Hanscom Field Advisory Commission Chair Christopher Eliot told fellow members at their May 18 meeting that the FAA has agreed to be represented at HFAC meetings on a regular basis going forward. Emily Mitchell, HFAC and Bedford Select Board member, added that a public outreach meeting for the FAA to share information on aviation issues and authorities is also on the table.
Eliot and Mitchell were reporting on a groundbreaking meeting at which they met with regional FAA officials Mike Lynch, Colleen D’Alessandro, and Ken Knopp. Also participating was State Rep. Sheila Harrington, whose 1st Middlesex District includes Ayer and Groton, as well as Massport’s Hanscom Field Airport Director Sharon Williams and Administrative Manager Amber Goodspeed, in addition to five other Massport representatives. State Rep. Ken Gordon of Bedford, 21st Middlesex District, was unable to attend due to a schedule conflict. The meeting to discuss local air noise concerns was arranged by Michael Vatalaro, Senior Manager of State and Community Relations for Massport.
“One thing that was stressed by both Massport and FAA is that their authority, what they can do, what they can’t do, is pretty strictly circumscribed … and in many ways they’re not allowed to go outside of that authority,” Mitchell said. “Christopher, I, and Rep. Harrington all pointed out that’s not always a satisfying answer. And I think that the FAA reps understand that, but there’s not necessarily a mechanism for change.”
That has been an issue for many years in connection with complaints by residents of Ayer and Groton – Harrington’s district – about repetitive, noisy, low flights over their neighborhoods, schools, a community hospital, and their towns by aircraft from Hanscom-based flight schools. Residents of the towns surrounding Hanscom Field have also raised concerns in recent years about noisy flight school practice over populated areas, jet and helicopter noise, and prolonged aircraft engine run ups on the airfield. In the past, the U.S. Park Service requested that local flight school practice over the Minuteman National Park be discouraged so that visitors may enjoy the tranquility of the park. However, in that case, both the FAA and Massport agreed to the Park Service’s request and now routinely encourage local pilots to avoid practice over the park, and historic Hartwell Tavern in particular.
Rep. Harrington began the meeting by describing her constituents’ complaints about the pilots’ flying behavior, which in some cases she believes “amounts to harassment and bullying.” The FAA officials disagreed, saying their investigations indicate the flights seem to be legal.
“I pointed out that the social media postings [derogatory comments by some pilots appearing to encourage targeted flyovers of Rep. Harrington and her constituents] are an important aspect of this issue. That means it cannot be resolved simply by looking at radar data. That misses an important dimension,” Eliot said.
“I also pointed out that 16 aircraft were counted over Bedford Town Meeting, which was outside,” Eliot continued. “That seems rude, if not dangerous, and is the kind of incident that leads to the feeling of animosity between the aviation community and the surrounding communities.”
However, Mitchell found it positive that the FAA officials had agreed to Eliot’s request that they begin to regularly attend HFAC meetings. And a public meeting hosted by the FAA “would be a great thing to be able to bring to Bedford, to the surrounding towns in the coming months.”
“It was at least a good first step in trying to build better community relationships with FAA and help them understand what’s unique about Hanscom and the environment that we’re in, and how that differs from the other airports under their jurisdiction,” Mitchell summed up.
Bedford resident Patty Dahlgren was curious why the meeting was held in private rather than public.
Vatalaro explained that the purpose of the meeting was “to make sure we could get them to an HFAC meeting and they weren’t bombarded with all kinds of stuff and never come back again,” adding that Reps. Gordon and Harrington had requested the meeting. Eliot added, “The bottom line is this is the way the FAA wanted to approach it and we just didn’t have any choice. They’re nervous about getting into a situation where they might feel like they were ambushed by an angry mob and we want to make it clear to them that that wasn’t the situation.”
Although HFAC meetings have been remarkably cordial and peaceful for many years, that was not always the case. Beginning in July 1999, 22 years ago, hundreds of local citizens, including over 350 at Bedford Town Hall, and over 700 at the Civil Air Terminal, rallied to protest a Shuttle America/Massport/FAA plan to establish scheduled commercial passenger service at Hanscom Field. According to this account in A Brief History of Shuttle America and the Commercialization of Hanscom Field, published by Save Our Heritage, a Concord-based nonprofit preservation organization devoted to protecting environmental, cultural, and historic resources of local towns, the attendees were angry: https://saveourheritage.com/SA_History.html
“Can we get a list of who was in this meeting?” asked Dahlgren, and Vatalaro agreed to provide it, adding, “You know you had very strong advocates in the meeting. Emily and Chris were tremendous. Sheila Harrington was tremendous.”
Eliot thanked Vatalaro for making the meeting possible.