The Polis Amendment: We Need Local Control of Our Airports!

This Post is about a legislative amendment that is set for review (and hopefully will be adopted?!?) this coming week. Your support is urgently needed, to help restore local authority so that local officials can manage impacts caused by their local airports. A link to help you easily contact your elected representative and encourage their support of HR 2997, is located near the end of this Post. Here’s the background….

The Problem…

We have a problem. A BIG PROBLEM! The system of government in this nation, which was designed to empower individuals and ensure we can work together to prosper and share great lives, has become coopted. Money now controls everything. Aviation offers a concise case study of how bad this has become:

  • the ‘money’ is in the airlines, the manufacturers, the airport authorities, and the industry lobbyists; they spend this money to gain support from FAA and elected officials, to manipulate rules and procedures for their own profits.
  • all of the above have a near-total bias toward expanding airport operations, and a near-total indifference to the impacts that are destroying even historic residential neighborhoods.
  • the environmental costs are not just an inconvenience; the repetitive noise and air pollutants, now being concentrated over new ‘noise ghettoes’ below, create sleep loss, asthma, stress, heart failure, and other serious/fatal medical conditions.
  • citizens who speak up are routinely beaten down; their concerns are diminished and ignored by all authorities; pro-aviation trolls launch attacks via social media; we are led to feel we are ‘against progress’, which is so false (…in fact, we can clearly have moderation and managed impacts that still allow all the real ‘progress’ that an airport can provide – without destroying health & quality of life).
  • when we, as impacted citizens, approach elected officials, we soon learn these so-called ‘representatives’ exist only to fund their next election campaign … and so, they are nearly ALWAYS beholden to industry players; i.e., they will act empathetic and say they are concerned, but their ACTIONS achieve no resolution of our problems. Furthermore, when we look closely at the current Congress, we see that important gatekeepers, such as the Rules Committee, appear to have heavily biased memberships (which, if abused, can be used to summarily dismiss all amendments that do not serve party objectives).
  • when we approach the mainstream media, we quickly see their enormous bias … always in favor of money, always happy to pass on misinformation.
  • when we approach the courts, they too dismiss our concerns.

Given all of this, we could just consider it a lost cause, but we really must guard against that. Instead, let’s pick our strategy carefully, and coordinate our efforts. We have to do this, especially for the next generation.

The Solution…

The very heart of the solution is LOCAL CONTROL. All airports – even O’Hare and Atlanta, the two busiest in the world – ultimately serve the local community. So, why in the world would we let FAA bureaucrats in DC take away the right – and responsibility(!) – of local officials to impose curfew hours, limit operations per hour, and impose other safe and reasonable policies that properly balance airport impacts with airline profit margins? Simply, we WOULD NOT DO THIS. This has happened, only because FAA is a captured regulator; FAA is only pretending to regulate the very industry it serves. And we are the victims, the collateral damages.

This is where the Polis Amendment comes in. Jared Polis, a Congressman representing citizens near the skydiving-noise impact-zone around the Longmont airport, has been working hard to assist those impacted. They have worked for years to get cooperation from Mile Hi, but profitable tandem jumps help the Mile Hi owner, Frank Casares, to refuse to cooperate. Local elected officials feel powerless and defer to FAA, but FAA does nothing… all they want to do is enable aviation commerce, with no regard for the ‘costs’ imposed on others. And so, the problems continue. (click here to view many other aiREFORM articles about Mile Hi and impacts around Longmont)

Here are two recent graphics about the Longmont impacts:

Notice how the climbs are routinely done a few miles AWAY from the actual airport. This helps keep airport neighbors from complaining; it also dumps noise pollution on distant neighbors, many of whom are unaware why they keep hearing so many planes. (click on image to view source tweet)

The shifting of skydiving climbs away from the airport is not only a dumping of noise pollution, it is also DANGEROUS: other pilots, flying through the area, will have a much harder time spotting the skydive aircraft when they are not within a couple miles of the target airport. (click on image to view source tweet)

The Polis Amendment seeks to add text to the FAA Reauthorization Bill (HR 2997), to explicitly restore Local Control of GA Airports (i.e., at General Aviation airports that primarily serve recreational pilots). HR 2997 is also known as the ’21st Century Aviation Innovation, Reform, and Reauthorization Act’, or AIRR, and is being pushed by Bill Shuster, along with lobbyist A4A, the airlines, and officials like Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. The ‘Reform’ part is a cruel joke; these reforms will only further empower corporate greed, while disempowering us individual citizens. The bill is working its way up to a final vote by the House. The process this week includes getting the amendment approved by the Rules Committee (probably in a meeting on Monday), then proceeding to discussion (probably Wednesday) and eventually for final debate on the House floor.

