People who live around St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport have been noisy lately about the noise of aircraft from that mid-county airfield.
One thing about the aircraft noise issue has left me scratching my head. One person will say that the noise is so horrendous that he can't enjoy his home, can't hear the television, can't sleep at night. But someone who lives on the same street will say, "Yeah, the planes fly over my house, but they don't bother me."
What's going on? The question of how much noise residents endure is important because it may bear on the future of the airport. Pinellas County wants to lengthen the main runway in hopes of attracting international charter flights, which need a slightly longer runway to take off. The county also is in the process of updating the airport master plan for the first time since 1979. It will be a guide for the airport's next 20 years.
But several hundred residents who live north, east and south of the airport have objected to either the runway extension or the master plan or both, saying it is stupid for the county to grow an airport that is sandwiched into the most densely populated county in Florida and that already is the source of more noise than residents can stand.
But how much noise is there?
I had to go hear it for myself.
Saturday, Sept. 20
7:30 p.m.: The crickets and frogs are making a racket here on Tern Lane in Feather Sound, an upscale community east of the airport. Some Feather Sound residents have reported aircraft noise so loud that it rattles their windows and dishes and prevents them from enjoying their yards. So I sit in my car, waitin' for the shakin'.
This may be one of the quietest places I've been in Pinellas County. It is so quiet that, with my car windows rolled down, I can hear small leaves blowing along the street in the gusty breeze.
7:57: I hear a jet, but not at this airport. I get out of the car and spot it high overhead, flying south.
8:07: A heat pump starts up at the house across the street. I got excited there for a minute.
8:20: There is a sudden loud burst of sound to the west as a jet takes off heading south. I couldn't hear a thing until the plane cleared the treetops. The sound is loud, but not as bad as a very loud motorcycle, for example, and lasts only seconds.
9:00: No activity. I'm outta here.
Wednesday, Sept. 24
4:15 a.m.: I haven't been up this early since my children were babies. I'm in the car again, this time on Fern Court in Safety Harbor. I'm parked in front of the home of Safety Harbor Mayor Pam Corbino, who has complained about noise from the airport for several years and gave an impassioned speech about it at a recent county meeting.
If this issue is about people being kept awake, how come I'm the only one on Fern Court who isn't asleep? The houses are dark. There is no sound but the crickets.
What's that buzzing? Great. Mosquitoes in the car.
4:36: I play with the seat controls to entertain myself. A semitrailer truck rumbles down Main Street a block away.
5:00: Bingo! A jet, probably carrying cargo rather than passengers, goes right over my car, its powerful headlight cutting a bright swath across the dark sky, its landing lights flashing as it glides south toward the airport. It is quite loud, but nothing in the car rattles or vibrates. All the houses remain dark.
5:38: Another incoming flight right overhead, but this one is quieter.
6:00: Another jet goes over my car. Same story.
6:02: Mayor Corbino emerges from her house for a power walk with friends in the pre-dawn darkness. She cautiously checks out the strange car in front of her house. I tell her what I'm doing. "Did you hear the one that just went over? Wasn't that loud?" she asks. Yes, I definitely could hear it coming, I respond, but it wouldn't wake me up. She shrugs. "I'm a light sleeper," she says.
Wednesday, Sept. 24
6:20 a.m.: The noise patrol moves to Del Oro Groves, a Clearwater neighborhood just north of the north end of the Bayside Bridge. Like Corbino's neighborhood, this one is on the flight path for aircraft using St. Petersburg-Clearwater International. Former Pinellas School Board member Lucile Casey lives here. At a recent airport meeting, she said residents of her neighborhood have complained about noisy aircraft for 34 years.
There is no sign of sunrise yet, but I can hear the steady roar of commuter traffic on McMullen-Booth Road and the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
6:50: A small commuter jet takes off from the airport, passing between my position and Tampa Bay. I can hear it, but it isn't noisy.
7:10: Another commuter plane takes off from the airport and passes directly overhead. But it isn't loud enough to be disturbing.
7:17: It is beginning to get light now. A full-sized jet takes off northbound, but rather than coming over Del Oro Groves, it passes over Old Tampa Bay on the daylight glide path prescribed by the airport's Noise Abatement Program. A resident getting in his car doesn't even look up.
Wednesday, Sept. 24
7:40 a.m.: I'm on Ulmerton Road, headed to the Airco Golf Course right beside the airport to see what's doing. As I pass south of the airport, there is a loud roar, but I can't see the jet anywhere. It must have taken off to the north. I sit in the parking lot at Airco for awhile, but see no aircraft taking off or landing. I do hear, at one point, the buffeting roar of an aircraft engine, perhaps a helicopter warming up on the runway. I am fairly convinced now that people who live in Feather Sound and immediately south of the airport hear more real noise than residents to the north.
Thursday, Sept. 25
11:10 a.m.: This picnic table at Safety Harbor's Marina Park is as close as I can get, without using a boat, to the Noise Abatement flight path over the bay. I sit for more than an hour, listening to the waves slap the shoreline. I see small planes crisscrossing the bay, but they aren't as loud as the Jet Skis buzzing in the shallows down along the Courtney Campbell Parkway. The U.S. Coast Guard's C-130 suddenly appears from the west and glides down over Safety Harbor for a landing at the airport. While the noise here in the marina is not great, I know from personal experience that if the C-130 goes directly over your house, it can rattle the windows.
What have I learned? That "noise" isn't so easy to define without a decibel meter. I have good hearing - good enough, for example, to hear what my children say when they don't want me to hear.
I find it uncomfortable to stand close to a very loud motorcycle or to be stuck at a stoplight beside one of those automobile-sized boomboxes that sends throbbing bass right through you.
None of the aircraft noise I heard in the course of a week of listening made me uncomfortable, and I think I would have slept through all of it. I realize, though, that some people are lighter sleepers and that one week of listening doesn't equate to living under the flight path.
But one week did prove to me that those who say their lives have been ruined by, to quote one critic, "a constant barrage of noise from that airport" must be either exaggerating, have become hyper-aware, or are perhaps stirred up by other issues or individuals.
Even in the most-impacted neighborhoods, you can sometimes sit for hours without hearing disruptively loud aircraft, with little more to occupy your ears than the buzz of mosquitoes and the sounds of life.