In Cully, it's man versus fighter jet
The fighter jet arcs above the city — tens of millions of dollars of military hardware on display. To a groundling, it's a dime-size speck diving toward Portland International Airport.
Three thousand feet below, Andrew Pritchard is out there, somewhere, shaking his fist.
It's man vs. F-15 in the tarmac-adjacent Cully neighborhood, where a few diehard detractors are calling into question the procedures of the Oregon Air National Guard and, by extension, the full might of the U.S. Air Force.
At issue is a flight path that takes the 142nd Fighter Wing's F-15 Eagles over residential areas as they execute spiral-staircase descents onto PDX's twin parallel runways.
"It leaves me shaking. I think my whole nervous system is under attack, because it's so intense," said Pritchard, who has lived in Portland for the past 12 years. "It rattles the sky."
Pritchard had his first 30 seconds of fame after he paid out $2,500 to rent three billboards on Northeast Cully and Columbia boulevards. The signs screamed "Stop fighter jets over our homes!" and encouraged residents to join the petition available on Pritchard's website, www.nojetsportland.com.
"People can't fight against something if they don't know there's something to fight against," Prichard explained.
He's not alone.
Gary Kunz, chair of the East Columbia Neighborhood Association, said he expected to hear takeoffs and landings when he moved to his home on Marine Drive west of the airport in 1991. But he says the Guard's flight pattern creates an unwelcome sound in his patch of sky.
"It was just quite startling — very noisy — and we hated it," he said. "It creates noise where there was none before."
Of course, airport noise is nothing new for residents living near the flyway in Portland's Cully, Concordia, Sumner, Roseway, Piedmont and Woodlawn neighborhoods. Commercial flights can make quite a racket with their straight-arrow descents that begin some five to 10 miles from the runway. Pritchard says he has no beef with commercial and cargo aircraft.
Different from PDX traffic
The Air National Guard's jets use a different pattern, known technically as the continuous descent overhead approach. It's essentially two 180-degree turns executed at 2,500 feet, creating a spiraling circle down to Earth rather than a straight line. Pritchard says these flight paths bulge onto residential areas south of Killingsworth and Lombard streets that haven't traditionally experienced as much noise.
Air National Guard leaders contend the procedure is faster, uses less jet fuel and is a required part of military pilots' training. Two fighter pilots using this approach typically land just five seconds apart — equivalent to 6,000 feet of spacing. Col. Sean Sullivan, 142nd operations group commander, said the number of fighter jet landings hasn't increased in the past two or so years, though he admits the summer months see the majority of training flights because the weather is clear.
Pilots at various airports have used the overhead descent for 60 years, he said.
"When we are overseas in a hostile environment, this is the procedure that we are going to want to fly because it minimizes the time that we are low and slow," Sullivan said.
But what's old news in many parts of the country is relatively new in the Rose City — one of the few places in the nation with an air base surrounded by miles of storefronts and front porches.
The Air National Guard, which plays a vital role in defending the Northwest, has used the continuous descent approach here since 2008, when it was approved by the Port of Portland after 18 months of testing. Pritchard's research shows the Air Force has pushed for approval to use the descent pattern before, with requests to the Port of Portland in 1993 and 2003 that were rebuffed due to noise concerns.
Flight hours tweaked
Pritchard moved to the neighborhood in 2006. The tipping point for the 39-year-old, who works as a filmmaker and in a brewery, came about a year ago when the Port and the Guard began another trial run that expanded the permitted hours for fighter jet flights.
The previous schedule allowed for weekday flights from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., while the new plan would have ballooned flight schedules to include flying on weekends and from sunup to sundown. Commanders say it doesn't make sense to curtail summer flights at 5 p.m. when the sun will still be up for hours.
"It would be like if the Oregon Department of Transportation built a highway over your house without public dialogue, without consent and without compensation," Pritchard said. "This is the same thing; it just happens to be a little bit higher."
