Like many people in Hawaii, Edwin Kimura has been spending more time at home during the pandemic, making him much more aware of the frequency of loud military flights overhead.
“I’m noticing how often they fly in, like every hour. It was unbelievable to me,” he said. “They’re coming in formation over my house.”
Kimura said he doesn’t understand why the aircraft can’t just follow the freeway or stay over the ocean — from where he sits in his Honolulu home near Aina Koa neighborhood park, they have the whole sky.
“My house actually shakes you when they fly over, so that’s pretty low that the house can actually shake,” he said.
Hawaii residents have long complained about noise from planes and helicopters in one of the military’s busiest hubs.
Military pilots insist that they do their best to avoid disrupting life in Hawaii’s island communities, but they must navigate the sometimes conflicting demands of the Federal Aviation Administration, local communities and occasionally volatile weather.
“Typically, we develop these procedures at a local level, where personnel best understand the complexities and local concerns,” the FAA told Civil Beat in an email. “Personnel at the regional and national level, both from the FAA and the military, then conduct safety reviews of the proposed procedures.”
Heightened tensions with China have increased the training and operations tempo for some military aviation units. And plans to bring more Marines to the islands as part of a force restructuring means an influx of new planes and drones for longer range missions around the Pacific.
The Air Force recently adopted a strategy of spreading its planes across the Pacific with frequent flights to various airstrips on distant islands to make them harder for Chinese missiles to hit.
Last month, the Marine Corps told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser it will be moving its fleet of conventional helicopters from its base at Kaneohe Bay by 2022 but will be getting new capabilities including a new KC-130 refueling squadron and up to 15 aircraft.
Noise complaints are common around U.S. bases worldwide. Many military training areas are reserved exclusively for military aircraft and are often outside of FAA jurisdiction.
But the issue is especially prominent in Hawaii because military aircraft take off from bases across Oahu and frequently fly between training areas on the neighbor islands.
“My house actually shakes you when they fly over.” — Honolulu resident Edwin Kimura
Honolulu International Airport and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam share many of the same runways.
“Flight paths are pre-determined and identified on aeronautical charts, similar to a road map, and pilots use those charts to plot out their route,” said 1st Lt. Amber Kelly-Herard, an Air Force spokeswoman in Hawaii. “All charts are vetted with the FAA and many of these routes are for both commercial/military aircraft to use unless they are specific training routes for military aircraft.”
Maj. Chris Montgomery has been a Marine aviator for 10 years and flies an MV-22 Osprey — a “tilt rotor” aircraft that can reconfigure itself to fly like a plane or helicopter — out of Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
He said Hawaii’s quirky weather is a particularly important factor in selecting routes as pilots must plan for the possibility of tropical rains, trade winds and other sudden changes that may force them to change course or abort missions altogether.
“To get to most of the training areas we need to keep visual sight of the ground and the operating environment,” Montgomery explained.
“So if the clouds are driving lower and lower, which they tend to, that’s when you’ll start seeing our craft getting a little bit lower,” he added. “We’re talking a couple of thousand feet, so it’s not driving us down to where we’re skipping on the surface of the water.”
Mo Radke, a Navy veteran who leads the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, noted that some residents in the Windward town with memories of recent military and civilian helicopter crashes nearby are sometimes uneasy about the prospect of aircraft flying overhead.
On May 17, 2015 an Osprey crashed near Bellows Beach, killing two Marines and wounding 20 others, leading to changes in flight procedures. On Jan. 14, 2016 two Kaneohe-based CH-53E helicopters collided off Oahu, killing 12 Marines. The last two years also have seen an increase in crashes by civilian tour operators, including one in a residential part of Kailua.
“The impact on the community has a lot to do with ‘touch and go training,’ where a pilot will have to get a certain number of touch and go landings,” Radke said. “More and more, the U.S. Air Force and the Air Guard have been using Kaneohe airstrip as a place to practice that, and those are big cargo planes.”
But noise has been the most consistent complaint. In 2012 the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board passed a resolution arguing that the Navy had not proved that bringing Ospreys to the base wouldn’t disrupt life in the community or at schools near the base.
Each base has hotlines for people to call to complain and units often issue press releases or notices about upcoming exercises that may raise noise levels in the areas.
Civilian air traffic can have a significant impact on military pilots’ flight plans. The FAA can tell them to change course or elevation if civilian aircraft are in the way.
“Except for periodic proficiency training required around an airport, our training areas are over open-ocean and our flight paths generally follow the shortest route to the training areas,” said Kelly-Herard.
Coast Guard pilot Lt. Josh Smith said that aircraft may end up closer to the ground when accommodating other air traffic in hilly or mountainous parts of the islands.
“They give us all altitudes based off of the sea level. So they’ll say, you know, ‘remain at or below 1,000,’” Smith said. “Terrains rise, we could be at like 600 feet above the ground but still flying at 1,000 feet over sea level.”
At the outset of the pandemic and the rollout of new travel restrictions, tourism traffic in Hawaii plummeted. That meant fewer commercial flights to and from Oahu, as well as fewer tour helicopters moving around the island. But that’s changing fast.
“The Oahu tour traffic, and all the islands’ tour traffic is starting to really come back, especially as we see COVID-19 start getting managed and mitigated a little bit more,” said Montgomery. He said he and his fellow Osprey pilots plan flights as much as possible to stay over the water and away from civilian communities and tour aircraft.
That’s not always an option.
The National Guard and Coast Guard in particular often fly real world domestic missions as much as hypothetical training, sometimes keeping close to shore or inland and flying low for disaster relief and search and rescue missions.
“If a kayak washes ashore or something like that we’re required to fly on it to at least at a minimum search for an hour to see,” said Smith. The Coast Guard also frequently gets called out to sea to rescue missing or injured sailors, sometimes braving potentially deadly storms.
Coast Guard pilots are also often called up for missions overlooking waterways and ports like Honolulu Harbor that bring them close to shore, including monitoring potential oil spills and other environmental threats.
“So with that we’ll be flying right around 200 feet coming in, and that’s kind of usually right around Diamond Head where we pick up a lot of noise complaints even though we’re kind of following the instructions of air traffic control,” Smith said.
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