Here is a copy of the text, proposed for addition at the end of Title VI (Miscellaneous):

So, people who can see […and hear, and BREATHE(!) the impacts of unmitigated aviation…] all need to be heard this week. Contact your elected representative, and let them know why they need to support the Polis Amendment, why WE NEED to restore local control of our LOCAL airports.

This is the first step. Eventually, local control also needs to include empowering the hundreds of thousands of residents impacted under concentrated NextGen routes, to have a real voice – and the democratic authority – to impose curfews, hourly operations limits and other capacity management restrictions that best serve the local community. Every great journey starts with a single step, and local control at GA airports needs support even from those of us who live in the new noise ghettoes FAA is creating, via NextGen.

Take Action, Please!

Please contact your elected representative. Here’s a handy link to identify your rep:

http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/

For further information, please see this petition at Change.org. This is an excellent petition, laying out the goals for resolving all sorts of aviation impacts across the nation. The petition proposes the following seven elements for the 2017 FAA Reauthorization, now being considered by Congress:

  1. Update noise metrics used to evaluate significant exposure.
  2. Require environmental impact reviews prior to flight path changes.
  3. Mandate a robust and transparent community engagement process, including pre-decisional public hearings, for any new or modified flight paths or “flight boxes.”
  4. Restore local control over airport operations.
  5. Remove the FAA from oversight of environmental quality and public health.
  6. Mandate robust data collection and analysis of aviation noise and other pollutants near airports.
  7. Ban flights over and within 2 miles of designated noise sensitive areas.

Please Sign This Petition!!

(click on image to read the petition at Change.org)

(click on image to read the petition at Change.org)

A small group of noise-impacted citizens have worked together to create a petition that is generally aimed at:

  1. restoring local control on airport environmental impacts;
  2. maximizing aviation transparency (so impacted neighbors can use real data to efficiently resolve aviation noise problems); and
  3. stripping FAA of the environmental regulation authorities they have increasingly abused (…in apparent ‘service’ to the airlines and other aviation operators).

This past year has been extraordinary for the extent of news coverage on aviation noise impacts. The highest profile news stories have involved FAA’s botched NextGen implementations at major commercial airports near Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, LaGuardia, Los Angeles, Minneapolis-St.Paul, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle. But the loss of quality of life caused by excessive aircraft noise also happens near smaller airports, particularly those with operations using repetitive flight patterns and noisier aircraft types, such as:

