By Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 15, 2006; C12
Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, residents of the Palisades neighborhood in northwest D.C. look skyward. With clipboards in hand, they meticulously rate the noise levels of airplanes flying over their homes on the way to nearby Reagan National Airport.
They mark an option for each aircraft -- "less loud" than usual, "normal" or "louder." They hope their notations will convey, to regional and federal agencies, what it is like to live in a community where the house windows sometimes rattle in sync with the commercial-jet engines overhead.
"Just this morning, at 6 o'clock, I heard an aircraft fly over my house and I said, 'It's time to get up,' " said Spence Spencer, president of the Palisades Citizens Association, which is conducting a six-week study with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
About 700 flights take off from and land at National Airport each day, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Half fly over the Palisades.
On clear days, when visibility is good, aircraft bound for National operate under visual flight rules, basically following the Potomac River route and avoiding flying over neighborhoods such as the Palisades, FAA spokesman Paul Takemoto said. On overcast days, they fly under instrument flight rules and often have to end up over homes.
"We are very sensitive to noise issues, but our main concern is safety and you can't have aircraft snake their way up the river when they can't see the river," Takemoto said.
Palisades residents say they understand that, but they also think that new technology, based on a global positioning system approach, could keep the aircraft over the river in good weather and bad. The community, between Chain Bridge and Key Bridge, with an estimated 3,000 households, big shade trees and unique, old homes, has been involved in noise-abatement issues for many years.
"First of all, we are not trying to close down National Airport," said Stu Ross, past president of the citizens association. "What we're trying to do is find the best scientific way to manage noise. There are a couple of ways you can do this -- one is quieter engines, obviously, and the other is patterns pilots may fly when landing."
Coexisting with airport noise is one of the continuing predicaments of modern American life. Recent airport expansions, like those at San Francisco and Minneapolis-St. Paul, produced a storm of new protesters. As daily flights have increased and once-sleepy airports have grown, more residents and citizens groups across the country have begun pushing for better noise control.
"The problem is that the number of takeoffs and landings have increased faster than airplanes are getting quieter, and the times of takeoffs and landings are spreading into more vulnerable times of day, into early morning and late evening when people are sleeping," said Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt.
Palisades residents only complain about aircraft noise to a point. They knew what they were getting into when they moved into the neighborhood northwest of Georgetown, but the charm of the area bowled them over. In a mayor's proclamation that celebrated Palisades Day in May 2005, the community was described as "a small town in the big city, composed of an eclectic mix of citizens of all backgrounds committed to making our city a better place to live and work," and "a treasure of green spaces, quiet streets, high bluffs and breathtaking sunsets." The Palisades also has become known for its annual Fourth of July parade.
"I don't know anyone who's ever moved out or didn't buy a house here because of" the planes, said Ross, an attorney who moved to the Palisades 26 years ago and now lives in "an old boardinghouse" there. "You get used to it. Everyone benefits from how close National is to us. It's just one of those things you kind of put up with."
For about an eight-month period after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, noise levels in the Palisades reached new heights, residents said, when all arrivals had to pass over the neighborhood for security reasons. Use of the river route was later resumed.
Mat Thorp, a retired aerospace-industry executive who often is described as the unofficial mayor of the Palisades, is leading the noise-control effort. The 44-year resident of the neighborhood said he was struck by the loudness of passing aircraft when he viewed a video of his wife's memorial service that he held on his patio, and often could not understand what was being said because of engine noise.
As families in the Palisades and surrounding areas pull out the clipboards each weekend for the survey, Thorp is curious to know whether they can distinguish the quieter sounds of one airline. About a year ago, Alaska Airlines became the first U.S. carrier at National to use something called Required Navigation Performance, which uses the GPS satellite network to remain on course over the river.
The technology was developed in the 1990s for "some of the more challenging airports in Alaska," due to weather and terrain, an Alaska Airlines spokeswoman said. The airline is now expanding its use to other areas.
Four years ago, officials with the regional airports authority undertook an exhaustive study of noise control around National that has been turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration for review. They agree with Palisades residents that new technology "has provided a way for us to address a critical issue," said Jonathan Gaffney, an airports authority spokesman, adding, "Everybody's on the same page."
Official complaints about noise at National Airport are surprisingly few, with only about 40 this year, said Neal Phillips, noise-abatement manager for the authority.
Rob Krupicka, who chairs the aviation policy committee with the Washington council of governments, said he is interested in seeing the results of the Palisades survey and hopes residents in other neighborhoods eventually will join the effort. "We'll let [the Palisades] try it first and see what happens and expand it from there," said Krupicka, an Alexandria City Council member.
Ross said he realizes that even the best citizen efforts and the most sincere government responses can only go so far to solve the problem. It may never really be quiet in the Palisades.
"Oddly enough, the loudest thing we get is presidential helicopters," he said, describing the powerful motors and low approach. "Usually on Friday evenings or Sunday afternoons, you hear them coming down, and if you have folks around, you say, 'There goes the president.' "
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