21st June, 2023
In 1910, the Nobel Prize winner Robert Koch predicted that “one day man will have to fight noise as fiercely as cholera and pest”. That day has long since arrived, it seems. Certainly, it was the issue that led communities to come together and create the AEF back in the 1970s, and it remains a major headache for many people across the UK today: we receive more queries about the issue than about any other subject related to aviation. Operations from commercial aircraft are the main source of disturbance that we hear about, and our campaigns continue to raise awareness of the ways in which jet aircraft noise impacts people, including our short film project.
However, responses to our 2016 survey of members showed that a significant number of respondents were impacted by noise from light aircraft, defined as aircraft whose maximum take-off weight is 5,670 kg or less and including most small, piston-driven planes, helicopters, microlights and drones. For example, just under a fifth of respondents reported being affected by helicopter noise. A follow-up survey in 2021 revealed that the relative quiet of Covid lockdowns increased sensitivity to aircraft noise when restrictions on aircraft operations were lifted, including noise from light aircraft. Non-members also wrote to us to express dismay about the resumption of aircraft activities at nearby airfields. Many told us that they were no longer able to enjoy their gardens or concentrate on their work. As people increasingly choose to work from home, the issue is compounded, with some reporting feelings of helplessness and depression. In view of this, we decided to find out more.
Light aircraft have a gross weight of 12,500 lb (5,670 kg) or less and they fall within the category of General Aviation. Examples of light aircraft include small piston-driven planes, helicopters, microlights and drones.
These flights are ‘larks’. People are having fun, and they have no care for the distress they cause.”
At the end of 2022, we asked for insight from those who regularly suffer from noise pollution caused by light aircraft. The response to the survey showed that the issue is not confined to the congested airspace over London and the South East. Responses came from across the country, from concerned people impacted by city heliports, aerodromes located near small towns, or regional airports. This geographical spread was also noted in the UK Government’s most recent National Noise Attitude Survey (2012), which found that people living in villages, towns, rural countryside and large cities reported being more bothered, annoyed, or disturbed by noise from ‘aircraft, airports or airfields’.
The main issues with light aircraft, respondents told us, are the relatively low altitudes that they fly, meaning that overhead noise events can last for several minutes. Another issue is that planes operating from airfields tend to have older engines (some dating from the 1970s), which are very noisy compared to newer ones. Some pilots also circle around the same areas when practising circuits (touch-and-go exercises where aircraft take off, fly a circuit, and simulate a landing before climbing again to repeat the exercise, often several times), or when performing aerobatics. One respondent told us that they were overflown by aircraft every 30 seconds during the daytime.
Helicopters, which have different and complex noise characteristics, and can hover low over an area for extended periods of time are often experienced as being more intrusive and annoying than other light aircraft, with one respondent commenting that: “Helicopter noise in my area is (since the demise of Concorde) much louder than Heathrow air traffic, and often disrupts conversation out of doors.” Another respondent reported being overflown by 10 – 30 helicopters at 1,000ft – 1,500ft every day, and 20 – 40 light aircraft doing practice flying down to 500 feet.
The combination of light aircraft operating from airfields results in significant noise disturbance:
On many clear bright days the noise can be both loud and persistent throughout the day substantially affecting the relaxation and enjoyment of being outdoors and drowning out the noise of local wildlife.”
Most survey respondents noted how the constant aircraft noise has affected their wellbeing, especially while being outside. Several also note that low flying is also an intrusion into their privacy. One response, from teachers at a school, noted the ill effects of the noise on staff and pupils:
We have low-flying aircraft directly over the school and in busy periods it is every couple of minutes through the whole day. Despite keeping a log, including aircraft numbers that we can clearly see with the naked eye, no one has deemed this worth taking further. The flight path taken goes directly over the school and we do not feel that the required height is being reached for this to be safe. In the event of an accident, there would be significant casualties. Given that we are a school the noise is incredibly disruptive, we regularly have to halt conversations, instruction to pupils and lessons in general. The noise level that children and staff are exposed to constantly is not healthy.”
Another respondent reported the impact that helicopter noise has on her daughter:
I am woken up most nights at about 11:30 by a helicopter that flies directly over my house. During the summer months, light aircraft fly over my house about every 2-3 minutes on a sunny day. They are so low you can easily read their identity numbers. If you are out in the garden you regularly have to stop your conversation until they have flown over. I have a daughter with special needs and there have been times when she has run in from the garden because she is scared of the noise.”
Apart from horrendous and repetitive noise I am also disturbed that apparently there is nothing that can be done about it.”
Overwhelmingly, respondents said that they had raised the noise issue with a range of bodies including (but not limited to): local councils, the owners and managers of local airfields, their local MP, local media and even the pilots. Those who tried, were unable to gain media interest. In many cases, local councillors said that they had no power to intervene, even where planning conditions were being breached.
Some had tried to complain to the Civil Aviation Authority about possible breaches of the Rules of the Air. However, proving a breach of the Rules is notoriously difficult, and complainants are often pointed back to the airport by the CAA. One respondent described being faced with this obstacle: “My complaint floundered over the difficulty of giving an estimate of the height of the helicopter”. While some airfields had contacted pilots to raise the issue and to point out that airfield noise abatement procedures were being ignored, in most cases no behavioural change was observed. On the rare occasion that respondents themselves managed to get in contact directly with the pilots creating the disruption, the noise continued unabated.
Most respondents stated that they want to see greater transparency of flight information, monitoring and enforcement of measures in place to control aircraft movements, including no-fly zones, especially over residential areas, and no-fly periods. Suggestions also included financial deterrents and penalties, insulating houses for noise, and banning night flights.
One interesting response calls for primary legislation to place helipad traffic limits in the hands of local authorities, tying in neatly with many people’s complaints being directed towards local authorities, who say that they have very limited power to intervene as aircraft noise is not a statutory nuisance under the 1990 Environmental Protection Act. One central idea that was continually highlighted was the need for publicly accessible information about flights and who to complain to. One respondent called for the “CAA to be accountable and manage aviation issues such as noise and low flying GA” as the organisation that has, or could obtain, access to the data.
Some good practices do exist. Some aerodrome owners issue flight protocols and identify ‘no-fly areas’ and, back in 2012, the CAA published noise abatement advice for light aircraft. But, too often, this advice is not followed and enforcement is minimal.
AEF believes that no one’s life should be blighted by aircraft noise. We want to see greater transparency in reporting, and national and local authorities being able, and seen, to hold airfields and pilots accountable for reducing noise impacts. As such, we call for:
AEF has initiated a campaign calling for action to address these problems. You can read more on our Campaign Page.
For general guidance on aircraft noise, please go to AEF’s noise guide.