The FAA establishes standard traffic patterns. An aerial view of the pattern superimposed on the airport and community environment is published in the pilots guide here.
2. Why do some planes fly right over the neighborhood and others fly over the road?
The FAA establishes standard traffic patterns and publishes approach procedures and noise abatement procedures in the AFD and other documents available to pilots. When were the landing/takeoff patterns last evaluated?
The airport traffic patterns were last evaluated as part of the Montgomery County Airpark Federal Aviation Regulations Part 150 Study conducted by the FAA in the early 1990s.
3. A 1973 change moved flight patterns to the less-developed east side of the Airpark. Now that the east side is more developed, why don’t they change the flight patterns again to equalize the impact of takeoffs and landings on both sides?
The flight pattern change would have to be reviewed by the FAA. However, before requesting a change of the pattern the Revenue Authority must inform the community on the west side of the airpark about the pending change and potential impacts on their communities. If presented to the FAA there are several things that would be considered. For example, an environmental determination is usually required for pattern changes under 3,000 feet, and security agencies would have to review the potential impact on the airspace over DC.
Ultimately neither the Airpark nor the Revenue Authority has control over whether the FAA determines that a flight pattern change is warranted or permissible under the conditions of operation at the Airpark.
4. What will happen if landing patterns are changed?
If the airpark were to revert to a standard pattern planes would continue to fly over current areas and they would also begin flying over areas that they currently do not fly over. Any landing pattern changes can only be made by the FAA. If approved then flight patterns would continue to allow planes to fly over existing neighborhoods as well as neighborhoods over which planes currently do not fly. This could significantly increase the number of Community members filing complaints about noise.
5. How can one plane use one pattern and another use a different pattern?
The FAA establishes standard traffic patterns for airplanes to orderly arrive and depart the airport. All aircraft arriving to and departing from the airport should adhere to the published procedures. Higher performance aircraft may fly slightly higher and further from the airport to accommodate their flight characteristics. These patterns are published in the Pilot’s Guide to Montgomery County Airpark and are available for review by the Community.
6. Why do some planes come in so low?
The FAA publishes standard traffic pattern altitudes and instrument approach procedures. All air traffic should be adhering to these procedures. Landing aircraft will typically begin their descent from the traffic pattern 1000 feet above the ground to make a controlled and stabilized turning decent to the intended runway. Final approach should be above the standard 3-degree glide path as indicated by the VASI. An instructor with a student may make a closer pattern when simulating emergency procedures. See further discussion of VASI under the Airpark Safety section question number 5.
7. What are the altitudes on take-off and landing? Do they vary with load and weather?
Aircraft climb to and descend from FAA standard traffic patterns or published instrument approach procedures based upon performance characteristics published by the aircraft manufacturer. Descents are discussed in Item No. 8.
Yes, aircraft performance varies with load, temperature and humidity. For example, on a hot day, the aircraft performance will be slightly lower and may require a longer time to reach traffic pattern altitude whereas on cold days performance increases and the time will be shorter. Regardless, the pilot is responsible for assessing the performance of the aircraft and ensuring the safety of flight.
8. Why aren’t specific landing patterns mandatory for all pilots?
FAA establishes standard traffic patterns and approach procedures and publishes this information in the Airport Facility Directory. All pilots are trained in and are required to comply with those procedures. The traffic patterns are also published in the pilot’s guide that is available on the Airpark web site.
9. What would happen if the patterns were lifted to 2000’ or 2500’? Would there be a reduction in noise?
The FAA establishes the standard traffic pattern altitude which at the Airpark is 1000 feet Above Ground Level (AGL) for piston aircraft and 1500 feet AGL for turbine engines. The FAA would need to approve a change to the pattern altitude. The FAA would review the request based on what concerns the Community presents for the FAA to address.
The FAA makes a distinction between noise and safety that the Community does not. When the Community hears a loud plane and is disturbed by the noise there is also a concern that the plane is loud because it is operating too low or in an unsafe manner. The FAA considers noise to be a normal function of plane and airport operations and so long as the pilot is following established flight standards for the type of aircraft being operated, then there are no safety concerns to be addressed. The 1000 feet and 1500 feet altitudes have been determined by the FAA to be necessary and appropriate for aircraft operations at this airpark.
1. How does the Airpark compare to similar airports in terms of safety and operations?
The Airpark has a 4200 foot runway. Of the nearly 5000 public airports in the USA, 49% have a runway under 4000 feet and 51% have a runway over 4000 feet. The airpark has approximately 160 aircraft based on the field and averages about 132 operations per day. Statistical accident data that compares airparks has not been found. The NTSB website shows 32 accidents at the airpark dating back to 1983.
