Tragedy emboldens neighborhood chagrin as Scottsdale Airport operations soar

What it was: a view of the Scottsdale Airpark 1980 (photo by Scottsdale Historical Society)

For many, the Scottsdale Airport completes the circle of affluence that has come to define the cache of the West’s Most Western Town.

A municipal airport that provides both hard dollars to local coffers and direct access to attractions of the region — the Scottsdale Airport is in a class of its own.
Undergoing an expansive redevelopment project and with officials there estimating the regional airport is at 50 percent capacity the horizon is bright, experts say.

A picturesque view of the new state-of-the-art Scottsdale Airport Operations Center. (Photo courtesy of the city of Scottsdale)

But a recent tragedy where six lives were lost aboard a flight that originated from Scottsdale Airport has one Scottsdale resident sounding the alarms as he worries more checks and balances are needed to improve the safety of pilots, passengers of those flying machines and the general public they routinely flyover.

Meanwhile, the economic development powerhouse that is the Scottsdale Airport continues to churn, but officials agree balancing the needs of the local airway enterprise and the wants of nearby residents is oftentimes a delicate procedure.

“Scottsdale Airport is a premier general aviation airport,” said Scottsdale Aviation Director Gary Mascaro. “It’s also adjacent to the airpark, which is a major employment hub. This is a draw for people near and far. All these together generate millions of dollars for the greater area.”

And, the future, Mr. Mascaro contends, has never been brighter for the municipal airport.

“With a new Aviation Business Center, restaurant with event space and new hangars, the city strives to maintain and improve the airport to retain its viability as a premier general aviation facility,” he pointed out. “We are always looking at ways to make the most out of the airport’s value in this community.”

But retired dentist Dr. Scott Calev — worries about the dangers created by the growth in air traffic and is recommending a few things:

  • Stricter requirements for southbound and northbound take-off guidelines;
  • A stricter adherence to noise enforcement guidelines; and
  • A series of signage throughout taxiways to better inform visiting pilots and guests how to respect the wishes of airport neighbors.

From City Hall faces to Scottsdale Airport officials, Dr. Calev is no stranger to expressing his point of view and keeping track of his low-flying and noise-obstruction complaints.

According to one member of Scottsdale City Council working through critical resident comment is an opportunity to get better.

“The FAA Air Traffic Control Tower manages the air traffic surrounding Scottsdale Airport. Once an aircraft is in flight, its operations falls under the authority of the FAA,” said Scottsdale Councilwoman Virginia Korte. “There are regulations from the FAA that guide how low an aircraft can fly, including the directional routes for all incoming and outgoing flights.”

But despite repeated calls and emails, Dr. Calev contends his complaints fall on deaf ears.

“Yes, residents’ complaints are taken seriously,” said Ms. Korte when asked directly if anything is ever done with noise or fly-by complaints.

“The complaints are researched and responded to expeditiously. All complaints are logged and tracked to assist in land-use planning and to identify concerns and facilitate communication between operators, the FAA and community members.”

Virginia Korte

While the TPC Scottsdale airplane crash is a tragedy, the ultimate responsibility comes down to the pilot in command and federal regulations, Ms. Korte outlines.

“It’s important to know the FAA implements the checks and balances of aircraft in flight,” she said.

“It is incredibly unfortunate that the cause of the TPC golf course aircraft failure was due to overall passenger weight and balance miscalculations. The cause of the crash was not due to inferior checks and balance regulations by the FAA.”

In calendar year 2017, there were approximately 168,126 takeoffs and landings at the Scottsdale Airport, which equates to roughly 464 takeoffs and landings a day and about three departures or landings a minute.

An overview of the Scottsdale Airport runway. (Submitted photo)

Southside route is neighborhood chagrin

For nearly 30 years Dr. Calev has called 7540 E. Jenan Drive in central Scottsdale home.
“I moved into this house in 1989 and for the most part, almost 100 percent of the planes that took off turned to the north,” he said. “At the time, everyone who was taking off to the south would go north.”

Dr. Calev says over time, air-traffic control beacons changed and planes typically headed due north — all of a sudden, he contends — started to appear southbound.

“That’s when the problem started and a number of people started to complain about the noise. And, as you know we eventually learned they changed the flight plan at Sky Harbor.”

On Sept. 18, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration implemented changes in flight paths using NextGen satellite-based navigation as part of an effort to streamline departures and arrivals of the 1,200 flights to and from Sky Harbor Airport every day.

NextGen, short for Next Generation Air Transportation System, is a national procedure aimed to improve the National Airspace System.

Ultimately, the new routes condensed and lowered flight corridors over thousands of homes, natural preserves and parks, some of which directly impacted residents north of Pinnacle Peak and subsequently south of Cactus.

A vicinity map of the Scottsdale Airport (Submitted graphic)

“Where I live you can have 25 to 30 flyovers at 5,000 feet,” Dr. Calev said. “It is noisy, it is obvious and it is not the serene environment I had been living in.”

Dealing with recovering health, Dr. Calev found himself recovering from surgery to regain the usage of his hands by tending to a garden in his backyard. By happenstance, he began to notice low-flying jets that weren’t there before.

“I was noticing what was going on and I got a little concerned. Then, of course, the flyovers started and a handful of us started to voice our concerns; it’s always going to be a handful, you know?” he said of early 2014.

“The sound and the pollution of the utlra few impact many. There is a lot of money here, but there are many wealthy people who just turned a blind eye.”

What Dr. Calev has coined, “the funnel of filth and sewer of sound,” is largely a disregard for established courtesies offered by the municipal airport, he contends.

