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Noise from the sky

aircraft light

by Benoit Pette
Wellington on a balmy day: countless people enjoying being in the sun. If you can’t hear the bird song or cicadas, it’s because the sound of the waves has drowned out their music for a moment. Kids are running and laughing. Up the hill, residents look after their gardens or simply chill, with friends and family. Paradise, right? Well yes. But …..

…. some residential areas and popular beaches are also within reach of the noise of recreational aircraft, whose play patch is above the Eastern Harbour. Up there, on balmy days, light planes circle for hours, making the most of the good weather. As they are flying, the neighbourhood is plagued by almost-constant engine noise, very similar to a neighbour deciding to mow his lawn as soon as conditions are good.

A group of Miramar residents, known as Noflyzone, has assembled evidence using publicly available GPS traces from the planes. Here is a trace of some of the planes circling on a Sunday:

aircraft over harbour

In this picture, not all the planes were captured because the necessary receiver (known as ADS-B) will not be mandatory for all aircraft in the Wellington area before mid-2021. The smaller circles are small aircraft waiting to get green-lit by the air traffic control tower, which prioritises commercial flights landing at the airport.

As the light plane flights are recreational, this means the noise is not necessary. Unlike commercial aircraft, the Wellington Aero Club does not provide a service to the region and the noise has a negative impact on residential areas that clubs are flying over: Because they fly low and slow, it’s a constant background noise – impacting an area that includes the Miramar peninsula and stretches across to Eastbourne. Tens of thousands of people have their soundscape hijacked.

Eager to discuss this issue directly with the Aero Club, a meeting was arranged to see how the noise nuisance could be reduced. The Club claimed it is operating within the rules set by the Civil Aviation Authority and a lasagne of legal frameworks: the Resource Management Act, and Regional and City Council by-laws.

The Club also raised a precedent: as a “resident” of the airport for 90 years (it recently celebrated its anniversary), the choice made by residents to live within its operational area meant they had to expect some level of noise from the airport. Inherited privilege, perhaps, with the idea some residents (the Club) are more entitled than others (everyone else.). The idea of introducing electric planes, significantly quieter, was discussed, but wasn’t deemed operationally appropriate at present.

The Wellington City Council and the Regional Council have confirmed that the legal framework is solely focused on the noise limit – that cannot be exceeded in any rolling 90-day period – from the take-off and landing of aircraft. Asked to intervene, the City Council replied it couldn’t do anything.

Noflyzone, however, is challenging the City Council’s apparent inability (or unwillingness) to act. It has issued a statement to the Council reminding it of its duty to act on behalf of the community and has launched a petition to gather support. The Council has some legal tools it could leverage: amending the District Plan, publishing a by-law, etc. Noflyzone is asking for a complete ban on residential fly-overs and a mechanism to ensure that light aircraft can’t circle around the peninsula. There is plenty of space south of Wellington where the planes could practice without being a nuisance for residents.

During lockdown, many acknowledged how much they enjoyed the lack of engine noise. As exasperation is building again, a better balance should be reached between residents’ considerations and everyone’s right to enjoy our beautiful city. With wellbeing, liveability and climate change in mind, it makes sense.

8 comments:

  1. Rata, 2. June 2020, 14:55

    I’ve lived on the Peninsula for26 years now. Yes I chose to live near the airport and so yes I accept a certain level of noise. But the number of small aircraft going round and round has increased dramatically in the time I have lived here. It’s past time for a good look at what is fair. Especially as there are other options To the South.

     
  2. Jonio, 2. June 2020, 17:17

    I think these pilots are practising their take-off and landing skills. It’s a very important part in their training if I understand well. And for this, they turn around the peninsula, at a standard circuit altitude of (usually) 1000 feet, always following the same pattern so as to avoid flying directly over houses, and be able to proceed away from people in case of emergency.
    Where is that space south of Wellington where they could train for their take-off/landing procedures? Could you please develop that point as it could lead to a potential solution.

     
  3. Benoit Pette, 4. June 2020, 11:30

    @Jonio: You are right – the pilots are practising. Not being a pilot ourselves, we aren’t in the best position to come up with an actual solution to the problem. Our suggestion to fly south of Wellington (above the sea) is because there is no one to bother there.

