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Hospital Neighbors Decry 'Top Gun' Copter Experience

Some residents who live near Women and Children s Hospital claim they don t have to rent "Top Gun" at their neighborhood video store to watch daring aviators.

On some days, they say, they only have to peer out their windows or step on their porches.

The hospital opened its rooftop helipad about two years ago, capping a dozen years of fierce debate and courtroom duels. Many neighborhood residents -- even some who supported the hospital s initial plan -- claim pilots have been operating in an unsafe manner.

At times, the medical helicopters have come dangerously close to the roofs of nearby homes, said William L. Sunderlin, who lives on Bryant Street.

"I could tell you what the pilots looked like, that s how close they were," Sunderlin said. "They ve been at very low altitudes. If there s a mishap, there s no room for error."

Sunderlin is president of the Bryant-Oakland-Summer Association, a group that backed Women & Children s initial helipad proposal.

"But they ve been abusing that privilege," Sunderlin said Wednesday.

He cited numerous problems, saying established flight paths are being ignored and the number of flights has far exceeded the hospital s predictions. Neighbors, he said, had been told that flights probably would not number more than 200 a year. But on some days, helicopters arrive and depart up to 10 times.

"And then there are some Top Gun pilots," Sunderlin said.

"We apparently have a couple Tom Cruises out there," added Common Council Majority Leader Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr., referring to the actor who portrayed the daredevil Navy pilot in the 1986 film.

The general manager of Mercy Flight disputed any suggestions that pilots are flying helicopters in an unsafe manner.

"We deal in a very serious business -- we deal with people s lives," Greg Gill said. "No one is thinking about top-gunning it."

But Bonifacio, a longtime supporter of the helipad, said he thinks enough valid issues have been raised to warrant a special meeting. He plans to sponsor a resolution at Tuesday s Council session that would schedule a meeting on the helipad flap for 11 a.m. Dec. 13. Bonifacio said Federal Aviation Administration officials and hospital administrators would be asked to attend.

John Moscato, a spokesman for Women and Children s, said the hospital has met several times with residents and would be eager to participate in a Council-sponsored meeting.

"We re aware of some issues that neighbors have raised," Moscato said. "We ve been working very closely with Mercy Flight to address the issues."

Bonifacio said the helipad, without question, provides a vital service, and he said the Council continues to support efforts to enhance emergency medical treatment.

But he said low-flying helicopters are making some people feel unsafe. They also are rattling windows and shaking homes.

"We had a neighbor with three young children who couldn t take it anymore," said Bonifacio. "He packed up and moved."

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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