Pearson pilots fret over FAA proposal

Vancouver airfield would have to yield airspace to PDX flights

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Local pilots are pushing back against a set of new federal airspace rules they say would create big problems for Pearson Field.

The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed creating new restrictions designed to better separate traffic flying above Pearson and nearby Portland International Airport. The change would create a "Pearson Box" -- one mile wide by eight miles long -- that extends from PDX's Runway 10 and envelop Pearson Field. Airliners approaching PDX would be given priority within that area, forcing Pearson flights to either stay outside the box or wait on the ground until air traffic controllers give them clearance. The new rules are set to take effect Oct. 1, according to FAA.

Pilots fear the changes will only create new problems if Pearson-based aircraft are forced to circle above Vancouver Lake, for example, or another part of the urban area without any guidance. Planes that don't regularly use Pearson may be caught unaware of the seemingly fast-tracked change, they said. And such rules would severely restrict flight instruction that takes place at Pearson now, said local pilot George Welsh.

FAA has characterized the change as a safety move. But PDX and Pearson have a long history of operating on opposite sides of the Columbia River without incident, Welsh said.

"We've been coexisting within that tight airspace for 75 years," he said.

Pilots aren't the only group concerned with the new restrictions. The city of Vancouver and the Port of Portland, which manages PDX, have both asked FAA to at least delay the move to fully weigh its consequences. Vancouver was only formally notified of the change by FAA on Thursday, said city communications manager Barbara Ayers -- less than two weeks before its proposed start date.

"This is a sudden rules change," Ayers said. "It's going to have significant impacts on our community, and we're concerned about it."

At a meeting with local pilots this week, FAA officials said the restrictions were designed with safety in mind. Among the biggest goals are keeping planes out of the same airspace at the same time, and avoiding "wake turbulence" that could affect a small aircraft flying close to a large jet, said Laura Schneider, an FAA support manager.

Schneider suggested gaps in the PDX schedule would still allow Pearson traffic to continue unimpeded at certain times of the day. FAA has detailed flight data on both airports, and will continue to use that information to help with coordination, she said.

"We're all in this together to keep this as safe as we can, and as efficient as we can," Schneider said.

The room full of pilots appeared unconvinced, offering a string of pointed but polite questions. At least one wondered whether a control tower at Pearson -- FAA removed a temporary control tower there earlier this year -- was a possibility.

Meanwhile, local pilots and others are lobbying elected officials to weigh in. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, is among those who has expressed concern to the FAA over the proposed rule change.

Pearson plans host another meeting on Sept. 29.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.