Businesses are rallying around a Mesa flight school after protesters submitted a 30-page petition to the city outlining safety concerns surrounding the training facility.
CAE/Sabena Flight Training Center, one of the largest flight schools training foreign pilots, is in the cross hairs of northeast Mesa residents who say the combination of untrained pilots and frequency of flights soaring over their homes is a recipe for disaster.
However, the aviation community, including businesses and pilots working out of the recreational and flight-school hub, defends the school’s operations at the airport as vital to the economic development of the area.
Developer Alan House, who owns facilities at the airport, said a city-initiated ad hoc committee worked for six months to present recommendations to bring neighbors and businesses to the table.
“When the recommendations came out, I think everybody thought they were fair,” House said of the proposals presented by the team of residents, businesses and airport representatives.
House, the owner of Desert Jet Center, said some of the recommendations call for restricting flight operations, such as limiting night flights to no later than 9 p.m.
“We all think that is reasonable,” he said.
House said many of the pilots who are members of the business association agreed to cut back on night flying, amid other recommendations presented by the ad hoc committee.
Residents who formed a group called Keep Falcon Field Safe Committee — the group responsible for the 30-page petition — assert that the reach of the recommendations is limited and doesn’t curtail operations at Sabena, the crux of their concerns.
Terri Eisenhauer, a member of the neighborhood watch group, said scores of residents who signed the petition have no problem with the airport itself, only with Sabena.
“The problem is Sabena. Sabena is the one flying training patterns over our community. Sabena is the one flying all times of the night,” she said.
Her group acknowledged that residents were on the ad hoc committee but said businesses had more sway in deciding the recommendations. She said four members are associated with the airport and only two with the community, with another community member whom she described as neutral.
Eisenhauer said there were many concerns her group had with the ad hoc recommendation, and chief among them was the very first one.
“The first recommendation states that they want the training flights to use the north runway, but Sabena representatives have already stated that some of their planes can’t use the north runway,” Eisenhauer said. “We’ve been told by a number of private pilots that every type of plane Sabena uses can safely use the north runway; Sabena is already setting up an excuse about not using it.”
Eisenhauer was referring to a statement issued by Sabena’s chief flight instructor, Sylvia Stinson, who said not all of the school’s planes could use the north runway because of safety and performance concerns.
“It wouldn’t be safe to do that, because there’s not enough takeoff distance for some planes,” Stinson said in a previous report. A call to Stinson for comment was not immediately returned.
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, who created the ad hoc committee about six months ago to bridge the widening fissure between the airport and its neighbors, said he wanted to see the process completed before he chimed in on the debate.
“The ad hoc process is not yet completed; we should allow the process to work as it was intended,” Smith said, citing a public hearing scheduled for Wednesday to address the recommendations submitted by the committee. “The public’s input will be taken, and their comments will be noted.”
Smith said emotions were high on both sides, including residents’ concerns over safety and noise, and businesses worried that without Sabena the airport’s future would be grim.
“So far, I have been impressed with how the ad hoc committee worked the issues,” Smith said. “I’m sure that the recommendations can be fine-tuned — if given a chance to work.”
Falcon Field officials have reported that the economic benefit Sabena brings includes a 2.25 percent sales tax for leasing hangars and space paid to Mesa, and a tax of 10 cents per gallon on aviation fuel paid to the airport. The company’s total contribution to the local economy is estimated at $9.5 million annually, according to city documents.
Eisenhauer said the cost was still too high for the community.
“As long as Sabena is flying their training patterns over the neighborhoods, there are going to be a number of us seeking to stop that from happening,” she said.
If you go:
A public meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Mesa Community College, Red Mountain campus, 7110 E. McKellips Road.
For more info:
The recommendations can be viewed and comments can be made at www.mesaaz.gov/falcon_field/