  • AIR TOURISM: In places like the Grand Canyon and Hawaii, the vistas are astounding, but the quality of the experience is destroyed by the loud ‘thump-thump-thump’ of commercial air tour helicopters. The huge profits made by the operators come at a great ‘cost’ to other park visitors. The National Park Service has worked for decades to create meaningful aviation noise regulation, but their efforts are always stymied by FAA and the very operators FAA fails to regulate.
    — When are we going to take FAA out of the business of impeding the regulation of aviation noise in parks?
  • BANNER-TOWS: there have been seven newsworthy banner tow accidents thus far in 2015, with multiple injuries and one fatality.
    — Do we really need noisy airplanes to sell us insurance and beer?
  • CLOSED-PATTERN FLIGHT-INSTRUCTION: The busiest airport in Oregon is not Portland, but Hillsboro, where FAA recently spent tens of millions to add another runway to accommodate flight instruction. A single company makes a huge amount by importing student pilots from around the world, especially China, to train in the local airport traffic patterns. The problem: the training aircraft burn mostly leaded aviation fuel, and they fly low over neighborhoods and schools.
    — If we are importing students from China, shouldn’t FAA ensure they train away from our homes, perhaps at large remote airports?
  • HELICOPTER AIR CHARTERS: Tens of thousands of residents on Long Island endure invasive noise when financially elite passengers take expensive helicopter rides out to the Hamptons. The town of East Hampton has for decades refused to accept FAA money, so they can regain local control. FAA is fighting them every way they can.
    — Shouldn’t FAA allow local officials to serve local taxpaying citizens, by imposing reasonable regulations on local airport activities?
  • JET AIR CHARTERS: Just like at East Hampton, on the West Coast the people in Santa Monica have fought for decades to reclaim control of their local airport. Their public health concerns include air pollution, noise pollution and the lack of needed safety zones to handle more than 14,000 jet operations per year. Homes are literally across a chain-link fence from the airplanes; so close that lawn furniture is blown over when charter jets and bizjets turn to take the runway. Jet fumes (and leaded fumes from the flight-training planes) continue to choke neighbors. The airport simply cannot contain dangerous runway excursions by jets, but still, FAA’s lawyers continue to take administrative and legal actions against the local authorities, blocking their efforts to assert local control.
    — The impacts at Santa Monica are so egregious and so thoroughly documented, it just makes no sense that these good citizens have to keep fighting for clean air and peace. Will Congress finally step in and force FAA to allow reasonable regulations by local officials?
  • NEWS-COPTERS & OTHER LOW-FLYING HELICOPTERS: FAA’s rules effectively mean that there are no reasonable minimum altitudes and helicopters can be flown at any altitude. The result is a growing problem of very noisy and invasive news helicopters, as well as privately owned copters used to commute between the office and residential helipads.
    — Given the high noise levels of helicopters, isn’t it time that FAA set rules that force them to fly higher, further from our homes and schools?
  • SKYDIVING: These airplanes are modified to climb faster (and get as many trips in each hour), making them among the noisiest airplanes in use. These operators also have a habit of ‘offsetting’ their climbs 4- to 8-miles away from the airport, so that impacted residents have no idea that all-day-long airplane drone is related to skydiving.
    — Given the concentrated noise impacts of skydiving, isn’t it time for FAA to adopt meaningful regulations and environmental review, to protect the rights of people to maintain quality of life?

So, PLEASE sign this Petition! And, please also spend a minute and share your personal comment. Let everyone know what is happening where you live…

…which airport impacts your life, and how has FAA
failed to help you and your neighbors?

Another Tragic Airshow Fatality

20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, impact & ribbon

The groundcrew was holding a ribbon to be cut by the inverted biplane, but the biplane contacted the runway. The prop appears to be spinning in this image. The white smoke is part of the show.

Yesterday, at the Thunder over Solano Airshow, a 77-year-old pilot was killed during the finale of his performance. Flying a Boeing Stearman biplane, Eddie Andreini intended to invert, then pass low over the runway, and cut a ribbon held across the runway by standing personnel. 20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, fire, waiting for ARFFNews reports indicate he had aborted two attempts and then, on the fatal third attempt, he impacted the ground while inverted.
20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, 2012 pilot pic

Mr. Andreini was an accomplished pilot based in Half Moon Bay, CA. He had thirty years of air show performance experience.  According to Colonel David Mott, with the 60th Operations Group at Travis Air Force Base, winds were 10 to 15 knots, gusty at times. Tens of thousands stood in the sun and watched the tragedy unfold. Many were shocked and silenced; some became upset later in what was perceived to be a very slow rescue response. For example, one citizen with a digital camera took shots indicating two-and-a-half minutes passed before the first fire extinguisher arrived, and five-minutes total passed before actual rescue crews arrived.

Airshow fatalities are becoming far too regular. Last year, it happened at the airshow in Dayton, OH. In fact, it was the same scenario. An inverted biplane, but with a pilot and a harnessed wing-walker. Both died in a fiery crash. That airshow crash was a déjà vu moment for me. It reminded me of the fatality I saw in 1997, while working at a control tower near Denver. And, it crystallized in my small mind: I do not like airshows.

