Why some Hudson Valley towns get a lot of air traffic noise

(Photo by Bob MacInnes)

This will be a two-part article about high-tech manmade objects that pass over our homes. Next week we’ll discuss the surveillance, navigation, communication and TV satellites that cross our skies every minute or two. First let’s talk about planes. After all, periodic letters to our Ulster Publishing newspapers complain about them.

The most-frequent airplanes that fly over us are chartered and scheduled passenger and cargo jetliners following Victor airways. I know a man in Woodstock who growls and scowls when he sees a plane. Others have written to the Federal Aviation Administration complaining about aircraft over the Catskill Park. Yet most of these same people take jetliners to go on vacation or visit friends on the West Coast. I wonder if they think about the many thousands of houses that they are flying over. I wonder why they feel that it’s okay to make noise over other people’s homes, but it’s not okay for others to pass over our region.

We are actually pretty lucky in this regard. If we lived in South Albany or Beacon or Warwick, we’d be on the approach path for Albany, Stewart or Newark Airports. Jets would then routinely fly overhead at 3,000 feet. Over Woodstock, the jets are at least 7,000 feet up, and most are higher than that. Of course, we can still hear the sounds of planes 38,000 feet above us. Nonetheless, the higher they are, the less noisy.

The bad news for those who prefer true quietude is that Woodstock sits directly under the intersection of two Victor airways, which are the electronic highways followed by commercial airliners. Aeronautical charts show that V213, which goes in and out of Albany, and V433, which heads toward western New York, intersect over Woodstock. Of these, V213 is by far the most commonly traveled. This explains why most jetliners that you see here are flying from northeast to southwest or vice versa.

In contrast, neither Kingston, New Paltz nor Saugerties sits beneath any commonly used Victor airways. For card-carrying Luddites, there are no Victor airways anywhere near Lake Placid or Piseco Lake. On the other hand, Hudson happens to be located beneath four of them: a major sky-intersection.

So much for commercial jet traffic. The other types of aviation that affect our region are government (including military) and what is called general aviation, which includes training flights, crop dusting and private aircraft either on local pleasure flights or en route to more distant destinations.

These are infrequent here by city standards, and especially what’s experienced near military fields like Cape Cod’s Otis, whose low-level fighter jet training dependably creates deafening roars every few hours for the residents of Falmouth. Woodstock may hear a low-flying helicopter once a day, which can be noisy, but we’re talking about a two-minute event. Last year the military conducted extremely low-level jet training exercises over our region at night, producing earsplitting noises that resulted in many complaints. But these appear to have stopped.

As for general aviation, we get far less of it than most of America. Unlike southern California, Florida or the suburbs of Chicago, which are crowded with small airports, most of our strips have now closed, thanks to economic conditions. Aviation fuel is now $6 a gallon, which means that a pleasure flight whose gas cost $15 in 2001 is now $60. No wonder you’re not likely to see more than a couple of small planes each day.

As a plane owner and longtime pilot, I’ve said this before: Please try to be tolerant of the few small planes that may pass overhead, just as you’re tolerant of the occasional motorcycle that disturbs the peace as it cruises by. Seeing our beautiful region from the air is an exquisite experience. I urge anyone who hasn’t done so to call Kingston Airport at (845) 336-8400 and arrange a scenic flight. You can even hang out at the airport office any weekend and just ask around; it’ll take maybe an hour to bum a free ride from one of the pilots.

Once every few years, however, some immature showoff will do low-level aerobatics or buzz his girlfriend’s home repeatedly, or otherwise make an aerial pest of himself. Just so you know what’s legal and what isn’t, a plane must maintain an altitude of at least 1,000 feet over towns and cities. That’s about the height of the Empire State Building: not very high, but not very low either. Over New Paltz or Woodstock, a small plane must maintain that altitude. However, away from towns, the plane can legally descend to just 500 feet above buildings, boats or people. This is quite low, but it’s perfectly legal. Indeed, above unpopulated woods, mountains or bodies of water, there is no altitude restriction at all. A plane can legally buzz the treetops.

That’s the airplane story. Next week we’ll explore the amazing realm of the silent spy satellites – and the others that visibly pass overhead far more often than planes do.

P.S.: Look at the Moon this Monday night, January 21. Jupiter will brilliantly hover just above it, in a lovely conjunction. Naked eye, binoculars or telescope: Use whatever you have.

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