Airport fees are the key to aircraft noise

Try if you can to think back to August of 2020. It was the year of the COVID pandemic. Arizona’s COVID cases had peaked the month before and the mood was improving. Severe and panic-driven lockdowns had given way to a more thoughtful and measured approach. Movie theaters were finally reopening—always a good bellwether of normality. Schooling was still wonky, but at least children were learning again, and interacting with others again in an abstract sort of way. A grid of tiny talking heads on a computer screen became the norm.

But the subject of this post concerns what happened back in August of 2020 in Apache Junction’s city council. A debate on how to handle noise issues had concluded with the adoption of new technology: a decibel meter! Prior to this, excessive noise was determined at the discretion of police. Now it was more objective—like the radar speed guns used for traffic enforcement. This change was in accordance with Pinal County’s own noise ordinance, where metering plays a prominent role in enforcement. This change also happened in the context of a similar initiative that was being considered by the Arizona state legislature at that time (House Bill 2618).

So all throughout our various polities and municipalities, noise was considered important enough to debate and legislate—even while a global pandemic raged. Clearly noise is important! Unless of course that noise is created by an international flight school training foreign pilots and operating out of a “reliever airport”. Then noise is unassailable.


“We can’t control aircraft,” claim our elected leaders. “Only airports can do that.”
“We can’t control aircraft,” claim the airports. “Only the FAA can do that.”
“We can’t control aircraft,” claims the FAA. “Talk to the airports.”

But elected officials and airports can control airport fees, and tie them directly to noise. Swiftly would the response be from flight schools if they were forced to pay for noise abatement to deal with their noise pollution. Would they leave the airports and take their business elsewhere? Oh I think not. Aren’t we told over and over how flight plans have to be exactly the way they are? And that no deviations are possible? So if that’s the case, where will the flight schools go? They just told us no other alternatives exist. Were they lying?

So all throughout our various polities and municipalities, noise was considered important enough to debate and legislate—even while a global pandemic raged.

Clearly what they really mean is, “No other flight plans are better for our bottom line than the ones we’re using right now”. That sounds more truthful and accurate. And that calculus changes the moment noise has a cost that must be paid. And the fees wouldn’t just be for noise abatement; they would be for lead abatement as well. There is no safe amount of lead, and the aircraft used by these flight schools are the only type left in the world that are allowed to pollute our homes, schools, parks, hospitals, etc., with lead.


Look, ma! The Pipstrel Alpha Electro trainer. No lead or noise!

So if the flight schools aren’t going anywhere, how will they respond to the fees? Well by being reasonable of course! By suddenly agreeing that flight plans can indeed be changed. Perhaps by even petitioning the FAA to allow noise- and lead-pollution-free alternatives like the Pipstrel Alpha Electro trainer. It’s been tried and tested for years and has been awaiting government approval. I bet if it was another COVID vaccine, it would have been approved already! In a matter of months—not years! Imagine if the largest flight school in the world sent their lobbyists to Washington and said, “Approve this plane or we’ll move our operations to nations that will.” I bet that would get some ink on paper!

And it all got started because of a little thing called airport fees.

How the FAA rigs the system in favor of aircraft owners and pilots

Ever wonder what would happen if you reported a flight safety violation to the FAA? Forget about Hollywood movies like Flight and Sully that portray commercial passenger plane mishaps and no-holds-barred investigations. Here’s a real-life example detailing the impossible hurdles the FAA demands before they’ll take action against a pilot.

Years ago, I witnessed a small piston-driven single-engine aircraft fly at an unlawfully low altitude over the community. It was neither landing nor taking off, but simply looping and buzzing the community with no regard for those below. As this was not the first time, I contacted the FAA to report it.

I provided…

  • The exact times and dates (there were two instances on different days).
  • The exact location (latitude and longitude).
  • The aircraft make and model.
  • The aircraft tail number.
  • The aircraft serial number.
  • The ADS-B transponder data as transmitted from the aircraft itself. This included the aircraft’s time-stamped altitude, speed, location (latitude and longitude), and direction (compass bearing) at the time of the incident.

I even quoted the exact law that was violated…

14 CFR Part 91.119. Minimum safe altitudes; general
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(b) Over congested areas – Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open-air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

As the aircraft was flying over Gold Canyon at an altitude less than a thousand feet above the peaks of Dinosaur Mountain, and was within 2000 horizontal feet of Dinosaur Mountain, it was in violation of 14 CFR Part 91.119 (b).


The offending aircraft over Gold Canyon, at an altitude below 1,000 feet of the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft (Dinosaur Mountain).

So what happened? Well first off, I had to contact the FAA twice, because I never got any confirmation the first time I submitted my complaint. When I finally did get a confirmation, it was just a generic message with no complaint number and no way to track its status…

From: <>
Subject: RE: N1411Z safety violation
Date: December 8, 2016 at 12:04:58 PM MST

Thank you for contacting the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Hotline.  Your report has been referred to the appropriate office for investigation.
We appreciate you contacting the FAA Hotline concerning this issue.