Aviation as a Measure of Humanity’s Progress

When you look at the engineering and the speed and the power, Aviation is potentially a true high mark for human achievement. A point of pride. 20140504.. KSUU Air Show crash, crowd picTo think we dreamt this up, created it, developed it, and refined it into a system that has so much potential to serve so many people. To make the world a better place for our grandchildren. And, yet, we continue to scar this incredible accomplishment — and reaffirm our collective stupidity — by misusing aircraft to entertain the crowds with feats such as low-altitude inverted flight. When tragedy then happens, thousands are exposed to how badly aviation can fail. Why has this not changed?

The very agency with the unquestioned authority to stop this is the FAA. Airshows have a rigorous permit process, wherein the maneuvers are clearly defined by the applicant, then signed-off by FAA officials. If a pilot flies inverted to cut a ribbon at ground level, that maneuver was approved by FAA. But here’s where it gets to be disturbing. This agency will chase a hobbyist with a 3-pound drone and slap him with a quasi-legal action, and threaten the same against thousands of other RC hobbyists. Communities are paralyzed to address noise complaints, or have no choice but to reject building plans, because cities and counties all routinely defer to this agency to call all the shots. FAA Whistleblowers — and their families — see their life and liberty arbitrarily destroyed because this agency will not tolerate those within who question authority or who speak up about waste, fraud and abuse. This agency expends an extraordinary stock of resources to hide controller errors, block the release of safety information, obstruct Congress’ FOIA laws, delay responsive and responsible actions, hound its Whistleblowers, and otherwise impede citizen participation.

If ANYTHING happens in U.S. aviation, the vast majority of us wants (and needs) to believe that FAA is on top of it, and no system failures can or will repeat. Even in the latest example, at Thunder over Solano, all the news stories refer to FAA and other safety agencies, as if they deserve great respect. And, yet, this agency continues to fail: FAA only has to say ‘No’, to put a stop to fatal, too-low-to-be-inverted airshow flying. Why has this not changed?

How I Learned to not like Airshows

Part I: the accident

It was a very hot day in 1997. I was an air traffic controller stationed at Jeffco Airport, named for ‘Jefferson County’, in the area just west of Denver. We were a small group at a growing airport; just a manager and eight or so controllers. And this weekend was our big airshow.

Estimates were that more than a hundred thousand spectators were standing, sitting, and sizzling on the airport grounds. Cars everywhere; a sea of people. The temperature exceeded 100. The sky was clear, with a searing sun. We were lucky; as air traffic controllers, we sat/stood in the air conditioned tower cab, and did not have to do anything but enjoy the show. Managing the different acts was not our job: that chore went to the air boss, out on the field.

At that time, the Jeffco Tower was on the north side of the airport, and we looked south across the parallel east-west runways. The runways were built on a generally treeless, high piece of ground, stretching to the east below a nuclear processing superfund site called Rocky Flats. Off to the west, standing in tall grandeur behind Rocky Flats, was the Front Range and the Flatirons rock formation near Boulder. That view was always a pleasure. To the south of the parallel runways was a small canyon, also running east-west. We could not see the canyon, but we knew where it was by the few trees along its edge and a visible building just beyond.

We watched the Airshow acts. We had a small crowd in the tower, because it was a rare opportunity to invite family and a few friends. During the show, some performers had been offsetting into the canyon. They were screaming in from the east, would slip left and downward to disappear, then suddenly pop up out of nowhere. I am sure it scared a few spectators (ah, hell, it scared me the first time), then gave them a quick thrill. If part of the intent of an airshow is to pump adrenaline, this maneuver was working well.

One of the acts was a retired United Airlines pilot flying his F86 Sabre.  He, too, came screaming in and did a low pass over the runway. He then began a large loop, turning ever more vertical, inverting at the top, turning downward toward the earth, and continuing a huge circle that, in theory, and without other factors, would bring him right back to another highspeed low pass. Three-quarters of the way into this loop, he was a mile or two east of the airport, pointing straight toward the earth, and needing the turn radius to allow him to level off before he ran out of air.

