For Craig Welzbacher and his neighbors, the racket begins south of Van Nuys Airport then rumbles in like an air attack from 12 o’clock high.
For the past 18 months, they say flight instructors and their new pilots have defied a long-standing tradition of flying propeller-driven aircraft over the uninhabited Sepulveda Basin before swinging back to the airport for touch-and-go practice landings.
This has resulted, they say, in fleets of pilots making early turns above their Lake Balboa homes, often blasting them with excruciating propeller and internal-combustion engine noise.
“It’s equivalent to a Harley-Davidson driving around your house every four to five minutes,” said Welzbacher, 44, who lives with his wife, Heather, a mile southeast of the airport. “We’re pulling our hair out. You can’t have a conversation on the phone in your backyard.”
Since January 2014, he and scores of homeowners have complained about the increasing propeller-driven aircraft noise. They’ve appealed to a Van Nuys Airport advisory group and voiced their anguish to airport, city, congressional and federal aviation officials.
But despite their pleas — and apparent Van Nuys Airport attempts to reach out to area flight schools to rein in the racket — they say the daily din from early airplane turns continues, recorded on video, audio, in photographs and on Web-based flight tracking systems.
Federal air regulators, however, contend there’s no evidence of a recent spike.
“We reviewed radar data and did not find any pattern of early turns by aircraft doing practice work at Van Nuys Airport,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. “Van Nuys controllers will sometimes instruct pilots of small propeller planes to turn early if a jet is departing behind them, but this occurs very infrequently.
“We would consider any request that Los Angeles World Airports makes to address residents’ concerns. But again, a review of radar data did not reveal any pattern of early turns.”
HISTORY OF RESPECT
For decades, pilots at what was once the nation’s busiest general aviation airport respected a voluntary tradition of taking off and flying south past Victory Boulevard over the Sepulveda Basin golf course before exercising any turns. New pilots then swung back to the airport for continual touch-and-go landings and practice takeoffs.
Signs have long been posted on the taxiway saying, “No turns before the Sepulveda Basin” and “Fly Quietly” on the airport runway.
All was relatively quiet, neighbors say, until a few years ago. Despite a steep drop in prop aircraft and flight schools at Van Nuys Airport, the growl grew over their homes, often from the same planes circling round and round every few minutes. Residents felt like they were under attack.
The noise near the airport got so bad that residents shied away from gardening, they say. They couldn’t hold patio cook-offs. They even had trouble with their animals, with one 80-year-old neighbor struggling to bring in her spooked cat.
For Gary and Cherie Aragon, TV watching inside their Gaviota Avenue home even went into a steep tailspin. When planes fly over, they have to put a show on pause.
“It’s almost a desperate situation, we’re so angry about it,” said Gary Aragon, who once videotaped a plane flying for an hour and a half directly over his house, looping back every few minutes. “This is constant, daily. When we moved here 16 years ago, I don’t remember ever having planes. … It’s maddening.”
“You cannot have the family outside for a barbecue,” adds Cherie Aragon, whose tutoring at home is interrupted during the day. “It’s almost comical. It’s wild.”
CHANGES AT THE TOP
The neighbors took their noise beef to the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council, which determined that the early turn problem corresponded with a recent changing of the guard at the FAA control tower and the hiring of a new airport director. While veteran controllers once advised instructors to guide their charges over the Basin, the newer controllers do no such thing, they say.
They also suspect flight schools from Santa Monica Airport, which charges $11 each time a new pilot makes a practice touchdown, fly their students to nearby Van Nuys for free touch and goes. They say they have identified culprits on Van Nuys Airport flight trackers coming up from the south, disturbing neighbors during numerous runway passes, then heading home.
“We don’t think this is a regular habit by pilots at Van Nuys Airport,” said Don Schultz, a 30-year member of the Van Nuys Airport Citizens Advisory Council, which took up the issue nearly two years ago. “We think that this is occurring when pilots from out of the area not familiar with Van Nuys Airport come in and do touch-and-goes. Nothing has happened: There’s been no change.”
The problem may be one of jurisdiction.
While Los Angeles World Airports governs planes on the ground, the FAA controls planes in the air. But the federal agency says it cannot enforce a voluntary noise-avoidance tradition of not turning early; it can divert planes only to protect aircraft safety. A pilot must follow directions from a controller if he or she has a flight plan, but flight instructors have no flight plans.
Jess Romo, general manager of Van Nuys Airport, could not immediately be reached for comment. Two VNY flight schools, among a handful still operating at the airport, did not return calls.
A change may be in the works, however. A LAWA Board of Airports commissioner, Cynthia Telles, has reportedly said she will soon introduce a resolution to address the noise. And City Councilwoman Nury Martinez also plans to introduce a noise control motion this month restricting State 3 jets and early turning propeller planes. Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Panorama City, is also monitoring the airport noise issue.
“I want to see Van Nuys Airport succeed,” Martinez said. “It employs 1,000 people, is one of the biggest job generators in my district, but it can’t be at the expense of the quality of life of the residents of Lake Balboa.
“The FAA has jurisdiction of what happens in the air. I want to get to what we were doing before … directing small propeller pilots to delay their left turns.”
For Welzbacher, it’s an easy fix. It’s simply a matter of pilot courtesy, he said, where pilots would agree to fly the extra mile.
“Good pilots know when to stay straight in a plane,” said Welzbacher, a film producer, director and actor who also lives on Gaviota Avenue. “New pilots drift to the left right over my house.
“We want the noise to stop. We’re not anti-aviation; we love planes. We just want some peace and quiet — and safety. We want them to fly further south before turning.”