FAA Hotline
Federal Aviation Administration
Office of Audit and Evaluation
800 Independence Avenue SW
Washington DC  20591
Nothing says “We don’t care!” like a generic acknowledgment with no tracking number.

Some weeks later, an investigator did eventually contact me. Now when you imagine this investigator, don’t imagine someone like a detective from the police with a “badge” or “shield”. Don’t imagine someone like a federal air marshal. Instead, imagine some retirement-age guy who is likely a pilot himself, and spent his career in aviation one way or another, very much a part of the system you are now at odds with. Imagine, if you will, an almost volunteer service—a fellowship of pilots policing themselves.

The investigator contacted me via telephone and asked questions. He was particularly interested in how I was able to get the ADS-B transponder data. I explained that I got it from the aircraft itself, and that I simply received and decoded the signals using an ADS-B dongle and some software. I emailed him a picture of the specialized antenna on my roof designed specifically for receiving the 1090 MHz ADS-B signals. While I am by no means the first person to do this, the investigator had never encountered anyone before who had bolstered a complaint with such hard evidence. Even still, he ominously wanted to know if I had taken any photos—as if photos were somehow more compelling than the aircraft itself telling you that its pilot had violated the statutes.

Weeks later, the investigation concluded with no formal sanctions levied against the aircraft owner…


I want to focus on one part: The reliability of the provided ADS-B data is unknown. If there was any doubt about the ADS-B data I provided (and no one was disputing its veracity), then why didn’t this investigator bother to independently confirm it? Did he contact the local airports? Check their ADS-B logs? Check their radar? Anything? Anything? Nope. Nothing. Apparently, that was my job! Who’s the investigator here? He or me? I had already presented this violation on a proverbial silver platter. If this much detail was provided to police for every crime, detectives would be out of a job.

Clearly, the hurdles the FAA requires to take action are designed to be impossible to meet by any average person. And the evidence I provided was well above average. And even that wasn’t good enough. Imagine how difficult it would be to prove all this before the advent of ADS-B dongles and tracking services like Flightradar24. Imagine trying to make your case before online map services like Google Maps. This is all by design; the laws were written well before this technology, and didn’t anticipate such technology being in the hands of average homeowners.

Even still, he ominously wanted to know if I had taken any photos—as if photos were somehow more compelling than the aircraft itself telling you that its pilot had violated the statutes.

Even the statute itself is designed to be difficult for a pilot to violate. Flying too low? Doesn’t matter—so long as the aircraft is 1,000 feet above the the tallest thing within a 2,000-foot radius. So if your roof is the tallest thing, then the pilot is free and clear. Never mind that a propeller-driven piston-engine aircraft flying that low would sound like the aircraft’s about to crash into your home, and would literally shake things off the shelves. The FAA couldn’t care less. The rules were bought and paid for by lobbyists to favor pilots. And, ultimately, what good is any law if it’s not enforced?

The complaintant’s ADS-B data indicates the aircraft was operated over the Gold Canyon residential community at altitudes that may be contrary to §91.119. The reliability of the provided ADS-B data is unknown.

And speaking of enforcement (or the lack thereof), ADS-B transponder data is already being recorded by airports as well as commercial service providers of flight data. We already have map data of every possible metric we can imagine, from populated areas to the tallest structures in those areas. There’s no reason why all this data couldn’t be systematically analyzed to detect violations and issue fines, not unlike myriad traffic enforcement cameras that the earthbound must contend with. So why hasn’t the FAA done so?

Why can’t aviation schools be awesome neighbors?

Local rancher, Steve Edwards, submitted an editorial—Why can’t aviation schools be awesome neighbors?—to our local newspaper of record. Steve is a resident of nearby Queen Valley, and was recently appointed by the Association for the Development of a Better Environment (ADOBE) to address aircraft issues.

From the op-ed…

I found an awesome free app called flightradar24. With this app I know every airplane over my head and anywhere in the world. I can see the school, commercial or private. Now when I call the schools about putting my neighbor and my life in danger, they will listen about how we want awesome neighbors.

Freely available software and software-based services are a game-changer for Quiet Sky advocates, as they remove aircraft anonymity and allow both pilots and owners to be identified. For a modest subscription fee, these services will allow one to track historical data as well. So it isn’t necessary to use the software at the time of the event. If an aircraft buzzes your property, you can determine who it was at some later and more convenient point in time. And all this is certainly preferable to other means of tracking aircraft…


Aircraft operators take note: you never know who may be watching and recording.

The problem is that even after offending aircraft operators are identified, they aren’t likely to face any consequences for their actions, whether it’s poisoning our community with highly toxic lead, or creating excessive noise pollution day and night. How can you help? Get involved! Contact your elected representatives and civic leaders. Contact the local flight schools and demand that they be awesome neighbors.