When asked directly what his problem is with the Scottsdale Airport, Dr. Calev replied, “the plane that crashed is my problem with the Scottsdale Airport.”

According to an NTSB preliminary report, six passengers died at about 8:48 p.m. April 9, as a Piper-24-260 airplane was destroyed on impact shortly after takeoff from the Scottsdale Airport, 1500 N. Airport Drive.

The airplane was registered to N9456P, LLC and operated by the pilots as a personal flight, allowable under Federal Aviation Regulation part 91, the report states.

The Piper PA-24 Comanche went down on the TPC Scottsdale Champions Golf Course finally, which is about one-quarter mile north of the departure runway.

Weight and balance calculations appear to be a factor in the crash, aviation experts agree, but a final report from the NTSB is expected. The airline transport pilot, student pilot and four passengers were fatally injured, the preliminary report states.

“If (the pilot was) following the rules they would be alive,” he said. “If a plane is over my area at 300 feet and the engines go down they will hit homes. If we look at the core conversation here, which is safety, the TPC crash is about the people who fly over my home on a regular basis. The arrogance of the pilots who fly over my home.”

A commercial airliner. (file photo)

Who regulates the skies?

From the instant a pilot begins the backward rotation of the yoke initiating takeoff at Scottsdale Airport, the aircraft is under the guise of the Control Tower empowered through federal regulation.

The Federal Aviation Administration is the ultimate authority of American airspace, Scottsdale airport officials say.

“The FAA designates flight paths and it’s a very complex process,” said Sarah Ferrara, Scottsdale Aviation planning and outreach coordinator. “The airport does not have this authority to change flight paths.”

Ms. Ferrara explains Scottsdale airport can accommodate nearly all business-class jets weighing up to 75,000 pounds or up to 100,000 pounds given prior approval.

“General aviation aircraft using the airport include a variety of single- and multi-engine, piston-powered aircraft, turbo props, business jets and helicopters,” she said. “There is no commercial scheduled service at our airport. We are approaching 50 percent capacity for our airport.”

In regard to potential relief regarding Sky Harbor flight paths Ms. Ferrara says, “we are hoping to hear in July about the next step” as anything that occurs above Class E airspace is, “a federal deal.”

Someone familiar with both the city of Scottsdale and the local airport would be former Councilman and Certified Flight Instructor Bob Littlefield.

“Well, the Scottsdale Airport is very well run,” he said.

Bob Littlefield

“It is the only non-airline airport that makes money for the city. Most airports are run by cities, not by the federal and state government — even places like Baghdad, Ariz. or Kingman, they all have airports. It actually makes money because of the fees that are charged for business jets to land there and to re-fuel there.”

In fiscal year 2013-14 alone the Scottsdale Airport generated $134,413,000 in gross economic activity with $39,883,000 classified as “income,” records show.

Airport officials say those numbers represent on-airport activity including private firms, public agencies and capital improvement projects located on airport property.

However, in fiscal year 2016-17 the Scottsdale Airport generated $4.6 million gross revenue, records show.

“The airport is an economic generator for the city — it’s a very good deal for Scottsdale,” Mr. Littlefield said.
But beneath the feel-good story of aviation enthusiasm is very serious profession: professional aviator.

Modern aviation revolves around two basic principles:

  1. Visual Flight Rules — — when visibility and anticipated inclement weather is expected to not go below visual flight rules a flight plan is not required to be filed, federal aviation rules state.
  2. Instrument Flight Rules — when visibility and inclement weather are anticipated to reduce visibility a flight plan must be filed and instrument flight rules are in effect, which is a classification rating of a private or commercial pilot.

Typically, instrument flight rules and the subsequent flight plan includes weight and balance calculations for the duration of flight and weight upon arrival.

“There is a level of a control there, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they filed a flight plan,” Mr. Littlefield explained of the responsibility that weighs on the pilot in command.

“There is no requirement that anybody has to file a weight and balance. I don’t even see how you would do that on the larger scale. Nobody is going to check the weight and balance — the individual commercial operators mostly do that.”

An artist’s rendering of the future Aviation Business Center. (submitted graphic)

The economic powerhouse

Neighborhood issues and safety concerns aside, the Scottsdale Airport is an economic powerhouse bringing new opportunities to the Valley of the Sun.

To further embolden this point, the city of Scottsdale commissioned an economic benefit analysis in 2014 to better understand the positive impacts of the municipal airport.

The economic benefit analysis shows:

  • Aviation activity accounted for $536 million in total economic benefits for the region in fiscal year 2013-14;
  • The catalytic benefit of the airport’s existence created an economic benefit of $8.2 billion;
  • The city of Scottsdale Aviation Department employs 14 people;
  • Aviation activity supported 3,462 jobs related to the industry; and
  • Aviation activity added $25 million to local and state.

Scottsdale Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp says the proof is in the pudding.

Suzanne Klapp

“I would say the airport operation is essential to the community,” she said. “It is what has caused the Airpark area to grow; it is not only essential to the community at large — but especially the business community.”

Ms. Klapp, a successful small business owner and established community leader, contends the Scottsdale Airport is a keystone of the community cache.

“From the perspective of the business community it is serves as a selling point for business to locate in Scottsdale particularly if they have multiple locations,” she said of the economic development lure.

“It is a very, very favorable asset of the business community. Our airport also handles international trips and we do offer a Customs Department. It attracts international business as well, which means when business owners are looking to locate in a city, it is an attractive amenity that many cities do not offer.”

An artist’s rendering of the future Scottsdale Airport terminal. (City of Scottsdale)

Independent Newsmedia Arizona Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at

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