By Jack Mayne
If you are a Burien resident still hearing airplanes zooming over your home at all hours every time the prevailing wind is from the south, blame it on the Blue Angels.
The turns over Burien are not back – as some residents may believe – they just never were banned despite the general interpretation of an April 10 letter to Burien Mayor Lucy Krakowiak (read that here).
That letter said the Federal Aviation Administration’s Northwest Mountain region was removing the order for automatic turns of mostly propjet commuter planes from the 2016 Approach Control Service and Coordination Procedures Letter of Agreement.
So, no more wholesale routing of planes over Burien was the quickly popular view of city officials and of media (including this reporter).
It took Quiet Skies President Larry Cripe, a longtime Burien resident and retired Alaska Airlines pilot, to tell The B-Town Blog that we were not reading the bureaucratic language properly and that overflights were continuing albeit a few less of them.
Instead of automatic turns prescribed by written rules, now air traffic controllers either approve requests from individual pilots for the left turn or they simply order a specific plane to make the turn. But it is on a case-by-case basis so, arguably, there are fewer low-flying noise and pollution makers over Burien resident’s heads.
So, how do the Blue Angels figure into the mix? The first thing you must know about the FAA is that it is a very secretive agency. Calls from news reporters are treated as minor annoyances and often ignored. Calls from public officials are treated with utmost respect, but usually placed on an administrative list that may some day get attention. If the request is simple and acceptable, the answer is quick. Otherwise….
For now, the administration is pondering, or in their words:
“The FAA is currently evaluating the use of this pre-coordinated 250° heading and conducting a comprehensive review of the historic use of this flight corridor. For many years, the FAA has utilized the 250° heading for propeller driven aircraft departures during north flow operations as a safe and efficient way to disperse and separate the propeller driven aircraft from jet aircraft.”
Get the little jobs out of the way of the big guys – almost makes sense, eh?
Until last July 26 the controllers had to handle each plane separately but the process “increased complexity and entered a safety risk” into the airspace system.
So it made the turn west automatic and that means there is no back and forth over the radio to order the change from the tower, or approve the change to turn if it comes from the individual pilot.
One thing that we non-pilots do not understand is that such changes and approvals are not a simple “Can we?” and “Sure, go ahead.” It is a complex routine that ensures both the pilot and the controller know exactly what is going to happen.
Remember, there are a lot of planes in the airspace, and a little screw-up can mean a horrible disaster with many killed and property destroyed.
Blue Angel connection
When the famous Navy fancy fliers started performing at Seafair, the FAA got permission to automatically turn planes taking off toward the north, to turn west, at the 250-degree turn mentioned earlier.
The reason was obvious: Keep passenger planes away from fast maneuvering stunt flights.
Now, Cripe and Quiet Skies believes the FAA thinks it can use that exception any time it wants.
Not understood by some, the April 10 letter to Burien says the routing over Burien will continue on an as-needed basis because of the “nearly 9 percent increase in operations between 2015 and 2016.
“The historical use of the westbound turn has allowed the FAA to improve safety and balance the additional demand at Sea-Tac.”
So whenever the controllers in the tower or the pilots in each plane ask for the quick turn over Burien, it is likely the “Blue Angel effect” will be permitted to the unhappiness of Burien residents.
But Larry Cripe says Burien’s petition for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the environmental impact of the flights over Burien should also include a decision on whether a change in rules for a specific annual event be a way for the FAA to turn planes over the city anytime it is useful.
“We categorically deny that the agreement can be used that way,” said Cripe, “we are going to fight it.”
So, unless the Court of Appeals agrees with Quiet Skies and says the exception is for one week a year, not for anytime somebody wants it to happen.