Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Rooftop Heli-Commuting: Back in the news

Noting this piece in the LATimes, "Helicopter Battle Kicks Up Dust in West Hollywood," about the Sofitel Hotel's request to change its emergency-only landing pad into a limited-use helicopter parking lot, called a helistop. According to the article, the driving force is producer Kevin Kavanaugh, who first set up the ruckus by using the hotel roof for commuting to and from his house in Malibu. His studio is near the hotel. 

Some nearby residents are mobilizing against it. Friends of his in the city and county level have written letters of support, but CalTrans makes the final call.

One reason rooftop commuting has languished in this country is a chain of events that ended with a tragedy atop New York’s Pan Am Building. The world's hottest spot for rooftop helicopter commuting by the wealthy is faraway Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Meantime, excerpted from my book The God Machine, here's some early rooftop-helicopter-history. 

In 1926 Thomas Edison gave an interview about aviation that touched optimistically on the subject of helicopters and cities. “It does not require any very vivid imagination to help us realize that when the helicopter comes into being, roofs of large buildings in our cities immediately will become very valuable parts of such structures,” Edison said. “Certain new varieties of disaster will then develop, but is useless to foretell these now. We shall know all about them when they come. But they will not keep us out of the air transport machines.”
The space that eventually became New York's Pan Am Building (now MetLife) started out as a concept for an 80-story tower that would take the place of Grand Central Terminal. In 1958 it was condensed to stand at the back of the terminal rather than replace it. When completed in 1963 at 58 floors, the building blocked the view down Park Avenue and most architectural critics didn’t like its plain, beveled-box design. Still, at 2.4 million square feet it was for a time the world’s biggest office building.

It would have another distinction. In September 1960 the president of New York Airways saw a notice about the building plans and wrote Juan T. Trippe, chairman of Pan American World Airways, proposing a heliport and offering to lease it: A heliport, he said, would “be of inestimable value to the community.” Pan Am agreed that the opportunity should not be missed and began moving down the paperwork trail. 

Four years later the plan almost came undone when the commander of the NYPD’s aviation unit, William McCarthy, recommended in a confidential report that the city hold off on approving the zoning change for the heliport. McCarthy, who was on the edge of retirement, said the heliport was not a top priority for the city because riverside heliports were available just a mile away to the east and west. Opponents found out and published his report but the zoning change went ahead anyway. Test flights began in May 1964, followed by promotional trips for VIPs to the New York World’s Fair. The heliport opened for business on December 21, 1965.

The historic day began with a lunch at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Starlight Roof and a speech from Juan Trippe. Also present: Francis Cardinal Spellman, the president of New York Airways, the operator; the president-elect of the city council, and the president of U.S. Steel. “Urban helicopter travel is here to stay,” said Trippe. 

The helicopter to be used was a civilian version of the military’s CH-46 Sea Knight, which seated two dozen. The airline planned to move over 4,000 people every week. 

The guests adjourned by limousine to the Pan Am Building for the cutting of a red ribbon held by two helicopter hostesses. Vice President Hubert Humphrey telephoned to turn on the heliport lights by “remote control” and to offer a message. “The establishment of helicopter service between city centers and outlying airports can do much to ease urban traffic congestion,” he said. “I hope other major cities will soon follow New York’s example.” Regular service began that evening.

To air-minded futurists, rooftop travel was overdue and a vindication for dozens of Sunday newspaper supplements and magazine covers that had promoted such opportunities. It had been eighteen years since a helicopter first set foot on Manhattan, at the request of a department store. A few other cities had downtown heliports at this time, but only on the Pan Am roof did the reality approach the original vision ... until the disaster of 1977: a subject for a later post.

I rode on this helicopter as a kid, with my family, while it was running tourists to the World's Fair.  One way to see it in operation is to watch the opening minutes of Coogan's Bluff: Clint Eastwood's character arrives in the Big Apple by touching down at the Pan Am heliport. (Sidebar: The Port Authority of NY and NJ is the only other organization besides the Pan Am Building owners that had an operating rooftop heliport for civilian travel on Manhattan Island, in this case, for employees. Helicopters touched down atop its building at 111 - Eighth Avenue. That giant building was in the news last year, when Google paid $1.9 billion for a data and cable-routing center)

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