Brad and Joanne Segal say that noisy propeller planes never used to fly much over their home in Sunset Park, even though they have lived near Santa Monica Municipal Airport since 2001.
But now, when fog and clouds roll in from the Pacific or pilots take a shortcut after takeoff, the flight path seems to swing right over their heads.
"It practically feels as though we can reach up and pull the planes out of the sky," said Joanne Segal, a homemaker with three children. "It has changed the quality of hanging out at home. The noise is an annoyance, and I'm worried about our safety."
With planes flying over densely populated neighborhoods and schools northwest of the runway, airport officials have begun receiving thousands of noise complaints from the Segals and other residents of Sunset Park and Ocean Park.
Residents blame part of the problem on a Federal Aviation Administration experiment that began Dec. 10. It directs departing propeller planes — not private jets that also use the airport — to head over those neighborhoods when fog and clouds require pilots to fly on instruments. The traditional departure route has been toward the sea via the Penmar Golf Course and the commercial and industrial areas off Rose Avenue.
Residents also believe that some propeller pilots flying under visual flight rules are taking shortcuts over their neighborhoods.
"This test has opened up a slippery slope with [visual flight rule] pilots following the path of the experimental departure route," said Andre Nemec, who has lived for five years in Ocean Park. "The number of planes coming over my house has never come remotely close to what it is now."
The complaints started as a trickle with nine in December. By the end of April, two neighborhood associations got involved and the number mushroomed to 3,747.
On the worst days, the Segals have lodged up to 50 complaints; Nemec reported to the airport that on May 8, 29 aircraft passed close to his house within an hour.
Airport officials are forwarding the complaints to the FAA for analysis and the situation is set to be discussed Monday night at the Santa Monica Airport Commission meeting.
At the Segal home Friday morning, about 15 propeller planes and jets passed over within a few blocks of their remodeled Hill Street cottage in less than 40 minutes. Two prop planes passed directly over the house with a loud buzzing sound as annoying as a leaf-blower.
"It can really spoil the vibe," Joanne Segal said outside her home as a neighbor passed by and expressed support for the couple's efforts.
FAA officials say the experiment has significantly reduced delays for private and commercial aircraft by eliminating the need for air traffic controllers to coordinate takeoffs from Santa Monica and nearby Los Angeles International Airport to avoid potential collisions.
Federal officials estimate that delays for all types of aircraft waiting to leave Santa Monica have been reduced by 85%. By turning the propeller planes over the neighborhoods farther north, they say, jetliners at LAX no longer have to wait on the runway six to eight minutes so the slower prop planes can depart from Santa Monica.
According to the FAA, the test route maintains the required distance of three miles between aircraft from LAX and Santa Monica and reduces air pollution in adjacent neighborhoods because pilots do not have to idle their engines as long before takeoff. Some residents who are exposed to the emissions dispute this, however.
The experiment is scheduled to end June 8, after which the FAA will decide whether to make the departure route permanent.
Agency officials say the number of propeller planes subject to the test averaged about eight a day for the first three months of the experiment.
An FAA report states that the complaints filed from December through February came from 13 households, including one that filed 41% of the total. The airport is preparing to give the FAA the complaints filed in March and April, but there are indications that more households are now involved.
Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman, said some complaints involve planes flying under visual flight rules, which are not subject to the test and are free to divert from the traditional departure route.
Air traffic controllers, he said, have directed a small number of these aircraft over Sunset Park and Ocean Park to move them out of the way of faster jets that are taking off.
In other cases, the planes have diverted over the neighborhoods on their own to avoid clouds and fog banks produced by marine layers that are common in the spring.
"Our analysis shows that most of the noise complaints involve aircraft that were not assigned to the test procedure," Gregor said.
Before the test began, the FAA did not hold a public hearing or notify businesses and homes along the test route — something Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) scolded the agency for in a May 11 letter that demanded the experiment be suspended.