Christmas tree farmers have been cleared to use helicopters for harvest near Salem, Ore., despite airspace restrictions during low visibility conditions, though shipment disruptions remain a concern.
Helicopter pilots have been cleared to harvest Christmas trees around Salem, Ore., in poor weather, but some still fear the new rules will interfere with timely shipments.
Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration effectively imposed new restrictions on helicopters operating near Salem during times of low visibility.
The agency expanded “Class D” airspace around Salem — in which aircraft are more strictly regulated — from roughly four to eight miles.
Christmas tree farmers feared this would prevent their crop from being harvested during the cloudy, rainy days that are common in autumn, thereby delaying shipments and reducing overall sales.
The FAA has since reconsidered the airspace expansion, and re-proposed increasing it by only about one mile around the Salem airport.
However, that regulatory change will take time and will not be finished in time for this year’s harvest.
To avoid hampering Christmas tree operations, the FAA has approved a “letter of agreement” between the air traffic control tower in Salem and helicopter pilots that will generally allow harvest to continue even during low visibility.
Under the agreement, multiple helicopters can fly within the Class D airspace in such conditions as long as they stay below 400 feet and remain in frequent contact with the control tower.
When a plane flying on instruments approaches or leaves the airport, helicopters that pose a potential for collision must land.
The arrangement basically delegates authority over helicopters to the Salem tower from the FAA’s control center in Seattle, which wouldn’t have time to deal with such small aircraft in low visibility conditions, said Mitch Swecker, director of the Oregon Department of Aviation.
However, the rules can still be problematic for Christmas tree farmers if multiple airplanes take off or land at the Salem airport during poor weather, he said.
“It is not ideal. There will always be hiccups for the ag operators, but the FAA and the tower have tried to make it as painless as possible,” Swecker said.
The requirement that helicopter pilots regularly speak with the Salem control tower is troublesome in hilly areas where radio communications are spotty, said Patrick Hall, a helicopter pilot who is harvesting trees for BTN of Oregon, a grower near Salem.
“A lot of the airspace covers areas where you can’t contact the control tower by radio,” he said.
Hall said he’d prefer more relaxed requirements in exchange for restricting the allowable flight ceiling to 100 feet, down from the current 400 feet.
“It doesn’t need to be that much,” he said. “We’re essentially working at the level of tree tops.”
Ben Stone, whose family owns BTN of Oregon, said he’s still concerned about missing shipping windows despite the letter of agreement.
Trucks arrive at the farm ready to pick up trees and drive them to buyers, so even relatively short delays can be disruptive, Stone said.
“If we can’t get them out of the field, there’s no way we can get them on a truck,” he said.
Nonetheless, the situation would be much worse without the letter of agreement, since helicopter operations in the Class D airspace would essentially be shut down during poor visibility, said Tim Raugust, owner of Chehalem Helicopters.
So far, the company has pre-arranged where and when it will be harvesting trees with the Salem control tower, without any holdups in operations, he said. “For us, it hasn’t bothered us.”