Surf Air Cuts San Carlos Noise with New Visual Approach

 - July 1, 2016, 7:40 AM
A Surf Air PC-12 at the operational base in Hawthorne, Calif. The Hawthorne-San Carlos leg is a popular route. Photo: Matt Thurber

Surf Air, the shared-use charter airline that flies Pilatus PC-12s on scheduled routes in California, will begin flying a new visual approach to Runway 30 at San Carlos Airport on July 5. The new approach is designed to lower noise for residents who live under the straight-in path to Runway 30, and it keeps Surf Air’s PC-12s over the San Francisco Bay and away from homes for most of the approach.

Members of Surf Air pay a monthly fee, which starts at less than $2,000, to occupy available seats on as many flights as desired. All flights are flown IFR with two-pilot crews.

There have been a number of noise complaints because of the Surf Air operations at San Carlos, and Surf Air has been working with local community members, political representatives and airport management on the problem. Jim Sullivan, Surf Air senior vice president of operations and a former Part 121 airline pilot, joined the company in January 2014, “and I got immediately thrust into this process,” he said. “We had a great deal of difficulty because the airspace in the Bay Area is very inflexible.” Although it was suggested that Surf Air pilots cancel IFR and complete the flight under VFR to make it easier to avoid flying over houses, he added, “I’m not comfortable doing that in a scheduled operation with a high-speed turboprop.”

One attempt at cutting the noise was to add 1,000 feet to the 2,000-foot final approach fix (CUZUP), which requires a steeper descent but is easy to do in the PC-12. “This limited the impact on the ground,” he said, “but it’s still an airplane flying over you, but higher.”

During a meeting several months ago hosted by San Mateo County, which owns and operates the airport, a proposal was suggested to conduct a formal noise study, which could have resulted in the imposition of restrictions that would have affected all airport users. The group, which included local residents, airport users and local politicians, instead decided to figure out how to fix the problem and worked with Norcal Tracon on a solution. The result was the new visual approach procedure.

Four different procedures were tested before settling on the visual approach solution. Instead of flying the GPS Y or Z straight in to Runway 30 and over residential areas, the Surf Air pilots instead cross the initial fix (AMEBY) at about 4,000 feet then turn north toward Moffett Field, fly over the bay then turn back toward San Carlos, leaving sufficient space for a stabilized roughly two-mile final. After selecting the procedure, five Surf Air check airmen flew the visual approach 31 times. “We got universally positive comments from the crews,” Sullivan said. And there was only one noise complaint, but that turned out not to be a Surf Air airplane.

There are some restrictions on using the procedure when San Francisco has simultaneous ILS approaches in low visibility or during inclement weather, but according to an analysis by San Carlos Airport, weather conditions should allow Surf Air to fly the new approach about 85 percent of the time. Surf Air averages 18 operations into San Carlos per day, with more during the week and fewer on weekends.