Now, to us in the tower, and to the hundred thousand below, it just looked like an airshow act. So, when the F86 sidestepped out of sight into the canyon, it was just like what others had done earlier, though they were all smaller and slower aircraft. So, for maybe two seconds (which seemed like two minutes), we all just knew he would suddenly ‘pop’ up out of the canyon. Not this time.
Our next image was an enormous cloud of orange, black and white.
photos (at Flickr)

video (read the comments, too)

Part II: the aftermath

That was Sunday. The Airshow came to an abrupt close. The crowds picked up their coolers and folding chairs and proceeded toward the various exit gates. Many of the gates were near the control tower, so we had a new view from our air conditioned perch: heads tipping up and down, some staying up, with long, shocked looks. These people really trust that we, as FAA air traffic controllers, do our damnedest to ensure flying is safe, and to erase unnecessary flight risks. Some of these people did not really know if we had controlled that F86 into his fiery crash; some probably thought we did. Very few of these people knew, as I had learned a few years earlier at Troutdale (more about that below), that there is an ugly habit within FAA, that sweeps safety failures under the rug.

So, we watched from the tower as all the people walked away. Once the airfield was cleared of spectators, we then spent a couple hours launching small planes. There were many pilots, who had flown in for the show, and they all needed to get home, many to hug their families after seeing such a horrible tragedy. We were a cold, sober, and suddenly very professional bunch, keeping those departures away from the crash-site and getting done with our own work, so we could go home, too. I went home to a room I was renting from a wonderful retired couple, on the west edge of Boulder. I spoke with them briefly, clinically, like a controller. My wife, and my two young children, were a thousand miles away, at our home in Oregon.

It was a few days later that I got a phone call from some controller on the East Coast. It was her job to assist in a stress debriefing. Via phone. She was supposed to help mend the psychological damages, help make sure we can talk and process and move on. I talked. I sort of processed. And I think, yeah, I moved on. But what I moved on to was a realization that there is something wrong with my employer, the FAA. At that time, in my heart, I could feel that something about FAA was broken. We were failing. We not only could do better, we had to do better.

So there I was, talking on the phone to a stranger, in a stress de-brief about this accident. And I shared something with her. How was I feeling? Well, all I wanted to do, the day I saw that happen, was go home and hug my young children. But I couldn’t. In March 1989, when I was working at Troutdale, I had been a whistleblower – I spoke up about a practice that caused a near-midair collision. I then endured immediate retaliation, which I survived. But then, in early 1996, the FAA management at Portland achieved retaliation by reassigning me to work in Colorado. My young family remained near Portland, to stay close to extended family. On the day that F86 crashed, I went home to a room in Boulder; I was a thousand miles from the healing and growth that comes from a loving family hug.

That was the part of my talking that brought out some tears. Big guy like me, crying on the phone to a stranger. Must have had her wondering what to do next.

Then, there was the other part. The angry, critical part. I asked her: do we know, were there routines in this Airshow, acts we all dumbly watched, that were known to be too risky, and thus prohibited, at least on paper? Were these risky routines denied on paper but allowed anyway? (remember, this was Day Two, so all of these maneuvers had passed muster the day before) Were those sidesteps into the canyon by ANYONE an approved and safe procedure, per the FAA personnel who signed off on the airshow plan? Was it approved for an F86 to do that loop, starting essentially at ground level (vs. the obviously safer higher base of say 500’ or 1,000’)?

I told her, I had seen before how FAA would sweep safety failures under the rug. I shared with her some of the details about that Troutdale near-midair that I spoke up about, and how it had brought on such hurtful retaliation. I told her, it is just wrong, it feels like we are so hollow – we always speak of safety, but we hide our failures; and those who do speak up, we get rid of them.

And, I told her about that last burning image from the F86 crash. No — not the towering fireball, but the REAL last image: the hundreds of shocked people, walking by in a crowd, looking upward at the tower as they walked by. It was on their faces. They depend on us.

On this day, at this airshow, in my heart: we failed.

PostScript:

Call it a flashback. I dunno. I saw this picture, from today’s Dayton crash, bit my lip thinking about a wing-walker and a pilot lost in that tragedy, and I just had to share this story from 1997.

Another Airshow Tragedy: Dayton, June 22, 2013