Apodaca: Jet noise should take back seat to safety

The Newport Beach City Council wants to change the way planes take off from John Wayne Airport and has asked the Federal Aviation Administration to consider its proposal for a new departure procedure.

The FAA said it would consider the request. I hope it also tells the city to cool its jets.

The council, of course, is responding to homeowner concerns about jet noise, perpetually the source of consternation and controversy in our community. The noise issue has prompted city leaders to repeatedly lobby for changes and restrictions on flying procedures; just two years ago the departure system known as STREL was introduced for about half the flights.

The realigning of takeoff patterns is just one way the city has attempted to mitigate noise. There's also the famously steep ascent followed by a stomach-sinking throttling back on power that has long been required of jets flying out of John Wayne. We also have a strict curfew that bans commercial takeoffs between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. most days.

These measures — coupled with the airport's relatively short runway and location in a densely populated region with congested skies — has lent to John Wayne's reputation as a particularly difficult place for pilots to maneuver in and out of.

Yet none of the noise-reducing steps has gone far enough to satisfy disgruntled residents. So the council has asked for new takeoff procedures that would require pilots to engage in a series of turns — the exact number has yet to be made clear — in an attempt to better avoid flying over homes by following more precisely the curves of Newport's Back Bay.

The idea, which would utilize advanced satellite guidance technology, has been variously referred to as a "zig-zag" or "bob-and-weave" pattern.

Aviation officials say it's more of an S curve. Call me crazy, but bobbing, weaving, zigging, zagging and curving don't sound like things I want planes to do, whether I'm in them or under them.

I realize that my lack of enthusiasm for the proposal will probably result in some angry responses. So let me be clear: I live beside the Back Bay and hate the jet noise too. It disrupts phone conversations, TV shows and weekend nap time. The thunder from some takeoffs rattles my nerves as well as my windows, marring what otherwise is an ideal existence in my lovely community.

I also freely acknowledge that I'm no expert on aviation. (I'd venture that few council members are either, although they reportedly paid an aviation consulting firm $75,000 for advice.)

So I asked a couple of former airline pilots for their input on the new takeoff proposal.

Dee DeVaney and Steve Norstrom are Newport Beach residents and retired Delta Airlines pilots with a combined 67 years of flying experience. These men exhibit the kind of calm, no-nonsense demeanor and low-key confidence I'd expect from longtime veterans of the skies.

They were highly skeptical about the proposed changes.

John Wayne is already a tricky airport to navigate, they said. Pilots who are less experienced with the location find it "very disconcerting," Norstrom said.

Adding more turns would make takeoffs even more complex, they said. Granted, planes could be programmed to fly on autopilot after reaching 1,000 feet — any lower is prohibited — and that would almost certainly reduce some of the "fanning out" that occurs when pilots steer manually.

But most pilots are reluctant to use automated systems so soon, preferring to "hand fly" their planes until they are stabilized at much higher altitudes, DeVaney and Norstrom said.

One key reason for that, the pair explained, is that an important job for pilots while ascending is to continuously scan the surrounding skies for other air traffic, which is particularly critical in a congested area like ours. If a pilot has to execute an avoidance maneuver — it's rare, but it does happen — the extra second or two required to disengage the autopilot and regain control of the aircraft could prove crucial, they said.

In such a scenario, "your attention is diverted from scanning the skies back down to the cockpit," DeVaney said. Norstrom compared the task to driving on Coast Highway while texting.

"In my mind, we're trying to up the workload and accomplish something that is not going to be all that effective" in reducing noise, DeVaney said.

Added Norstrom: "The big thing from a pilot's point of view is safety."

As it should be for all of us.

Without a doubt, jet noise is a serious quality-of-life issue. But even if the proposed procedure did result in slightly quieter skies, would it really be worth adding an extra element of risk to an already dicey situation?

With all due respect to the City Council, I don't want politicians to tell pilots how to fly their planes, and thankfully the FAA will have the last word on the matter. The agency plans to run tests of a similar departure procedure in Atlanta as part of its "NextGen" satellite guidance program. Only after the tests are complete will it consider Newport's request.

Meanwhile, the rest of us need to keep the anti-noise rhetoric grounded until we know more about how the proposed changes could affect safety.

Noise is annoying. But the possibility of a tragic result from asking too much of pilots is unthinkable.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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