Group urges changes to East Palo Alto flight path

February 23, 2010 11:53:32 AM PST
Many pilots flying out of the Palo Alto airport are about to make a big change to their take-off route. Last week a small plane crashed shortly after takeoff -- causing destruction and panic in an East Palo Alto neighborhood. Three people onboard died, everyone on the ground was fine.

"I hear it now and like when I hear planes I think 'oh god', but prior to that I didn't think you know," said East Palo Alto resident Stephanie Duncan.

Duncan lives right next door to where the remainder of the Cessna twin-engine plane crash-landed last week -- killing all three aboard. She is part of a shaken community welcoming word that flight patterns overhead may change.

"It will make us feel safer a little bit, maybe," said East Palo Alto resident Lisa Contreras.

"I think I'll get two lottery tickets in my life before I get another plane in my neighborhood, but I hope just this is a catalyst for change so that residents can feel safer," said Duncan.

"It's a reflection of the fact that the airport community is concerned about what happened," said Palo Alto Airport Association President Ralph Britton.

Britton said an email has now been sent to its 150 members, asking pilots to try to avoid using the western airspace for departures over East Palo Alto and instead stick to routes flying over the bay. He says it's not a new proposal.

"There has always been a noise abatement procedure, which calls for airplanes to take off on the runway heading and then make an immediate shallow right turn to avoid flying over East Palo Alto," said Britton.

The association has outlined several voluntary take-off guidelines to reduce risk and noise. Pilots of high-performance planes are encouraged to drop their power slowly.

"So the public doesn't think the airplane has quit. You know, it's going to come down," said Britton.

Another suggestion is pilots reconsider "take-off minimums" during poor visibility. It's unclear whether fog was a factor during last week's crash, but it was dense and down to one-eighth mile visibility.

All the suggested pilot guidelines are intended to reduce risk and noise, but cannot be enforced unless the Federal Aviation Administration decides to officially make the changes.

The Airport Association said this is the first time a plane has ever crashed into a building since the Palo Alto Airport opened in 1935. Even so, the fewer planes overhead -- the calmer the nerves will be.