    The point of the petition is to ask the community if we collectively think there is an issue and, as @Rata said very well, whether the use of the area is still fair. If the petition gains enough momentum, it’ll mean the issue is indeed significant enough for the community and a new, better balance has to be found. At the end of the day, a lot of people have said how much they’ve loved the peace and quiet during lockdown, and we’re looking at ways to get something positive out of it by keeping some of the benefits we’ve all enjoyed.

     
  4. Ross Clark, 5. June 2020, 3:20

    Encouraging general aviation (GA) to Paraparaumu Airport may have to be the long-term option. But how do you practice take-offs and landings above open sea? With much less civil aviation around, it may well be the case that GA pilots are ‘making hay while the sun shines’.

    The other option, of course, is flying over to Blenheim for this sort of thing.

     
  5. Andrew Rouppe van der Voort, 5. June 2020, 9:01

    Benoit: I think the circuit route has to have certain provisos. First, it has to be repeatable and therefore needs reference points. If you are circling off the south coast, it is difficult for multiple aircraft to reliably track the same route as it would be easy to drift off the designated area with no reference points. Circling over the harbour entranced channel is repeatable. Second, it needs to have a degree of safety. If an aircraft had a failure, they’d rather ditch in the harbour than off the coast, where finding and retrieving persons would a) take exponentially longer to reach and b) given the usual sea conditions be more than difficult to execute.

     
  6. Sean, 5. June 2020, 10:03

    So something that is recreational is by definition “not necessary”? Pretty much renders most activity worthless if you take that view.

     
  7. Lance L, 5. June 2020, 10:39

    Benoit: As a resident of the Miramar Peninsula, I too have noticed the change in noise patterns over the last weeks. From the lack of construction noise, to the lack of car noise on the road. However, I have to agree with the Aero Club on this one: everyone who lives here knew that the airport was there when they moved in. I think your concerns are most likely the result of noticing the light aircraft more due to the almost complete lack of commercial flight noise in comparison (which has a much more significant noise budget than the Aero Club, by several orders of magnitude).

    The use of the local Wellington airspace that you’ve noted is required for landing and take-off practice. Similarly, the activities you mention are not purely recreational in nature – the club is a training organization, preparing pilots for careers and competency in flight safety. While this may seem silly in the short term given the Covid19 travel restrictions, in the long term, the world needs competent professional pilots.

    I applaud their efforts to instill technical and professional aptitude in their students. We should be encouraging this sort of educational activity in the real world, not discouraging it.

     
  8. Benoit Pette, 8. June 2020, 13:52

    @Sean: Of course, the point of the petition is not to be the fun police, rather ensuring the fun of some is not a nuisance to many. In putting this petition together, we first acknowledged the problem (there is noise, noise is a problem), then looked at the source of the problem (the recreational aircraft) and wondered if it was fair. The commercial aircraft are a nuisance but 1. they fly and go; 2. they provide a significant service to the community and the economy; and 3. the nature of the noise (not the level) is less ear-piercing. This can’t be said of the recreational aircraft which 1. fly around repeatedly; 2. have a minor input in the economy; and 3. create a painful noise. Therefore it becomes fairer to question whether the fun of a handful of people is worth the nuisance to so many. Also, unlike mechanical sports, there are many hobbies and fun activities which don’t impede on others’ wellbeing.

    @Lance: the issue with light aircraft existed well before the lockdown. I tend to agree with you the airport was there when we moved in, 13 years ago. However, I don’t think there is a “residents” scale, where some (e.g. the airport) would be entitled to more rights than others (everyone around), depending on who was here first. With such an approach, I could argue I can do more in my neighbourhood since I arrived before everyone else. Taxes are all paid equally (or rather, on an socially accepted contract) and we all have to make room for each other. This petition is asking the aero club to look at options to minimize the noise they inflict on the peninsula, especially at the vertical of their usual route. I can’t see it being too difficult to adjust these routes. Of course, good on them for training good professionals, and providing excitement for those who are into this. But not at the cost to the residents.

    Finally, there are options to fly quieter. At the moment, we just choose to accept noise and air pollution as byproducts, as a fact of life. For the future, however, it is healthy to try to eradicate engine noises out of our soundscape. Solutions exist today, operationally and technologically, we need to implement them.