Falcon Field safety issues drown out noise - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Falcon Field safety issues drown out noise

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Posted: Tuesday, May 19, 2009 2:30 pm | Updated: 1:32 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

David Wayne: When I retired from American Airlines after more than 30 years as a pilot, I knew I could never live too far from an airport. It's one reason we built our home near Falcon Field 19 years ago. I've enjoyed the airport and sounds of planes flying overhead.

When I retired from American Airlines after more than 30 years as a pilot, I knew I could never live too far from an airport. It's one reason we built our home near Falcon Field 19 years ago. I've enjoyed the airport and sounds of planes flying overhead.

At least until about 18 months ago. Today, there is no comfort or joy. There is noise. But that's not the biggest concern facing neighborhoods around the Falcon Field Airport. Of course, the noise certainly can be overwhelming.

As the country's largest flight-training airport for non-U.S. commercial pilots with several training schools in operation, Falcon Field has seen the number of flights, primarily by student pilots, increase dramatically. One example is Canadian-owned Sabena Flight Training Center. Since Sabena moved to Falcon Field in 2007, daily takeoffs and landings have increased from near 600 to more than 900. During that same period, takeoffs and landings at every other general aviation airport in Arizona have significantly decreased.

Sabena accounts for up to 220,000 of the airport's 320,606 total annual takeoffs and landings. According to the Mesa Master Plan, by 2017, the total number of takeoff and landing operations is projected to hit more than 407,000, and nearly 465,000 by 2027.

The largest percentage of those flights are "touch and goes," a series of maneuvers by student pilots landing on a runway and taking off again without coming to a full stop. Usually, pilots circle the airport in a defined pattern known as a circuit and repeat the maneuver. During these circuits, planes remain at an altitude of 1,000 feet, far lower than pilots taking off for another destination.

Since Sabena student pilots are from countries outside the United States, English is, at the very least, their second language.

The sheer number of Sabena flights every day puts an incredible strain on the Falcon Field control tower and airspace, not to mention the significant safety risk. Adding a language barrier increases exponentially the stress on flight controllers, the impact on private and commercial pilots trying to fly in and out of Falcon Field, and the chances of a tragic accident.

Randy Law, a former reporter and private pilot with a commercial license, chronicled his frustration in a recent article in the blog Phoenix Aviation Examiner.

"FAA regulations stipulate that no aircraft can enter Falcon Field's circular airspace without prior permission from the control tower," he wrote. "As the two of us approached Falcon, we repeatedly tried to contact the tower without success. Why? They were dealing with several student pilots unable to understand the instructions being given to them. As we orbited over Apache Junction trying to get a word in edgewise, I was counting the dollars this was costing me in wasted gas and wondered how many below us would be contacting the FAA to complain about the noise."

In the past two years, four training accidents involving student pilots occurred within two miles of Falcon Field. Three people died. In December, a Sabena student was killed in a crash that originated at Falcon Field.

How long before a similar accident takes place over Barbara Bush or Ishikawa elementary schools, Stapley Junior High School or Mountain View High School, all located below the flight pattern of this continuing training?

The economic fallout of so many student pilots clogging the airspace also is taking its toll. A business owner in discussions to build a 75,000-square-foot building on eight acres at Falcon Field decided to build elsewhere because of the problems and delays in sharing airspace with a huge flight training school. That's a loss of between $15 million and $20 million a year.

In addition to the safety concerns and the noise, there's also a growing problem of airplane-gas-generated lead pollution, a fact of which the Environmental Protection Agency and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality are becoming well aware.

The issue is about responsibility, not only on the part of Sabena, but by Mesa to institute greater controls to ensure the safety, well-being and quality of life northeast Mesa, and to secure Falcon Field's economic direction of attracting quality industrial park business growth while protecting the health of all who live and work here.

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David Wayne has been a Mesa resident for more than 20 years. For more information about the issue, visit www.keepfalconfieldsafe.com.

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