned out to be unsuitable for helicopter landings, prompting the company to search for another location, said Ryan Martin, the company’s real estate manager.
So Bell has been forced to fly helicopters from east Fort Worth to Alliance Airport and another airfield north of Texas Motor Speedway in far north Fort Worth.
Flights are made to those fields about 25 times a day, five days a week, following a path that takes them over North East Mall and parts of Fort Worth, North Richland Hills and Watauga. But mostly Keller.
“We are sensitive to the fact that it’s disruptive,” Bell spokeswoman JJ Cawelti told the residents. “We are listening. That’s why we’ve made the changes we’ve made” to build a new practice airfield.
Residents mainly wanted to know why Bell couldn’t fly a different path or at least fly higher. Some residents asked about the possibility of flying along Interstate 35W, while others suggested varying the routes so that the area between Rufe Snow and U.S. 377 is not always affected.
Flying along I-35W isn’t a good option, Cawelti said, because a regular path there could interfere with Alliance Airport’s traffic.
“We hear you loud and clear,” she told the audience. “We’re looking for times when we can [fly] elsewhere. But I can tell you there is a very low probability that our routes will change before” the new practice airfield is built.
One resident complained that helicopters have flown as low as 500 feet.
Cawelti said Bell’s target is about 1,700 feet. Flying higher would risk interfering with Dallas/Fort Worth Airport’s airspace. Bell could request permission to enter DFW’s airspace on a flight-by-flight basis, she said, but doing that every time would not be the safest option.
Sometimes the helicopters fly lower for various reasons, such as to avoid cloud cover, but those instances are not routine, Cawelti said.
‘Two years from now just isn’t acceptable’
The new practice airfield is too far in the future, residents said Wednesday.
Cyndi McLaughlin, who organized a group called “Fly35,” lives about half a mile off the flight path and said she hears about 20 helicopters a day. She and her family have lived in Keller since 1998 but are looking for rental property elsewhere until the new Bell facility is completed.
“Two years is a long time,” McLaughlin said. “I think they’re receptive [to concerns], but I don’t think they understand the impact fully. Two years from now just isn’t acceptable.”
American Airlines pilot Calvin Reeves said that when he’s home during the day, he can hear the helicopters coming from a long distance — not something he expected to deal with when he moved to Keller 15 years ago.
“We moved to Keller because it’s west of the airport and the [flight] traffic is north-south,” Reeves said. “We can see them off in a distance but not hear them. There was some train noise we knew about, but we didn’t plan on 25 helicopters a day.”
Schmidt wishes the Keller council had a meaningful solution for residents, but it doesn’t.
“As a city, we can do nothing,” Schmidt said. “The only authority we have is to appeal to them being a good neighbor, being a quiet neighbor.”