ANALYSIS: Blame the Blue Angels for planes still flying low over Burien

By Jack Mayne

If you are a Burien resident still hearing airplanes zooming over your home at all hours every time the prevailing wind is from the south, blame it on the Blue Angels.

The turns over Burien are not back – as some residents may believe – they just never were banned despite the general interpretation of an April 10 letter to Burien Mayor Lucy Krakowiak (read that here).

That letter said the Federal Aviation Administration’s Northwest Mountain region was removing the order for automatic turns of mostly propjet commuter planes from the 2016 Approach Control Service and Coordination Procedures Letter of Agreement.

So, no more wholesale routing of planes over Burien was the quickly popular view of city officials and of media (including this reporter).

It took Quiet Skies President Larry Cripe, a longtime Burien resident and retired Alaska Airlines pilot, to tell The B-Town Blog that we were not reading the bureaucratic language properly and that overflights were continuing albeit a few less of them.

Instead of automatic turns prescribed by written rules, now air traffic controllers either approve requests from individual pilots for the left turn or they simply order a specific plane to make the turn. But it is on a case-by-case basis so, arguably, there are fewer low-flying noise and pollution makers over Burien resident’s heads.

So, how do the Blue Angels figure into the mix? The first thing you must know about the FAA is that it is a very secretive agency. Calls from news reporters are treated as minor annoyances and often ignored. Calls from public officials are treated with utmost respect, but usually placed on an administrative list that may some day get attention. If the request is simple and acceptable, the answer is quick. Otherwise….

For now, the administration is pondering, or in their words:

“The FAA is currently evaluating the use of this pre-coordinated 250° heading and conducting a comprehensive review of the historic use of this flight corridor. For many years, the FAA has utilized the 250° heading for propeller driven aircraft departures during north flow operations as a safe and efficient way to disperse and separate the propeller driven aircraft from jet aircraft.”

Get the little jobs out of the way of the big guys – almost makes sense, eh?

Until last July 26 the controllers had to handle each plane separately but the process “increased complexity and entered a safety risk” into the airspace system.

So it made the turn west automatic and that means there is no back and forth over the radio to order the change from the tower, or approve the change to turn if it comes from the individual pilot.

One thing that we non-pilots do not understand is that such changes and approvals are not a simple “Can we?” and “Sure, go ahead.” It is a complex routine that ensures both the pilot and the controller know exactly what is going to happen.

Remember, there are a lot of planes in the airspace, and a little screw-up can mean a horrible disaster with many killed and property destroyed.

Blue Angel connection
When the famous Navy fancy fliers started performing at Seafair, the FAA got permission to automatically turn planes taking off toward the north, to turn west, at the 250-degree turn mentioned earlier.

The reason was obvious: Keep passenger planes away from fast maneuvering stunt flights.

Now, Cripe and Quiet Skies believes the FAA thinks it can use that exception any time it wants.

Not understood by some, the April 10 letter to Burien says the routing over Burien will continue on an as-needed basis because of the “nearly 9 percent increase in operations between 2015 and 2016.

“The historical use of the westbound turn has allowed the FAA to improve safety and balance the additional demand at Sea-Tac.”

So whenever the controllers in the tower or the pilots in each plane ask for the quick turn over Burien, it is likely the “Blue Angel effect” will be permitted to the unhappiness of Burien residents.

But Larry Cripe says Burien’s petition for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the environmental impact of the flights over Burien should also include a decision on whether a change in rules for a specific annual event be a way for the FAA to turn planes over the city anytime it is useful.

“We categorically deny that the agreement can be used that way,” said Cripe, “we are going to fight it.”

So, unless the Court of Appeals agrees with Quiet Skies and says the exception is for one week a year, not for anytime somebody wants it to happen.


2 Responses to “ANALYSIS: Blame the Blue Angels for planes still flying low over Burien”
  1. Rick Lentz says:

    Nice article Jack, though I think you meant to say when the prevailing wind is from the north, not the south.

    As to the westerly turn departing Sea-Tac when the Blue Angels are in town, it is a requirement to do so because the airspace they fly within is closed to all other traffic. Sea-Tac north flow departures can still happen but must make the westerly turn right after takeoff. Renton airport flights can’t take off at all when the Navy jets are flying, and Boeing Field operations are similarly affected. Fortunately the airspace is only closed off for relatively short times.

    It is true that Sea-Tac’s heavy traffic demand benefits greatly from an early turnout for the slower prop airliners but, as Larry points out, that is no excuse for FAA to routinely cite Blue Angels procedures as a rationale to overfly Burien.

  2. Jeff Lewis says:

    These automatic 250 turns are not driven by safety; they are driven by FAA’s failure to manage capacity at Sea-Tac. With NextGen, FAA is fully capitulating to the airlines, letting them add all the flights they want to the point of over-scheduling. So, last July, when ATC tried NOT using the turns, the departures started to back up. Now, let’s be clear… backed up departures are not a safety issue (they are just lined up and waiting, mostly not even moving), but that sure does not stop FAA from playing the vaunted ‘safety card’ as a justification for a capacity-enhancing change.

    Also, just to clarify, while much of this article is accurate, the part about coordination and this Letter of Agreement has significant inaccuracies. The automated coordination for North Flow departure turns to heading 250 only sets the default plan, so the Local Controller working takeoffs in the tower, and the Departure controller working the sector radar at the TRACON, know what to expect from each other. The automatic could just as easily be ‘everyone goes straight out and the tower will protect airspace so the radar controller can make left turns to a 250 heading after the Dash-8 climbs through, say, 3,000ft altitude, with no requirement to tell the tower’. Also, case-by-case manual coordination is not by radio, but via ATC’s digital phone lines; the tower controller presses a button and quickly states ‘Horizon 628 on heading 250’, adds his/her two operating initials, and gets two operating initials back from the radar controller, as a full acknowledgement. It takes a couple seconds, and indeed is generally handled by assistants at both the tower and the TRACON positions. The subsequent radio call to the departing Dash-8 is also very quick, very efficient.

    In short, it is yet another bald-faced lie for FAA or anyone to claim that automatic 250 headings for Dash-8s departing north are for ‘safety’. Shame on you, FAA. Start talking straight, please, and working FOR and WITH the impacted residents, not AGAINST them.