FAA: Address noise through aviation safety

As Homer’s aviation tourism business has grown, along with it have come complaints about noise from airplanes and helicopters flying low over homes and businesses. The problem has become so common that the Homer Police Department includes a link on the city’s web page, “How to Report Low-flying Aircraft” (http://www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/police/low-flying-aircraft).

At a meeting to address the issue held June 8 at Homer City Hall, Federal Aviation Administration official Ken Thomas admitted straight up he couldn’t address noise directly. Noise abatement from the FAA perspective applies to larger aircraft like jets and not smaller planes like the Dehavilland and Cessna models that use Beluga Lake and the Homer Airport.

Thomas of the FAA Safety Team came to the issue through the back door: safety.

“The safety conversation I can have with you is safe operations, flight operations over congested areas, and flight separations so noise isn’t a problem,” he said.

For example, the following scenarios cause noise, but they also can be safety issues:

• A floatplane takes off heading west from Beluga Lake over Bishop’s Beach and before it reaches an altitude of 1,000 feet, turns right or north toward town;

• A helicopter takes off toward Beluga Slough and over Lake Street, flying so low that the driver of a truck pulling a large boat has to brake because it appears the helicopter might hit the boat; and

• A plane takes off from the Homer Airport, reaches an altitude of 1,500 feet and then turns toward Diamond Ridge and Skyline Drive, flying no more than 300 feet above houses at the top of the ridge.

All of those scenarios create noise above the whine of planes powering up to take off, but they also could lead to dangerous situations or violate FAA regulations.

The FAA meeting came about after Homer City Manager Katie Koester and Homer City Council member Donna Aderhold received complaints and investigated how to address them.

“It took a really long time to find someone who would like to talk to me or educate me,” Koester said.

Eventually she connected with Thomas, who told her noise issues could be addressed in the context of safe aircraft operation. Koester announced the FAA meeting at the May 30 Homer City Council meeting, but some local pilots complained they hadn’t been invited to the meeting or didn’t know about it. About a dozen people attended the meeting, many of them pilots.

In an email to the Homer News and also speaking at the June 12 city council meeting, pilot Wes Head, owner of Beluga Air, said local commercial pilots try to educate non-pilots about proper noise-abatement procedures.

“Nobody has more interest than Homer’s commercial operators in maintaining safe and courteous operations at both the airport and lake,” he wrote in an email.

“We want to be part of the solution if there’s a problem,” Head also told the council.

An online list by the FAA shows about 200 commercial and private aircraft registered on the lower Kenai Peninsula, including helicopters. In an email, Thomas said 14 Part 135 flight services operate in Homer — that is, aircraft companies flying freight and passengers for hire. In the summer after Beluga Lake opens up, many of those companies take off and land on the lake. One helicopter tour company, Alaska Ultimate Safaris, has a helipad next to Beluga Lake on Brown Bear Loop near the Lake Street and Sterling Highway intersection. Other companies operate out of the Homer Airport, either offering flightseeing tours or air taxis to Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham.

With Beluga Lake and the airport near each other, safe aviation means sticking to flight patterns that minimize mixing of aircraft. Fixed wing planes landing on Beluga Lake should approach mid-field from the north and enter a flight pattern no higher than 800 feet. With the height of the Homer bluff about 1,000 feet or higher, in effect that means a floatplane will come in over the Homer bench, drop down to a pattern parallel to the north shore of the lake and turn for a landing from the east or west depending on prevailing winds.

At the Homer Airport, pilots approach from over Kachemak Bay and enter the flight pattern from the south. If pilots follow these guidelines, that means that when planes come in for a landing, the lake and airport flight paths will be parallel, minimizing collisions. Thomas said such rules can be found in the Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge and on flight charts.

Not everyone follows those rules, noted Tom Young, a local pilot who was at the meeting.

“There are a few offenders who are local. The vast majority who are not complying with our traffic patterns are coming from somewhere else,” he said. “Everyone as a pilot learns this stuff before they even get a license. A lot of people throw that away before they fly into Homer.”

After taking off, pilots should ascend to 1,000 feet or higher before taking turns over town. Except on landing and take off, an FAA regulation, Section 91.119 (b)(c), minimum safe altitudes, requires planes to be 1,000 feet above congested areas and 500 feet above noncongested areas, like cabins in the back country. Once a plane reaches that height, if a plane loses power, that gives the pilot time to glide to an emergency landing. A by-product of safety is reduced noise, Thomas said.

“The aircraft is 1,000 feet up there. The noise shouldn’t be that big a deal,” he said.

With the bluffs above Homer higher than 1,000 feet, turning toward the bluff lower than that would be a poor choice, Thomas said.

“Not only with the noise factor coming into town, you never climb into rising terrain,” he said.

Because helicopters can land quickly and safely if power fails, they don’t have to be as high as fixed-wing planes. However, the rules say that while the minimum safe altitudes for planes don’t apply, under 91.119 (d) the pilot still must fly “without hazard to persons or property on the surface.”

Another regulation, 91.13, careless or reckless operation, prohibits operating an aircraft “in a careless or reckless manner so as to endanger the life or property of another.” A helicopter or plane zipping over Lake Street near Beluga Slough low enough to clip a motorhome would be flying recklessly.

Medevac helicopters landing on the rooftop helipad of South Peninsula Hospital would be one kind of helicopter that comes in lower than other aircraft. As part of its pattern, the pilot drops off a medical flight team to prepare the patient, refuels at the airport and then goes back to the hospital to pick up the patient and team.

Some of the pilots at the meeting suggested talking to pilots or companies if people see unsafe flying. Young mentioned an incident he saw once where he knew the air taxi company. He said he told them, “This is going to be an issue some day. Why don’t you guys be proactive rather than reactive?” The company cleaned up its act.

“I can’t come down here as the FAA and say ‘the community of Homer work it out,’ but that’s a great option,” Thomas said.

Thomas said if people see noisy planes that involve unsafe flying, try to take photos of the aircraft. Get a description, including the tail or “N” number. Log the time and date. If the activity happens regularly, try to videotape it.

“If there’s a regular path that’s happening, the way to get something done is with real data. Pictures, video — narrate the video,” he said.

The link on the Homer Police section of the city website has a guide on how to report incidents to the FAA.

“What it boils down to for (FAA) Flight Standards to get involved is it’s an unsafe operation,” Thomas said. “Two-hundred feet over someone’s house is not a safe operation.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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