Vigil: Watching Planes Take Off at East Hampton Airport

Airplane in Flight
Photo: Nimdamer/iStock Editorial/Thinkstock

Here’s something I bet you never thought to do. Go down to East Hampton Airport and watch the planes take off. There are certainly plenty of them if you go at the right time. And if you do you will get to see exactly what the airport is all about and why passions are running high about its future.

On June 8, a judge will either decide to allow the Town to enforce new laws that curtail the hours the airport is open (closed from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.) and restrict very loud aircraft to one round trip a week, or on behalf of those who love the airport, issue a temporary injunction, stopping the Town from enforcing the new laws. In one sense, stopping these laws seems incredible. The Town owns the airport. The towns pass laws. But then there is the matter of the free flow of transportation, car, bus, train, boat and, well, planes and helicopters. The FAA (the Federal Aviation Administration) has jumped in asking the judge to not let the laws happen.

6 p.m. I arrived with my wife at the end of the runway where it abuts Daniels Hole Road, just on the other side of the fence. The runway runs perpendicular to this fence. We lowered the tailgate in the field on the other side of the road—trees removed so the planes wouldn’t clip their tops, and took out chairs, some ice and drinks. We sat. We were facing the sunset over the runway. The planes, if any, would come in low over our heads from behind us.

6:01 p.m. An 8-seat commercial seaplane comes buzzing in about 200 feet above the car to make a nice landing and taxies halfway down to the terminal.

6:02 pm. Another 8-seat seaplane comes in. I see it has a name on its tail. It reads FLY THE WHALE. It lands successfully. These things come in really quickly overhead. They’re doing a hundred miles an hour as they slow down. They are not loud. But they are over and in front of us very quickly. I’d hoped to take a picture of the first two. Wasn’t quick enough.

6:02.30 p.m. Just after this seaplane taxis off to the terminal, another appears and takes off, going into the sun away from us, with the sun glinting off its wings.

6:04 p.m. A small twin-engine Lear jet shoots in over us and lands. Very loud. Still no picture. A heavy diesel smell settles down on us.

6:04.30 p.m. A seaplane lands, softly, feathering in over us. Tires squeal as they hit the runway.

Over at the passenger terminal, a quarter mile from us, a dozen aircraft glint in the sun. Tails move, engines rev. People are getting off and on. It’s Friday May 22. Occasionally, the terminal and its planes emit a giant rumbling and roaring. It sounds like there’s a giant animal waking up, turning over, then going back to sleep over there.

This whole area is open space and very flat. Woods surround the airport. There it goes, rumbling again.

6:05 p.m. A single engine Cessna takes off. Probably has a pilot in the front and a co-pilot, then room for two more behind. Not much noise, until it starts to climb. Then it buzzes like a bee.

6:08 p.m. A huge 12-passenger commercial jet comes out from in front of the terminal and rolls out to the end of the runway near to us. It turns. The engines scream and it starts down heading away from us. About halfway down, the sound drops down to just a whisper, then it takes off into the sun, and suddenly there is a terrible roar of sound, which appears to come from everywhere all at once. It echoes off the woodlands. The plane reaches for the sky. No animals or birds could live through this, I think. But there are the birds, flying around excitedly.

6:09 p.m. Another 8-seater seaplane takes off just behind the jet. Noise tolerable.

6:09.30 p.m. A small Cessna appears over us and coasts on in to land. There are seven cars here at the end of the runway at this time. Maybe 10 people all together. I had advertised this in the paper. Come on down and have a picnic at the end of the runway, 6 p.m. Friday. But one car is a black SUV with the word UBER crayoned on a card in the rear window. Another man stands at the fence, taking pictures, his pickup truck lined up behind him with the rest of us. Two other men talk near our car. There’s a woman in a station wagon. Everyone is stressed. This is a gut-wrenching experience, sort of exciting. Nobody is eating anything. You can’t eat with jet fuel.

6:10 p.m. Enormous rumble comes from in front of the terminal, then fades away. The beast is waking up once again.

6:11 p.m. Helicopter appears at several thousand feet, a little bee in the sky. It circles around, spiraling down. It spends about three very noisy minutes doing this, pocketa, pocketa, pocketa, and then it lands. Such a big noise for such a little thing.

6:14 p.m. High winged, 8-passenger plane takes off toward the sun. Buzzing noise. Moderate level.

6:15 p.m. A single-engine plane lands quietly. The word BLADE is on its tail.

6:16 p.m. A high-wing 8-passenger plane takes off.

6:16 p.m. This 8-passenger plane takes our attention away from something coming quietly in behind us. It’s suddenly overhead now, as a screeching, screaming angry, very enormous corporate jet, coming in fast to make a soft landing. It uses up the entire runway before it can stop. Bunches of birds fly excitedly around again in thisdisturbance.

6:18 p.m. Small Cessna takes off.

6:20 p.m. High-wing commercial propeller plane takes off.

6:21 p.m. Biggest jet of the night so far, 16 passengers by the looks of it, taxis out to the end of the runway, turns tail, emits jet fuel fumes at us and screams. It’s a massive dinosaur, the noisiest one yet, and as it leaves the ground a rushing sound spreads into the woods all around us. How could it be all around us? It is.

6: 22 p.m. From off in the distance is heard the low moaning sound of a train whistle. South of the airport, the LIRR is barreling along the tracks, taking the hoboes, the conductors and the rich folks through the trees. It gets louder, then gets softer and its gone, a memory of days gone by.

6:23–6:26 p.m. Nothing happens. The silence is deafening.

6:27 p.m. A small 4 passenger Cessna lands rather quietly.

6:28–6:30 p.m. More quiet. What is this? An intermission.

6:31–6:33 p.m. A helicopter, not so high up, pocketa pocketas, swings around behind us, and some people here at the fence take its picture as it swoops in to land at the terminal.

6:34–6:37 p.m. Three more helicopters land, one takes off and heads east toward Montauk. First one to head east. All the rest headed west.

6:35 p.m. Another giant corporate jet roars overhead and lands, trailing a smell of jet fuel. That’s it. We’re leaving.

All this is what has happened in just 35 minutes. So this was my day on Friday of Memorial Day weekend. I went to the beach, rode a horse, played golf and watched planes take off and land at East Hampton Airport.

As we pack up to get ready to leave, a man named Gary Wachtel walks over from one of the other cars. He says he is waiting for his wife and kids to come out east, they’re coming out by car. Thought he’d come down and join the picnic. He lives in the woods, 2 miles from the airport.

“Only time the noise bothers me is Sunday afternoons,” he says. “Rest of the time it’s okay. We have a noisy gun club Sundays nearby that’s loud. I think the planes should fly in from the ocean in the south, not over us up here from the north. When it gets bad, we play music loud. It masks it.”

I hope before June 8 the judge comes out here. It would give her an idea of the sense of all this. If she can’t do that, she should read this. Maybe someone could send it to her.

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