Hanging at the Heliport

[NOW: April 21, 2023 — VS — THEN: October 1997]

 


 

In the 1998 film U.S. Marshals, when Tommy Lee Jones’ character Sam Gerard needs to go from an office in Midtown Manhattan to the docks in Bayonne, New Jersey fast, how does he do it?

He gets a helicopter at the East 60th Street Heliport. 

Once located north of the 59th Street Bridge between the East River and FDR Drive, the City-owned Heliport opened in 1968. It covered 38,500 sq. ft and featured five landing pads — although only three helicopters could occupy the space at once. Nearby, a small trailer provided waiting rooms and offices. Most travelers were business executives who used the Heliport Monday through Saturday from 8AM-8PM, or on Sundays from 11AM-8PM. When Pan Am controlled the facility between 1982 and 1991, the Heliport was known as the “Pan Am Metroport.” From there, the airline offered an hourly shuttle service to its terminal at JFK.  

EMS also could use the Heliport at any time to transfer patients from its air fleet to local Manhattan hospitals. According to an analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration, the East 60th Street hub handled more emergency traffic than any of Manhattan’s three other heliports in 1991. 

But complaints about noise, space constraints that hindered expansion, and the specter of disaster long challenged the viability of the the East 60th Street Heliport. 

According to an article in the New York Times, surrounding residents listened to 36,500 takeoffs and landings at the heliport alone in 1983. With around 100 flights happening each day, residents were quite distressed. As David J. Lyons, vice president of nearby Rockefeller University explained, “We want the city to regulate the heliport so we can hear ourselves talk within a three-block radius. This is a residential neighborhood and many of our faculty live in the area.” 

In 1985, after decades of service, the Department of Sanitation’s waste transfer station just south of the Heliport closed. (It’s the building with the “rollercoaster” on top.) However, instead of giving it over to the developers who proposed an 18-story hotel there amenable to air travel, or replacing it with more landing pads, the City handed it to the Parks Department. In 1994, Parks refashioned the roof of the structure into “an airy 12,000 square foot riverside porch” with spectacular views of the East River. Sculptor Alice Aycock supplied an 80-foot aluminum helix to crown the new roof. 

But the views from the Heliport weren’t always so pleasant. In 1973, a man piloting a five-passenger Bell Jet Ranger was killed when it exploded two minutes after take off. In 1982, an Omniflight Airways Bell charter killed one passenger when a man walked into the copter’s tail rotor trying to check his baggage. And, finally, in 1997, a Colgate-Palmolive corporate ride crashed into the East River right after take off. One person died, three were injured, and part of the copter crashed through the Heliport’s waiting area. 

By then, the Giuliani Administration (1994-2001) had seen enough. In February 1998, it shuttered the Heliport for good. Today, the old grounds are being spliced into the new East Midtown Greenway, a Parks Department promenade that runs along the East River from 53rd to 61st Street. It’s a far cry from Tommy Lee Jones’ paved over launchpad.  

 

 


(Now)  Photo by Rick Stachura. Looking south on the East Midtown Greenway. April 21, 2023.

(Then)  Screenshot by Rick Stachura. From the film “U.S. Marshals” [1998] by Stuart Baird. Looking south on the East 60th Street Heliport. According to filmscouts.com, the crew shot parts of the movie in New York “for 10 days” in “early October” 1997. The scene at the Heliport was the last they captured for the film. 


 

 

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