Airplanes have been circling over the unincorporated neighborhoods of Montara, El Granada and Moss Beach for decades. Now, after an astronomical spike in complaints about plane noise near the Half Moon Bay Airport, residents and county officials are attempting to get pilots to stop flying so low, so often, over the Midcoast.
During the Midcoast Community Council’s April 13 meeting, the advisory board heard from Jerry Kaplan of the Coastside Airport Noise Abatement Alliance, a group of neighbors in the unincorporated area working to reduce noise at the airport. Kaplan said planes flying low over the homes near the airport have become increasingly common in recent years. Specifically, he said the number of “touch and gos,” when a plane touches down on the tarmac and takes off without stopping, is the biggest gripe.
The Half Moon Bay Airport is one of three general aviation airports on the Peninsula, along with those in Palo Alto and San Carlos. The latter two have flight towers and schools, which means there is less downtime to get off the ground in Half Moon Bay. The Coastside Airport Noise Abatement Alliance has data to show that most of the planes operating out of Half Moon Bay are coming over the hill. The group is now working with airport management to develop voluntary recommendations to limit each aircraft to three to five takeoffs per visit to the airport.
Kaplan said the group wants modifications to the county’s noise abatement guidelines to reduce the number of takeoffs per visit. Officially labeled the Voluntary HAF Noise Abatement Procedures, Kaplan said this change in policy is primarily targeted toward flight instructors and student pilots from the other two regional airports concentrating training in Half Moon Bay.
During a sample size on a sunny weekend from Feb. 5-6, the group identified 123 out of 157 takeoffs, nearly 80 percent, as touch-and-gos. It appeared to be a small minority of planes, as just 11 of the 72 planes that weekend were responsible for 51 percent of the takeoffs. One Moss Beach resident claimed to have a recording of 51 planes going over his house in two hours on Dec. 18.
“The noise we’re experiencing is not general from a lot of different aircraft coming and going,” Kaplan said. “It’s from a very small number of aircraft that are here to do lessons.”
Kaplan said several Bay Area flight schools voluntarily agreed to implement the limits without the push from airport management. The voluntary policy would apply to all aviation traffic, not just flight schools.
Between January 2018 and September 2021, the county received 14 noise complaints on average per month from El Granada, Montara and Half Moon Bay and Moss Beach. But by October 2021, noise complaints skyrocketed. Between October 2021 and March 2022, the county averaged 66 complaints per month, with 60 complaints coming from Moss Beach residents alone in October 2021.
Airport Manager Gretchen Kelly said regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration have also made an impact on the Coastside’s flight patterns, particularly over Montara. In 2018, the FAA changed roughly 30 miles of airspace around San Francisco International Airport, which essentially made it easier for planes to fly at lower altitudes than previously allowed, Kelly said. The FAA added a north-south corridor over the neighborhood. While those flying at 3,500 feet or higher have to talk to air traffic control, pilots can now legally fly under the route at around 2,500 feet to 1,500 feet.
Based on the feedback from the organization, the county is considering updating its Voluntary Noise Abatement Procedures for Half Moon Bay. The current policy recommends pilots flying over the Coastside abide by certain procedures. The recommendations include takeoff and landing patterns and states that pilots should not perform touch-and-go takeoffs and avoid flying over homes whenever possible, which outspoken residents say happens all the time.
The problem, said Davi Howard, the county’s airport communication specialist, is that it’s all a voluntary system, and the county does not have enforcement. Howard’s role in Bay Area aviation is unique, as Half Moon Bay and San Carlos airports are the only general aviation airports in the greater Bay Area with a full-time employee dedicated to noise management.
Much of the work involves communicating with pilots and flight schools seeking compliance. Still, Howard was optimistic about the outreach done by the airport so far. He said based on his flight track reviews over the last month, he’s seen a drop from more than 20-plus circuits typically seen around the Half Moon Bay airport, and it’s now closer to four or five.
“We can’t penalize, we can’t fine, we can’t make them do it,” Howard said. “But we do try to appeal to their sense of community. And for the most part, we’re starting to see some results from that.”