2. Are jets more or less safe than propeller planes? What about the size of jets and the fuel they use?
All pilots are trained to safely operate their aircraft, regardless of the type of aircraft. FAA regulations ensure that this strict discipline is maintained and pilots are periodically reexamined to ensure that they are qualified in the category of airplane that they fly. Simple, light and slower aircraft are generally used for training while larger more complex aircraft are used for extended travel. To ensure safety, operations of larger more complex aircraft require additional FAA licenses and certifications, and are flown by more experienced pilots. Simple aircraft are powered by gasoline piston engines with propellers while higher performance aircraft are powered by jet turbines with propellers or jet engines and use a fuel called Jet A, which is similar to automotive diesel fuel. Simple aircraft are lighter and carry less fuel while higher performance aircraft are heavier and carry more fuel. The size of the airpark limits the size of aircraft that can use the airpark.
3. What can be done to make the Airpark safer for residents who live in the community?
The Revenue Authority has taken the following steps since the time of the December accident with some actions taken as part of their regular operations:
A. conducted meetings with the Pilots last winter to discuss the accident as well as best practices to reduce noise over the neighbors.
B. met with AOPA to review airpark operations and the AOPA’s fly friendly recommendations. The Airpark will be implementing changes to the Pilot pamphlet related to noise abatement based on the recommendations of AOPA.
C. The FBO and Revenue Authority have agreed to proactively promote fly friendly suggestions in our communications.
D. Revenue Authority has reviewed airport signage with the Pilots and will be implementing recommended updates to improve signage about noise abatement and other guidelines.
E. Revenue Authority will be conducting Pilot seminars this winter to educate and emphasize policies.
F. The flight school has agreed to require a flight instructor be in the aircraft when student pilots are conducting touch and go operations.
G. The flight school has agreed to discuss Community sensitive time restrictions for touch and go operations. Continued negotiations on this will be managed by the Airpark Liaison Committee.
The FAA, NTSB and the Airplane Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) work closely with the pilot community to study aircraft accidents and statistics and develop new equipment or improve pilot training the improve safety. Pilots are required to be trained by FAA Certified Flight Instructors and are required to maintain their currency through minimum flight time requirements, recurrent training, simulator training, flight reviews and periodic medical exams. The FAA requires that the all aircraft at least annually or more frequently if they are used for commercial purposes undergo an extensive annual inspection to ensure airworthiness by an FAA certified Airframe and Power Plant mechanic.
4. Would a tower (controlled airport) make the Airpark safer? Would it have prevented the December incident?
The FAA establishes safety at airports by ensuring that pilots are properly trained in traffic pattern procedures at both towered and non-towered airports. Control towers are generally installed at airports with high traffic density to both facilitate traffic pattern flow in the air and aircraft movement on the ground. The limited number of operations at the Gaithersburg Airpark do not meet the FAA threshold for a control tower.
Regardless, operations at all airports are the pilot’s responsibility and require vigilance to see and avoid, communicate properly and adhere to standard traffic pattern procedures. The final NTSB report will shed light on the cause and, if necessary, make recommendations to the FAA for any needed or required improvements.
5. What about automated equipment on planes that monitor take offs and landings (vertical profiles)?
The FAA ensures that all pilots are properly trained in traffic pattern procedures, which include take offs and landings. They are also trained to safely control their aircraft based upon its flight characteristic by maintaining altitude, vertical speed and airspeed. All aircraft have instruments, which the pilot uses to monitor these conditions. Many aircraft are equipped with automated equipment, which allow for descent to the airport (vertical) profile when the visibility is low. For normal visual approaches the pilot uses a Visual Approach Slope Indicator (VASI) to ensure that they are at or above the standard FAA 3 degree approach to descend and land.
A VASI is aircraft equipment that provides pilots with visual reference for guidance purposes while operating aircraft during approach for landing.
6. What can be done to make planes safer once they have taken off and are in the air?
Overall air travel is considered a very safe mode of transportation. Technology continues to improve which will continue to make air travel safer. For example, by 2020, all aircraft will be required to have enhanced electronic capabilities (ADS-B) which will supplement ground based radar and allow airplanes to transmit their location to each other. This technology is intended to make flying safer while allowing for increased traffic density.
The FAA does not have the authority to regulate the operations of military aircraft. If you live near a military installation, you should try contacting their noise office or community relations department for more information on their operations in your community.