Montgomery County Airpark operators respond to noise, safety complaints

The operators of the Montgomery County, Maryland, airpark held a virtual meeting to respond to complaints from a citizen’s group about noise and safety, but the format left a number of residents unsatisfied.

The meeting was facilitated by an aide to county Executive Marc Elrich and organized by the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, which operates the Gaithersburg facility.

Organizers said there will be future meetings to address concerns.

Speakers included representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the National Business Aviation Association, and the Maryland Aviation Administration.

During the meeting, officials provided information on how noise complaints can be filed and how they’re handled and reviewed at the local level and then by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The speakers did not include members of the community groups that have complained about airport operations, something that several members of the group Citizens for Airpark Safety noted. Members of the group also said that questions were not taken in real time. Instead, they were able to post questions and comments in the chat portion of the meeting.

Keith Miller, CEO of the Montgomery County Revenue Authority, said questions had been solicited in a premeeting registration process. He also said the organizers would address long-standing issues that have come up in the past.

During the meeting, Miller specifically addressed two issues that residents have complained about: noise and frequency of flights.

Miller said the airpark responds to noise complaints that are generated within 6 miles of the airpark.

The last time a noise study was completed was in 1993.

“1993 seems like a while ago. Would it help to have another study?” Dale Tibbitts, from Elrich’s office, asked.

Genevieve Walker, an environmental specialist with the FAA, explained that in order to conduct an updated noise study, the airport would have to request that from the FAA.

In terms of the number of flights going in and out of the Gaithersburg facility, officials said that there are more than just takeoff and landings.

Ashish Solanki, with the Maryland Aviation Administration, said the term “operations” includes takeoffs, landings and something called a “touch-and-go.” That refers to a maneuver in which pilots approach the landing strip, touch down, and then take off again without coming to a full stop.

Miller said in the 1990s, the number of operations at the airpark ranged from 100,000 to 150,000. It’s about 70,000-80,000 operations now, he said.

Members of the Citizens for Airpark Safety have complained about touch-and-gos, citing the repetitive nature of the maneuver.

Marie Kennington-Gardiner, Eastern Regional Administrator at the FAA, said the maneuver is an important part of pilot training for safety.

“The most critical phase of the flight are arrival and departure. And that’s why touch-and-gos are conducted. Not only for student pilots but for current pilots, so that they remain proficient,” Kennington-Gardiner said.

Regarding the number of complaints coming from the community, Miller said, “So far in 2021, there have been 2,835 complaints. Those complaints were generated by 35 unique households.” He added, “98% of them were generated by three households.”

Members of the citizens group said that while there may be few people filing formal complaints, that they represent at least 100 members of the communities surrounding the airpark.

Other concerns from the community include the use of aviation fuel, which contains lead, and what residents insist are unsafe maneuvers by some pilots, including circling at low altitudes.

Jerry Pratt, a member of the FAA Safety Team offered a scenario: “Let’s say there’s a guy on final approach that does a circle out there and he’s below 1,000 feet when he does a circle. More than likely, it’s because someone accidentally pulled out on the runway in front of him and to keep from having a collision on that runway,” the pilot would either circle, or climb out and go around. “Either way it would create noise.” Pratt said. “But it’s also extremely rare. It’s not an all-day occurrence.”

Another issue brought up by residents concerned the impact of aviation fuel, much of which contains some lead. Council member Craig Rice said that he intends to ask the Environmental Protection Agency to do an environmental study and possibly have monitoring equipment installed at the airpark.

Rice also said he intends to work with the Montgomery County Revenue Authority to ask the Maryland Aviation Administration to install a control tower at the airpark.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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