Outdoor classes experience turbulence amid persistent plane noise

A plane flies overhead in a cloudless sky.
The sounds of soaring planes are wreaking havoc on 5C outdoor classrooms. (Chris Nardi • The Student Life)

As the weather cools, students and faculty are settling into this semester’s new outdoor classes. But one environmental factor isn’t going away: a seemingly unending fleet of small planes flying over the 5C campuses.

Most of the aircraft are either taking off or landing at Cable Airport, a family-owned, public use airport founded in 1945. Located in Upland, California, its runway ends less than a mile northeast of the 5C campuses. 

Pitzer College sociology professor Erich Steinman, who teaches outdoors, said outdoor classes are beneficial in many ways, including that they are easy to reconfigure. 

Also, “it helps more COVID-anxious students feel better,” he said.

But interference from planes flying overhead has made outdoor classes tricky, especially when students are also muffled by wearing masks. 

“Plane noise in the morning is a real factor,” Steinman said. “My class starts at 9:35 and we have become aware that between 9:30 and 10:20 there are a lot of planes. We frequently have to pause and wait for a plane to pass. That is not ideal.”

The recommended landing and takeoff pattern of airplanes that use Cable Airport runs close to the 5Cs, although technically not above them. Regulations issued by the airport in 2017 prohibit planes from flying directly over the campuses.

“I had not thought of making any comment to the Pitzer administration. I didn’t know we had any potential basis for trying to affect the air traffic,” Steinman said. “If we can affect it that would be great. It would really help.”

Some faculty have complained to their administrations or The Claremont Colleges Services about noise disruption, prompting TCCS to get in contact with Cable Airport representatives. 

“Several faculty from institutions of The Claremont Colleges have noted that it is challenging to conduct class in an outdoor setting with the noise of the planes flying overhead,” TCCS spokesperson Laura Muna-Landa said in a statement. “At the direction of the Presidents of The Claremont Colleges, The Claremont Colleges Services reached out to Cable Airport … in an effort to remedy the situation. A letter identifying the concern and requesting assistance with this issue was sent to the Cable Airport manager.”

TCCS’ letter also referred to the 2017 prohibition on flying over the Claremont Colleges, followed by “a request to remind pilots of this regulation.”

In a response, Cable Airport manager Stephen Dunn reassured the colleges that the airport was taking all “reasonable actions” to reduce noise from the planes flying nearby.

“Cable Airport has taken great strides to inform our tenants to be good neighbors with the colleges and with the housing that has readily been encroaching on the airport,” Dunn said in the letter. “Cable Airport will continue to do its best to keep its tenants from flying over the colleges.” 

Dunn also referenced a flyer sent to Cable Airport tenants in April 2021, explaining its departure procedures which route planes around the Claremont Colleges and including quarterly reminders “asking our tenants to be aware of where they are flying.”

But Dunn said the airport has limited control over planes that fly to or from its runway.

“Cable Airport is an ‘uncontrolled’ airport, meaning pilots coming and going to/from Cable do not talk with, nor are they controlled by, air traffic control,” he said, adding that “ultimate control of where an aircraft flies is at the discretion of the pilot.”

Cable Airport can only effectively communicate with a subset of its clients, the letter added. Many planes flying in and out of the airport aren’t based there.

“One of the problems Cable Airport has when we receive noise complaints is the automatic assumption the aircraft is from here,” Dunn said. “That is not the case … we estimate about 50 percent of our daily traffic is from pilots based elsewhere.”

These pilots are typically less likely to adhere to recommended landing and takeoff patterns, according to the letter. In addition, the airport has less authority with those pilots, since it can’t threaten their spot at the airport if they refuse to follow the guidelines. Plus, it’s hard to even discern which planes are flying over campus and which ones are following the correct procedures. 

Ultimately, “our departure [route] is only a recommendation,” the letter said. “[So] the pilot can ignore it without consequence (other than being a jerk).”

Annamarie Wire PO ’22 has also dealt with the frustration of plane noise during outdoors classes. 

Wire’s Latin class was disturbed by a low-flying helicopter which circled above Pomona multiple times on Monday. 

According to a post on the City of Claremont’s Instagram account, the increase in helicopter activity this week is due to Southern California Gas Company conducting aerial methane mapping, which can detect leaks and other potential infrastructure issues. The helicopter flies in a lawnmower pattern at around 500 feet between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the post said. 

“The noise from the planes and helicopters lately has been so bad that I’ve struggled to hear my classmates and my professors when we’re outdoors,” Wire said. “It’s just another distraction on top of the others that can make outdoor classes challenging.”

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