The proposal was reviewed by the nonbinding Citizen Noise Advisory Committee, which proposed allowing weekend flights once a month to accommodate the part-timers who make up the lion's share of the Guard's strength. Sullivan said the 142nd Wing then withdrew the request for longer hours.
Base has long-term lease
Some might say Pritchard is tilting at windmills. The National Guard in 2013 signed a dollar-a-year lease with the airport that stretches through 2062. The Portland Air National Guard base itself predates World War II.
"We've demonstrated our importance for the federal and state mission," said Lt. Col. Nick Rutgers, commander for the 123rd Fighter Squadron. "This organization is not going anywhere."
The Oregon Air National Guard describes itself as the first line of defense for foreign incursions by air, aviation accidents and potential terrorist attacks. The fighters in the sky can report directly to NORAD.
Even if the majority of Portlanders wanted to boot the troops, the City Council has very little say over its own airspace, which is generally governed by the Federal Aviation Administration. Air traffic controllers oversee about five miles of airspace surrounding the PDX tower, but they're integrated into a national system.
Pilots ultimately are responsible for the safety of their craft.
Protecting the Northwest
The Tribune kept its feet firmly planted on the ground during a Sept. 18 tour of the installation, which employs more than 1,300, including 484 full-time soldiers and the 35 fighter pilots in the 123rd Wing. It takes just eight minutes to go from standby to supersonic for the aviators who mount a round-the-clock watch to protect the Northwest.
The barbed wire-secured base also hosts a hazardous materials team and a medical crew, though it's a far cry from the days when the camp had its own hospital and residential housing.
Rutgers said the Wing's primary training space is a 100-mile span off the Oregon Coast known as Whiskey 570. He was up in the air earlier that day.
"Like anything else, it requires proficiency and recency," he said. "It's a little bit harder than driving stick."
One of many noise complaints
Billboards and headlines aside, Pritchard's protest remains just one of the 3,000 to 4,000 noise complaints submitted to the Port of Portland each year. Phil Stenstrom, senior manager for airside operations and noise management, said 80 percent are submitted by about five to 10 different people.
"Some people are really bothered by aviation noise for whatever reason," Stenstrom said. "We have heard from others who don't concur at all, and some people say 'I love seeing the jets — the lower the better.' "
"We get more noise congratulations then noise complaints," Rutgers added.
But Pritchard isn't giving up either.
He said the Air National Guard's gradual expansion is death by a thousand cuts, with each new base commander pushing for more time in the sky. He said it's preposterous to use national security as an excuse because the flight pattern in question wasn't used locally during the height of the Cold War.
Moreover, he thinks the port may have violated a federal law when it expanded the fighter jet's flight patterns in 2008 without an environmental review. But lawyers, he noted, are expensive.
"The community's acceptance — it's just begrudging resignation," Pritchard said. "The community will get used to it, but that doesn't make it OK."
Always on guard
The 142nd Fighter Wing doesn't take vacations.
Charged with protecting all of Oregon, Idaho and Washington by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the fighter pilots and maintenance techs here are on standby 24/7. The next nearest base on the West Coast is in Fresno, California.
"We are the eyes and ears of NORAD. We tell them what exactly is going on," said Lt. Col. Nick Rutgers.
Most recently, two F-15 fighter jets scrambled from Portland to intercept a hijacked commercial airplane stolen from Sea-Tac airport in August.
The pilot, apparently a suicidal mechanic named Richard Russell, died after crashing the plane into an island. It took approximately eight minutes for the fighter jets to lift off, and another eight for the jets to make the 150-mile trek.
Russian bombers also have been known to test America's boundaries by veering into American airspace.
The latest incursions to be reported were on June 9, 2014, and on Independence Day in 2012 and 2015, though it's likely that other incidents go unpublicized. Portland's fighter pilots helped escort the Russians out of the area in each occurrence.
The 142nd Fighter Wing also responded when a small aircraft veered into restricted airspace during President Barack Obama's 2010 trip to Seattle. The sonic booms over civilian areas made headlines at the time, though the pilot of the Cessna later told the media he was unaware that the president was in town.