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Irate residents want noisy pilots to buzz off

01 February 2015 - 01:59 By Philani Nombembe

Residents of the Karoo town of Oudtshoorn have complained about a pilot training school whose noisy aircraft, some apparently flying just above the roofs of homes, have spoilt the tranquil nature of their suburbs.

Some residents have resorted to playing loud music in their homes to cancel the noise of the aircraft. Avic International Flight Training Academy, which is majority-owned by a Chinese company and trainsmostly Chinese pilots, has been operating since 2012.

Robert Keene, one of the residents who complained about the academy's operations, said this week that his suburb, Wesbank, had lost some of the qualities that first charmed him.

He moved from Johannesburg eight years ago, attracted by the peaceful nature of the town colloquially known as the home of the "flightless bird", a reference to the ubiquitous ostrich.

"I wouldn't have spent so much money on this house had I known this was going to happen," said Keene.

The Oudtshoorn Ratepayers' Association has complained about the school, saying noise from the flights and safety concerns had diminished the value of their properties. Tourism, a major source of economic activity in the town, had also declined.

The association has been putting pressure on the municipality to regulate or even close the academy, but has been unsuccessful so far. It spent money to have a letter translated from English to Mandarin, to ensure the owners of the school understood its complaints.

Keene said the planes were mainly small single-engine aircraft. He said about 200 homes were under the academy's flight path. "I sat here once last year and between 8am and 1pm I counted over 130 aircraft. The school says it plans to train 400 Chinese pilots a year."

Keene has tried to sell his home. "I would like to sell my house, but when people hear about the flying school they never come back."

Lizanne Pelham, chairwoman of the association , said she was worried about the safety of her three children, who attend Laerskool Wesbank. The airport shares a boundary fence with the 100-year-old school.

The planes fly past the school's playground before landing on the tarmac a short distance away.

Pelham said her daughters complained about the noise at school and she was concerned that this would affect their performance .

"They complain worse than normal when those aerobatic planes stay in the airspace above the airport. This is such a nuisance. To cope with the noise, you have to stay indoors, shut your windows and hope that this will lower noise levels."

The academy this week refused to answer questions or comment on the residents' claims.

The South African Civil Aviation Authority confirmed it had received complaints from residents, but an investigation "found the operation to be compliant with every regulatory requirement", said spokeswoman Phindiwe Gwebu.

According to the authority, planes are not allowed to fly lower than 1000 feet, except during take-off or landing. But Keene said the academywas flouting these rules as its planes were flying at 500 feet.

The Oudtshoorn Municipality, one of South Africa's troubled councils, receives R25000 in monthly rent from the pilot school for the use of the airport.

A 10-year lease agreement with the municipality requires that the flight school take out a R100-million "public liability" insurance policy.