You can make a difference


Hangared at the Portland-Troutdale Airport (TTD) in Oregon, I got involved when I found out that a power generating plant, proposed for a site less than a half mile from runway centerline would seriously hamper operations at the airport by creating a fog plume from its cooling towers, as well as locating a dangerous, high velocity, high temperature thermal plume directly beneath the north pattern.

This type of plume — not your ordinary stack output — had already been identified as the cause of at least one crash and has been implicated in others. A plume located beneath the ILS approach at Morgantown, West Virginia, has grounded several commercial airliners operated by Colgan Air.

Considering the high volume of student pilots flying at TTD, a busy training airport with more Rosenblumthan 90,000 operations projected in 2013, the potential for an upset and spin at pattern altitude through sudden loss of visibility and pilot overreaction, or overflight of the thermal plume, was scary.

So I protested, did homework, contacted the FAA, attended Port of Portland meetings, and brought this situation to the attention of a lot of people, asking other pilots to join me in the effort.

It got me invited to Washington, D.C., to be a member of a work group of eight people convened to find a solution to the location of these dangerous thermal plumes near airports. Included was the president of the National Association of State Aviation Officials, the director of the Oregon Department of Aviation, the director of Caltrans Aeronautics, an official with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), the vice president of regulatory and environmental affairs of the American Association of Airport Executives, the vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives, as well as myself and a member of the California Pilots Association (CalPiltos) who has also been actively confronting powerplant construction near airports in California, representing pilots.

The FAA presented a study of the issue from Mitre Corp. It was thorough and comprehensive, looking at plume effect on different weights of aircraft and taking plume drift and weather into consideration.

According to FAA officials, the study will be given the official stamp of approval. It will then be made available to companies that want to put plants near airports, as well as airport owners, such as the Port of Portland, who choose to sell adjacent property for the purpose of plant construction, so both can evaluate the risk of accidents created by these plumes.

The issue is FAA regulation. Every organization represented in that work group requested some formal regulation of these plumes when they penetrate Part 77 airspace around airports — the same way the FAA regulates hard structures penetrating Part 77 through the 7460 process. It was reiterated that local land use bodies and states cannot effectively block the siting of these dangerous plumes without the backing of the FAA. Far too often, even state organizations lack the teeth to stop development; they can only recommend against it. FAA officials conceded that consideration of a new regulation would be the logical next step, once the Mitre model is released for public use.

The pressure is still on, and additional meetings are taking place.

The issue is safety — the safety of pilots who have been able to make the assumption that when they fly into an airport pattern they will not collide with a hard structure. Now, we need the assurance that we will not collide with an invisible plume of hot, turbulent gasses that can upset us while we’re low and slow in the pattern. Spin recovery at 1,000 feet off the deck is not an exercise I want to undertake, thank you! The potential for a fatal outcome is huge, particularly at airports with a high level of flight training.

Natural gas generating plants are here to stay; they are a relatively pollution-free way to generate power and natural gas is cheap right now. They’re great — as long as they’re not located near airports.

If nobody had gotten involved — if everybody had stood back, waiting for AOPA or the Department of Aviation or the FAA or “Somebody” to do something — the Troutdale plant would be a done deal. And the airport, currently thriving with GA traffic, would be ultimately crippled.

Land around airports, once well outside of town, has become valuable real estate these days. You need to protect your airport. You need to defend it. AOPA will help you if you contact them. The Oregon Pilots Association will help you if you contact us. But nobody will do anything if you stand back and do nothing.

All I did was investigate the situation and present a lot of facts to a lot of people. Ultimately, it got me that invite to Washington, D.C., and FAA headquarters. That’s how easy it is to make a difference. You simply have to speak up, ask questions, and point out the flaws in those “oh, it won’t affect the airport” arguments.

You can do it. You simply have to realize that you can. Open your mouth, let the businesses around your airport know that it’s threatened, get together with other pilots and those business owners and attend that council meeting. Speak up for your airport, for the services it offers, the business it brings to the city or county.

Recently, a public meeting to discuss the potential closure of the Pacific City State Airport (PFC) in Oregon was crammed with local residents who want the airport kept open. They outnumbered the pilots.

If we don’t tell people why our GA airports are valuable, how they provide emergency service access, local business from pilots, UPS and FedEx access, landing sites for firefighting aircraft, as well as ag ops, they don’t realize just how valuable the airports are.

Speak up. It’s your airport.

Mary Rosenblum is president-elect of the Oregon Pilots Association.


  1. says

    I worked as an air traffic controller at Troutdale for many years, so am very familiar with the area, with the decades-long history of compressed operations under the approach to PDX, and a few other details. I think that Mary’s charge to protect GA against hazards related to this project are laudable, but there are much easier solutions to this problem than have yet been presented.

    This is a single-runway airport, aligned east-west, at the entrance to the Columbia Gorge. To the south is the parallel I-84 freeway, beyond which is the Troutdale community, which quickly becomes houses climbing up the hill toward Gresham. To the north is flat, floodplain industrial land (where the powerplant is intended), beyond which is the wide Columbia River. Closed pattern traffic is easily handled in both standard closed patterns, on the north and south side of TTD. All traffic is held lower by ATC, due to the approach space into PDX, where commercial flights land ten miles to the west of TTD.

    Troutdale averaged 73,000 total annual operations from 1998-2011. In 2012, TTD bucked the national trend for continued GA slowdown (a decline which appears to be largely stimulated by Oil Company profits via high fuel prices); TTD jumped to 93,000 operations. Why? Mostly on the strength of local operations, generated primarily by Hillsboro Aviation opening a ‘branch’ operation, to reduce their student pilot impact at Hillsboro.

    Why is it that we have an airport with ONLY 90,000 operations annually, with traffic patterns on both sides of the single runway, with competent working air traffic controllers, and we cannot coexist with other needs of the local community, such as power generation? I mean, we have the tools to manage the safety hazard, so why apply a one-size-fits-all and shut down a proposal? Does this mean we would prefer the siting be in a more residential area, thus with more impact on non-aviators? Or, no construction, and force the inefficient use of electricity transmitted over much longer distances from source to use?

    The thing is, the hazard identified here is either visible (fog plume) or invisible (heat plume generating turbulence). And in all cases, the hazard is by no means a constant; if there is no hazard for periods of time, great, ATC uses the north pattern and the south pattern. At times when the hazard does exist, no problem; ATC alerts the pilots to fly a wider north pattern, over the river. And, instead of needing the powerplant to notify ATC of the hazard status, why cannot the plume source be monitored (a gauge for vertical airspeed aligned just above the heated air outlet) so as to ensure ATC is aware of the problem and manages the limited TTD traffic accordingly?

    Just a weird idea but, it seems to me, if FAA and other aviation officials were REALLY doing a good job, serving the public – both aviation, and non-aviation – with a solid and safe and efficient system, we would not need to invite people to fly to DC to discuss a MITRE report that FAA is thinking about releasing to the public. They habitually follow this pattern, though, because it churns work for those within FAA; it helps to justify $180K/year FAA positions in DC, as well as thousands of FAA retirees supplementing their pensions with contractor income earned while pondering and discussing and sharing donuts. This waste and inefficiency needs to end…

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