In the past, when people living near an airport had an issue with airplanes flying over their homes, they complained to the airport manager or wrote letters to the local newspaper. Today they create websites.
That’s what David Wells of Tracy, Calif., did. The website went up after he sent a commentary to the local newspaper about low flying airplanes and then saw an increase in traffic, he said.
Wells posted his experiences on BloodyRedBaron.org, along with video of the aircraft to document what he believes is dangerous and discourteous behavior.
Wells lives approximately one mile north of Tracy Municipal Airport (TCY), where he and his family have lived for seven years.
“What is far beyond annoyance and crosses into the realm of true danger are the pilots who buzz our homes just north of the airport at dangerously low altitudes — less than 100 feet, and sometimes as low as 60 feet — banking and steep climbing literally directly over my house,” he wrote in the Sept. 20 commentary, adding that if he lived in a two-story house “many of these bozos would run right into it.”
“I could easily hit them with a baseball (or a paint gun) as they fly over,” he continued. “What’s worse, a few truly creative pilots have lately taken to repeatedly flying in a circle (actually an ellipse) just over our homes — six and seven times in a row early Sunday mornings. Apparently, these individuals have nothing better to do on a Sunday morning than get their jollies by annoying and endangering the local residents.”
Wells believes that some of the pilots are deliberately harassing him.
“I guess you’d have to be here to have a clear comprehension,” he said. “We have experienced a spike in the number of true ‘buzzings’ since I have spoken out. By that I mean extremely low and loud and directly over our roof, at several different headings. They are obviously intentional maneuvers and not related to any landing approach.
“My home address is easily attainable, and the pilots can see us with the camera,” he continued. “Also, if you do a Google Earth on our address, you can see the way the layout of the road behind us curves away, and our neighbor behind us has the only backyard around that is not landscaped — just brown weeds — which makes our yard easy to spot from above.”
Wells has been collecting aircraft registration numbers and tracking down the owners of the airplanes.
“I’m not out to get anyone — just stop the dangerous and discourteous behavior,” he said.
Wells said he has learned that some of the airplanes come from flight schools in Hayward and San Jose, cities that are about 40 miles west of Tracy.
Field elevation at TCY is 193 feet, while the pattern altitude at the airport is 990 msl, which put the aircraft at roughly 800 feet agl. The airport has two runways, 12/30 and 07/25. The Wells home lies beneath the published missed approach path for the VOR-A approach and is close to the published holding pattern for that approach. The VOR-A approach allows the pilot of a category A aircraft to descend to 620 feet msl, which translates to 427 feet agl at the Minimum Descent Altitude for that approach. The NDB approach for runway 12 allows pilots to get down to 640 feet agl/840 msl. The RNAV approach for runway 30 puts planes at 284 feet agl/477 msl, while the GPS approach for runway 25 allows them to get down to 580 feet msl, which puts them at 387 feet agl.
HOW LOW CAN YOU GO?
Wells claims the aircraft are much lower than these minimums.
“I can’t throw a baseball 450 feet horizontally and, due to gravity, far less vertically,” he said. “I could easily hit these planes as they zoom past. I can throw a ball up in the air far higher than some of these planes fly over. A friend of mine, Leroy Petz, who has had a pilot’s license, has sat in my backyard with me as this occurs, and has said approaches do not require their maneuvers or altitude.”
Although multiple attempts were made by General Aviation News to reach Petz, he did not return our calls.
A search of the FAA database disclosed that Petz earned his private pilot certificate Feb. 16, 1978. The database does not show that he had an instrument rating. Also, his last medical was issued in July 1985, so it is unclear if he is a current pilot.
On his website, Wells notes that FAR 91.119 dictates how low an aircraft can be, and includes the exception made for takeoffs and landing. He says he does not believe that the aircraft he is seeing fall within that exception.
A review of his videos shows that several of the aircraft have retractable gear, which were extended as they flew over Wells’ home. That would indicate they were coming in for landing.
Wells’ complaints have the attention of at least one aviation advocacy group. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s Airport Support Network volunteer at Tracy Airport, Denny Presly, said he’s watched the videos and is gathering information.
“Based on reports I am getting from other people, the aircraft he sees are doing the circle to land approach,” he said. “It is entirely possible that they are coming in at 400 feet and are scaring the daylights out of him.”
Presly added, however, that he is skeptical of Wells’ assertions that the aircraft barely clear the houses or water tower in the neighborhood, noting, “You would have a lot more complaints from other people than just him if the pilots were really that low.”
On Nov. 2 the Tracy Press published a follow up article to Wells’ commentary. The article was written about an upcoming meeting of the Tracy Transportation Commission.
According to staff at the newspaper, since that article appeared more people have stepped forward to complain about low flying aircraft.
At the Tracy Transportation Commission meeting it was suggested that the pattern altitude at the airport be raised to 1,000 feet agl and that pilots be encouraged to use runway 30 in calm winds.
“The staff also will schedule an observation visit to my home when a pilot will fly the approach at different altitudes,” said Wells.
Complaints about low-flying aircraft are difficult to investigate, said Ian Gregor, communications manager for the FAA’s Western-Pacific Region.
“We get a lot of complaints and we would love to send someone out to look at all of them, but we don’t have the resources to do that,” he said. “Generally we rely on the reporting parties to supply us with as much concrete and conclusive evidence as possible.”
Evidence can include still photos or video accurately showing an aircraft’s position and altitude relative to other objects, according to Gregor.
“We also need the tail number, the time of the incident and what kind of operation it was involved in,” he said. “Our flight standards people will thoroughly review the material and if we determine that someone likely committed a violation, we will follow up. There will be due process. If it is determined that a violation took place, the actions against the pilot can range from a warning letter to a revocation of the pilot’s license.
“The key is to provide us with evidence that a violation actually took place or for one of our inspectors to witness a violation,” he said. “If a violation has taken place and can be proven, we will certainly take action.”
The Part 91.119 minimum safe altitude regulations require that aircraft be at least 500 feet above any houses, Gregor said, noting that the minimums do not apply when a plane is landing or taking off. A missed approach would fall under that exemption, he said.
“The key questions are how high the planes actually are and whether the pilots are executing missed approaches,” he concluded.
Wells has invited FAA inspectors and those who doubt his claims of low flying aircraft to his home to witness it for themselves. Likewise, some pilots have invited Wells to come flying with them to see what it is they do.
Wells also has been in touch with the airport manager, Rod Buchanan. He claims Buchanan told him that he had witnessed some aircraft flying too low.
However, when GANews contacted Buchanan and asked about that statement, Buchanan replied, “I did not state that I confirmed the altitude of any aircraft or agreed with his assessment. Nor do I know if any pilots have violated any airspace rules.”
Buchanan noted that the FAA controls the airspace, which means the city would have to work with the FAA to have any flight patterns changed, including noise abatement procedures.
“Another important note is properties near the airport have an avigation easement attached to the property,” he said.
With a recorded avigation easement, a property owner acknowledges the existence of the airport and gives up the right to sue. However, some easements have limitations. For example, if the easement requires all pilots to fly at an altitude of 1,000 feet over the property and some pilots fly lower than that, a homeowner would be able to sue for violations.
Wells countered that, easement or not, pilots are flying too low.
Changing the flight pattern may not be an option, said Gregor, noting it would take the blessing of the FAA.
“Changing airspace is like a Rubik’s Cube,” he said. “When you change one side or one pattern, it affects others as well and you have to be cognizant of that.”
For more information: BloodyRedBaron.org, TracyPress.com, FAA.gov or ci.Tracy.ca.us/Departments/Parks/Transportation/Airport.