Paul Marks of Del Dios has heard the thunder. So have Bill Schlosser and the rest of his neighbors in the Rancho Santa Fe area.
It's the kind of noise that yanks you right out of bed and sends you running for the door, a racket that regularly rattles more than one North County community.
"It goes: Thumpa! Thumpa! Thumpa! Thumpa!" said Marks, an attorney who practices in Escondido. "It sounds just like that--only a lot louder. And it doesn't have to be real close, either.
"Every time one of these babies flies by, people rush out of their houses to see what's going on. They assume something has gone terribly wrong long before the thing gets to the ground."
He's talking about the privately owned helicopters that have become a familiar sight--and sound--in some North County suburbs.
Because these days, rush-hour traffic jams aren't just stacking up the freeways. The area's growing pains are now being felt in the air as well as on land, especially in wealthy areas such as Rancho Santa Fe.
All too often, residents say, the skies over their estates and several surrounding communities are filled with hot-air balloons from Del Mar, private airplanes and military jets.
And those noisy helicopters--many of which land and take off from back yards in the neighborhood.
Taking Friends on Joy Rides
"We had one guy taking his friends out on joy rides every weekend, up and down the river valley," said Albert Frowiss, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and chairman of the San Dieguito Planning Group.
"You sit in your back yard, looking for some peace and quiet, and you have this whirlybird zooming around your head like some sort of mechanical mosquito."
Some helicopters have taken aerial photographs of Rancho Santa Fe houses and later peddled the pictures to homeowners, residents say. Others offer rather noisy public tours, pointing out the wealthiest estates.
"You get a lot of lookie-loos that come here from somewhere else, peer into our back yards and then go back to who-knows-where," said Schlosser, another San Dieguito planning group member.
The hectic air traffic has led some Rancho Santa Fe residents to fear that, one day, well, the sky might fall.
"You mix all these aircraft together and it raises a real question of safety in the skies over our heads," Schlosser said. "If one of those choppers hit a balloon or some guy in his Cessna on his way home from Burbank or Palm Springs, they're both going to come crashing down to the ground.
"And then we could have a fire that would burn down much of this community. That's why the general feeling here is that these helicopters need to be controlled."
Today, the San Dieguito Planning Group will testify at a public hearing of the San Diego County Planning Commission, in search of a cure for their helicopter hangover. The residents would like to see toughened the county's ordinances on the building of helistops--or landing areas--for privately owned helicopters.
Although helicopter owners now need a county land-use permit for such an area, the proposed ordinance would require at least 5 acres on which to build the helistop, which would have to sit back 200 feet from a property line, rather than the current 50 feet.
Addressing Noise Factor
The noise factor would also be addressed.
"Right now, noise is gauged on a per-hour basis, so you can make a lot of noise for a short period of time--such as with a helicopter takeoff--and still be under the required level," said Marvin Jones, an associate San Diego County planner.
"The new ordinance would look at a single event. How much noise does the craft make upon takeoff and landing? Does it scare horses or wildlife? All that would be looked at when considering a permit."
Still, planning group members know their chopper concerns aren't exactly going to fly away.
Marks estimates that at least a dozen residents in the San Dieguito area now own private helicopters, which start selling at $100,000 and can run as high as several million dollars.
And, by the end of the century, according to estimates by the San Diego Assn. of Governments, 162 privately owned helicopters will be flying over San Diego County, double the number that flew only 15 years earlier.
Add to that the 300 military helicopters that now cruise the county, and you've got the makings of a major helicopter headache, Frowiss said.
"The truth is, we'd like to eliminate helicopters in residential areas altogether," he said. "But, if we can't get rid of them, we certainly want to control them."
Fed Up With Bashing
William (Swede) Gamble, an FAA aviation safety inspector and career helicopter pilot, has heard just about enough bashing of the aircraft he has come to respect.
That's why he's going to be on hand at the planning board meeting--to make sure someone speaks up for the rights of helicopter owners.
"The helicopter is more than just a rich man's toy," he said. "Like a corporate jet, it gets people to places with minimum time and hassles."
The helicopter issue has haunted Rancho Santa Fe for at least a decade.