Saturday, January 19, 2013

Being a Good Neighbor

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
20 May 2010 N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - local flight 1.0 808.5

It's a sadly familiar story.  Rural airport becomes surrounded by housing developments, new neighbors complain about noise, and the airport is lynched by its own community.  When relationships between airports and their neighbors sour, nobody is happy.

The situation that exists between the Buffalo-Lancaster Airport (BQR) and the surrounding community is a prime example of an adversarial relationship.  In a Buffalo News article from 2009, one neighbor critical of the airport claimed that aircraft were literally flying between people's homes. This strikes me as completely absurd, but is readily accepted by a non-flying public that stereotypes aviators as reckless.  The point of this example, however, is not to ridicule those opposing the airport, but to illustrate how significantly relations between airport and community have degraded.

In these situations, aviators are often left scratching their heads and a common response is, "the airport was here first, why did you move so close if the airplanes bother you?"  This is quite often true and a perfectly valid argument, but logic and facts are not always productive when the houses are already built and occupied.

Ray, the owner and operator of my home base in Le Roy, has taken a different approach with the community; a less adversarial stance that seems to work well.

Le Roy Airport in its previous incarnation, July 1, 2006.

In 2009, the runway at Le Roy was increased in length from 2640' to 3855', which brought the approach end of runway 28 significantly closer to some homes at the east end of the airport.  Thus, aircraft on final approach were passing over those homes at lower altitudes than before.

The call came to Ray in the spring of 2010.  A homeowner, let's call him "David", was outside with his family when a light twin passed over their house on final approach for runway 28.  Neither David nor his family had noticed the change in crossing altitude previously because the lengthened runway went into service in cold weather.  But, as they watched the aircraft pass overhead on a warm spring day, they were spooked by what they perceived to be an aircraft flying inappropriately low.

Runway extension in progress, June 24, 2009

David called Ray with his concerns.  To his credit, he did not rant about reckless pilots or make threats against the airport, he merely questioned the change and its potential impact on him and his family.  Ray invited David to visit the airport and fly with a local pilot to get perspective on what the pilots see and how pattern operations work.  Then, Ray called me and requested that I take David flying.

When David arrived at the airport, he was warmly greeted by Ray and given a bit of a tour.  I brought David into my hangar and explained about pattern operations: what the standard pattern is, how it is flown, and the safety reasons underlying the way that it is flown.  David was a nice guy, but very reserved and nearly unreadable as we talked.

September 25, 2009, shortly after the runway extension went into service

Next, I moved on to the airplane and described it and its capabilities.  When taking someone flying for the first time, I always try to gauge their comfort level.  During this discussion, David quietly revealed that he had once taken flying lessons at the Le Roy airport in a Cessna 150.  This was many years earlier and he had stopped before soloing.  He was clearly assured by the fact that my description of airport operations aligned with his memory of those long ago lessons.

I had become a credible source of information.

"Oh!"  I exclaimed at his revelation.  "Then you already know all about this stuff!  Are you ready to fly?"

September 25, 2009

David indicated that he was.  We launched into the sky over Le Roy and I flew what I considered to be a typical pattern for me.  As we crossed over the top of his house, David looked down and commented, "from this perspective, we don't look that low to me."

As we landed, I confessed that I tend to fly steeper approaches than the PAPI (precision approach indicator lights) would generally indicate.  We flew the pattern again.  This time, I flew the final approach so as to drag us in along the shallowest trajectory of the visual glideslope.  While David still felt that we cleared his house with a reasonable altitude margin (which is great), it actually made me uncomfortable.

The Le Roy Airport, July 1, 2011, from the east.  David's house is out of frame at the bottom of the picture.

"Nobody should be flying lower than that over your house," I commented.  "Besides, that big tree in the front yard that's taller than your house?  No one will want to hit that."  Having seen that tree slide under the nose from a pilot's perspective, David emphatically agreed.

On the third trip around the pattern, I pulled the throttle to idle and made a power-off landing as a demonstration that, even in the event of an engine failure, an overhead aircraft was unlikely to pancake straight down into his home.

We launched again, but this time, departed the pattern.  I offered David the opportunity to do some flying.  David accepted my offer and flew with a steady hand while executing several well-coordinated turns. As I have commented before, I am often surprised at how well kinesthetic memory lingers in lapsed flyers.

Back at the airport, David shook my hand warmly and thanked me for the flight.  I have not encountered him since.  That was nearly three years ago and Ray has received no more phone calls from the east end neighbors.  While it is inappropriate to generalize a clear set of lessons learned from a single case study, I think Ray's effort to make a human connection with David was spot on.

Here's why:

  • We demonstrated that we respected him and took his concerns seriously.  We accepted the burden of proof in demonstrating how flight operations actually work, rather than simply dismissing him as a complainer.
  • We put a human face on the airport and (at least one of) the airplanes passing over the top of David's house.  I think this is the most effective way to prevent the development of an "us versus them" mentality. 
  • We clearly demonstrated that he was welcome at the airport.  While many airports -- including Le Roy -- are surrounded by fences for the sake of safety or the illusion of security, these fences do us a disservice in that they segregate the airport from the surrounding community.  When the neighbors feel excluded by a group of people in their midst (in this case, pilots), "us versus them" sets in.  We showed that we were happy to have David visit; there's no class warfare at 5G0.
  • We were able to demonstrate the culture of safety that exists at the airport and within the pilot community, combating false stereotypes of reckless pilots.
  • And, finally, we gave our neighbor a memorable experience from the pilot perspective and this clearly defused his concerns.
It is well worth noting that the exercise worked both ways and that my perceptions were affected as well.  After flying with David, I am much more likely to think about how my actions impact others on the ground.  More specifically,when I fly over that house, I know that it belongs to David and I have no desire to trouble my neighbor unnecessarily.

I cannot help but wonder if some of the toxic relationships that exist between other communities and their airports might have taken a different path had those airports engaged with the neighbors differently.

Regardless, I would much rather have the neighbors think kindly of me as I fly overhead than grit their teeth.

This post was inspired by a similarly themed article on the iFLYblog from November 2012.  Thanks for the inspiration, Brent!


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks. This one has been on my mind for a while.

  2. This is absolutely, without question, the perfect response to such concerns. Well done, Chris!

    Also - love the shots of the runway extension project.

  3. I probably shouldn't tell you that the pictures are recycled from earlier posts... But I still stand by them as relevant!

  4. Agree, handled very professional. What a refreshing change to deal with a homeowner that was open to talk and investigate a bit deeper.

    The Project Engineer in me also loves the project photo's, always good stuff!

    1. Gary - it was pretty cool watching the runway extension take shape. I tried to document it is well as I could for the owner.