Soon, helicopters flying from the top of the new 62-story One Thousand Museum tower in downtown Miami will whisk wealthy condo owners who don’t have time for the traffic snarls below to their private islands or Palm Beach or the Bahamas. The helipad, tallest in the U.S. outside Los Angeles, has been a sweet selling point for the ballyhooed building designed with an “exoskeleton” by late architect Zaha Hadid.
But people living in neighboring towers are uneasy about helicopters buzzing by their balconies, especially in the wake of a helicopter crash on the roof of a 54-story building in midtown Manhattan last week that killed the pilot and caused a fire. What’s more, they wonder how thick air traffic might be in the future when the 60-story Paramount Miami Worldcenter, which is going up just one block away, opens its skyport to flying taxis.
“It’s a little crazy to imagine how this is going to work and how it was allowed in the first place,” said Mark Kirby, condo board member at the 900 Biscayne Bay building. “When I lived in New York, there was a terrible crash on top of the old Pan Am building so when I heard about the crash last week it caused me to think about what could happen here. I get nervous about planes flying low.”
Kirby was referring to the 1977 accident in which a rotor blade broke off a helicopter ferrying passengers to JFK airport from the roof of the Pan Am building, killing five people, including a woman walking on Madison Avenue. The city prohibited residential rooftop flights for private use after that but accidents continue — at least nine since 2007. A sightseeing crash into the East River last year killed all five passengers.
“Today, New York City experienced yet another deadly helicopter crash, this time with our nightmare of a crash into a building,” New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney said on June 10. “We cannot rely on good fortune to protect people on the ground.” She and other leaders called for a ban on non-essential helicopter flights over densely populated areas.
Louis Birdman, co-developer of One Thousand Museum, described a thorough process of review and approval for the helipad by the FAA, the Florida Department of Transportation, Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami. He expects it to open by the end of the year. Owners of the 84 units will start moving in by September.
“We see this building as iconic, a centerpiece for Miami,” he said. “We designed the helipad as an amenity that would make us unique. It is strictly a convenience and a luxury for residents who can get in and out of the city without touching the ground.”
Most of the thousands of helipads in the U.S. are on the ground and reserved for public service, such as those at hospitals, or commercial use, such as sightseeing tours. Some serve executives from office buildings. President Donald Trump has one at the Doral golf course. Los Angeles has private high-rises with helipads required by fire codes but most are only for the use of emergency first responders. In Mexico City and Sao Paulo, “many people commute to work or between offices in helicopters because of the heavy traffic,” Birdman said.
“Ours is a rare feature,” he said. “People say ‘I can get a rooftop pool or a spa but not a helipad.’ A resident can send a helicopter to pick up a friend in Boca for a Heat game. They can fly to the Keys. It solves private transportation needs.”
Residents can book charter flights or arrange to be picked up by their own helicopter through the tower’s Luxury Management Service. One floor below the helipad is a sleek SkyLounge and indoor swimming pool with floor-to-ceiling windows and breathtaking views.
“Management will coordinate schedules according to protocols but we don’t expect it to be busy,” Birdman said. “We have a limited number of units and residents who spend a lot of time overseas. We could go weeks or months with no flights. We won’t be operating 24 hours, early in the morning or late at night. If weather or wind conditions aren’t right, the flight is canceled.”
According to the FAA, the building is located in an area where flights are regulated by air traffic control from the ground up to an altitude of 7,000 feet, so a pilot operating from the helipad must receive permission to fly from controllers. Just east of the building, pilots can fly below 1,000 feet without air traffic control.
Buyers at One Thousand Museum, also called the Scorpion Tower, expect the ultimate in lavish style, comfort and personal service. Selling prices range from $5.8 million for half-floor residences to over $24 million for full-floor penthouses.
“If I paid for a penthouse, I don’t think I’d want that helicopter noise,” said Kirby, who lives on the 34th floor of his 63-story building.
Birdman said disruption will be minimal and frequency light.
“We conducted test flights around the building with sound equipment,” he said. “Helicopters make a lot less noise than jets flying overhead. It will blend in with the downtown street noise. It’s not like you’ve living on a quiet golf course.”
Still, neighbors are wary of the potential for mishaps.
“These buildings are close together,” Kirby said. “At one point we were surrounded by cranes and when Hurricane Irma came the city did not even tell them to dismantle. It was a disaster waiting to happen. Are helicopters flying by our windows really practical? Developers have grandiose plans and then they leave and the problems and maintenance costs are left to the owners.”
Jerry Kidrick, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot for 30 years, said people living and working downtown “should be concerned.”
“If anything goes wrong, the helicopter probably ends up in the street,” said Kidrick, assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona. “They are exposing others to a hazard they would not normally face. It is their convenience versus others’ safety.”
Kidrick said an urban area is a challenging environment for pilots.
“They’re operating at low altitude in proximity to obstructions with little time to react,” said Kidrick, who also had years of experience flying in Alaska. “Winds curling around buildings create turbulence and downdrafts. In metro areas, you don’t have a forced, bailout landing area. Landing on a spot is what helicopters do, except this spot has nothing around it.
“Tail rotors stop, engines quit, and when helicopters and small planes fail it’s often catastrophic. Alaska is littered with them.”
But, Kidrick said, precautionary planning can mitigate risk. Rely on experienced pilots accustomed to city flying.
“Set minimums for ceilings and weather — no landings when there are thunderstorms within five miles,“ he said. “Discuss in detail approach and departure paths to reduce exposure to other buildings. Talk to commercial companies about their pilot training.”
Urban flight is an old idea that hasn’t lost its appeal. In 1930, the Art Deco spire added to the Empire State Building to make it taller than the rival Chrysler Building was to serve as a mooring mast for zeppelins from which “weary European travelers would be able to disembark via a gangplank into a private elevator” that would take them to street level in a mere seven minutes. But the plan was scrapped because of gusty winds at the peak, according to the archives of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Empire State Building’s roof height is 1,250 feet; Hadid’s Museum tower is 709 feet tall.
“A legacy of the Vietnam War was that the civilian world saw how convenient helicopters can be,” Kidrick said.
Downtown residents say they are feeling besieged: Helicopter traffic, the return of the Ultra electronic dance music festival and dread that the FEC boat slip will be filled and developed for tourist or commercial use.
Birdman assured them One Thousand Museum will be a source of pride, not worry.
“As cities grow, people will look for other means to get around and we’ll see the Uberization of the air and a network of helipads for commuter traffic,” he said. “For now, we have a distinctive, amazing building that people stop to take pictures of, and every once in a while they might see a helicopter landing on top.”