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CBS 6 INVESTIGATES: Uptick in low-flying helicopters

Posted at 10:55 PM, May 14, 2013
and last updated 2013-05-18 12:45:07-04

Click here for new information about Lorenzo Hall’s investigation into low-flying aircraft in Central Virginia.  An attorney and author says that low-flying choppers are ‘conducting surveillance projects.’

RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) – Hundreds of Central Virginians continuously contact the station via e-mail, Facebook, Twitter and phone; inquiring about loud aircraft flying so close to their homes at all hours of the day and night.

Like Tracey Lyons, a Chesterfield mom who seems to have all the answers to her son’s homework problems, but is looking for answers of her own about the loud aircraft.

“I’m just wondering, why so many?” asks Lyons.

Virginia residents want to know why there is a seeming increase in loud aircraft flying so close to their homes at all hours of the day and who are they?

“Is it a government thing? Is it the big brother watch or something?” asks Lyons. “It does worry me.”

The concern began earlier this year, when Lyons and many Central Virginians were awakened by what CBS 6 learned was a late-night military training exercise. It’s happened several times since, so we wanted to know, months later, if the military were still the low-flying noise culprits.

However, the military wouldn’t go on record about any of its recent movement or activities.

CBS 6 obtained a log of aviation activity from Richmond International Airport to see what’s being picked up on their radar. In the month of March, their most recently completed log, it shows a nearly 30 percent increase in military flights compared to last year.

We also set up by one of the military’s tightly secured hangars near RIC and noticed choppers taking off and landing frequently.

“I don’t think there’s any big conspiracy that the military is doing something,” says John Mazza, Chairman of the Virginia Aviation Board. He says this military activity increase is normal, especially with our close proximity to Washington, DC.

“These are standard training flights and transport of military personnel, “says Mazza.

We also found out, flying alongside military aircraft is local police. Other flight logs obtained by CBS 6 show an uptick in air patrols by officers in Henrico, Richmond and Chesterfield.

We went up with the Metro Aviation Unit, responsible for patrolling all three jurisdictions.
They’ve had to respond to 364 calls for service so far this year, compared to 335 calls during the same period in 2012.

Most calls are naturally, related to fighting crime. For instance, we were there as police spent hours hovering over Richmond to find an armed man on Belle Isle, a search that began at one in the morning.

However, pilots tell us they are busier than ever because of work outside the department as well, like assisting fire crews. Planes are equipped with infrared equipment that tells where the hot spots are in the fire.

Police are spending a lot more time in the sky, but, it seems no one is actually policing the sky. While we’ve uncovered a spike in police and military air work, it became a challenge to find out if there’s anyone else flying above your home more frequently.

We contacted the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, DC to get a more detailed log of flights in Central Virginia with the time, types of flights and location.

The FAA regulates and oversees all aspects of civil aviation, but we learned certain flight records do not exist.

Unlike Washington, DC, where all airspace is monitored and all flights are tracked, most of Central Virginia is considered Class-E airspace; meaning outside of airport radar zones, pilots are not required to keep in contact with anyone on the ground.

They’re even allowed to turn off their transponders, which makes it tough to track their movement.

“I could take off right now, out of say, Chesterfield and Dinwiddie. I could fly to L.A. and until I get to L.A., in their class-B airspace, I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone,” says Mazza.

An FAA spokesperson tells CBS 6, here in central Virginia, they rely largely on reports from other pilots and people on the ground when it comes to pinpointing strange air activity.

Keep CBS 6 posted on loud, low-flying aircraft in your neighborhood. We will continue to follow this story.