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Newport Beach seeks new John Wayne takeoff path to lessen jet noise

At John Wayne Airport, planes already take off at a steeper angle. If the city has its way, they'll also travel in an S-curve above Upper Newport Bay, away from homes.

August 03, 2013|By Jill Cowan
  • A commercial jet leaving John Wayne Airport flies over the Upper Newport Bay preserve in Newport Beach.
A commercial jet leaving John Wayne Airport flies over the Upper Newport… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)

The Boeing 737 screams out of John Wayne Airport, lifting into the thin, misty clouds over Newport Beach.

With its distinctive Southwest Airlines stripes, the jet soars toward the gunmetal gray waters of Upper Newport Bay and then drifts over the multimillion-dollar homes in Dover Shores, where residents are just beginning their Monday.

"He didn't turn," notes aviation consultant Ken Shapero, peering skyward.

Departing from one of America's most restricted airports — over a city where residents have used their money and political might to fight for peace and quiet — is no simple task. Pilots must take off in what feels like a rocket-ship ascent, then throttle back as their jets rumble over the Orange County beach city, leaving passengers with the stomach-dropping sensation of a Disneyland ride.

But now city leaders are asking regulators and pilots to employ even more stringent measures to make life quieter in the neighborhoods below: They want jets departing John Wayne to follow a satellite-guided slalom course that will keep them over the bay and away from the homes that line its shores.

While airports elsewhere have instituted complex takeoff patterns and other maneuvers — such as the airfield in Juneau, Alaska, where pilots risk smacking into nearby mountains — such steps almost always have been in the interest of safety.

By contrast, the pitched takeoff at John Wayne is designed to reduce the level of jet noise raining down on the pricey real estate below.

"We'll do anything we can to reduce the impact" on residents, Mayor Keith Curry said.

Thanks to lobbying by top-dollar consultants and lengthy legal battles, John Wayne — the third-busiest commercial airfield in Southern California — is considered the most tightly controlled airport in the nation when it comes to noise.

A curfew mandates that no commercial planes can take off before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. most days, nor can they land later than 11 p.m., except in emergencies. Late arrivers are generally diverted to LAX. A 1985 settlement resulted in passenger and traffic caps on the airport. And the airport's unusually steep takeoffs (designed to muffle noise) have earned John Wayne a reputation among passengers and pilots.

Jets head skyward at up to a 25-degree angle, about 10 degrees steeper than normal, quickly gaining altitude before throttling back and gliding over Newport Beach.

"John Wayne's an interesting airport — one because you have a very short runway — so landings are more critical," said Jon Russell, an Air Line Pilots Assn. regional safety director who's flown for a major airline for 26 years. "And, of course, the takeoff profile. Those are two important catalysts for making an airport unique and more difficult."

Adding an S-curve to the already complex takeoff pattern could add a challenge for the 12 airlines that operate out of John Wayne. But it would give Newport Beach officials another toehold in their fight to spare residents the auditory assault that plagues neighborhoods and communities across the country.

Known as a "required navigation performance departure," the procedure would take jets through an extra curve to keep them over the middle of the bay, which is about half a mile across at its widest point. That way, neither the west nor the east side of Upper Newport Bay, also known as the Back Bay, home to wildlife and lined by houses, would bear the brunt of direct flyovers.

Officials say pilots wouldn't be blazing through the turns like NASCAR drivers or dragging passengers' insides along for a wild ride. Rather, a precise flight plan would be programmed into a plane's computers before takeoff.

A similar departure procedure developed for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the busiest airport in the world, is set to be tested in the fall. There, some departing Delta Air Lines jets will be guided over a golf course.

The Orange County proposal is subject to approval by the Federal Aviation Administration — which has indicated that, depending on the results of Atlanta's experiment, Newport's request would be considered by mid- to late 2014.

Executives at GE Aviation System's Naverus division, which is helping Newport Beach analyze the procedure, envision national air traffic that runs more like a Swiss rail system, with computerized coordination.

"Let me be perfectly clear about this," said Shapero, an official with GE Aviation. "It will happen."

Already, the FAA is working to move navigation from ground-based systems to satellites. Although air traffic control towers still manage airspace, the transition from using beacons on the ground to satellite systems once planes are on their way makes for more precise flight paths.

Still, Newport's push may be a step too far for now.

"We don't know if the city's proposal is technically possible," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor wrote in response to an inquiry from The Times.

But that hasn't discouraged Newport residents.

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