FAQ

Why does the E-3A Component need training flights?

Every year, pilots newly arrived at NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen receive conversion training so that they are qualified to fly the E-3A AWACS aircraft. In addition, qualified pilots have to maintain their professional skills by accomplishing training flights. The most important aspects of pilot training include air refuelling, takeoff and landing. In numerical terms the training flight requirement is determined by the number of pilots and the duration of their assignment to the E-3A Component.

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Why don’t pilots stay longer, so that a smaller number of pilots would need training?

The E-3A Component is definitely in favour of longer assignments for pilots. The advantage of this is that each year fewer pilots would need to be trained, which would save money and reduce noise pollution. However, each participating NATO nation makes its own decision on the duration of assignments. The Component cannot influence this decision-making process. 

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At what times of day is flying actually allowed?

At NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen the normal hours for flight operations are from 08:00 until 22:00 hrs Mondays to Fridays. The quiet hours are from 22:00 hrs until 08:00 hrs on weekdays and throughout the weekend. Aircraft noise has an impact on the local area around the air base. That is why we make every effort to minimize such disturbance outside the standard opening hours for the base. The number of flights outside normal opening hours is not more than 30 per year. Deviations from this policy are only permitted in case of operational necessity.

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It seems that you only conduct training at the base in Geilenkirchen. Is that right?

For financial and instructional reasons our home base in Geilenkirchen is the preferred location for executing the majority of the training. Nevertheless, we try to limit the number of flight movements here whenever possible, while taking account of our taskings. In 2011, more than 65% of all our flight movements were "exported” to other airfields. The permitted number of flight movements over Dutch territory is specified in a formal agreement between the Netherlands’ Ministry of Defence and the municipal authority of Onderbanken. The E-3A Component is not a signatory of this agreement, but it does abide by it. The previous version of the formal agreement specified a maximum of 3600 flight movements per year over Dutch territory. In 2009, this was reduced to the current level of 2996. In 2015 the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) decided that the amount of flights would be reduced to 2600 flight movements.

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How many flight movements per year are allowed at the base?

There are no limits on the total number of flight movements, although agreements with the Netherlands do specify the maximum number of flight movements over Dutch territory. The total number of flight movements per year is determined by the number of pilots who have to be instructed and trained. With full manning of pilot posts we accomplish about 17,000 flight movements per year. Approximately half of these are executed in the flight simulator. Of the remaining ‘real’ flight movements, i.e. those executed with AWACS aircraft, about 65 % are ‘exported’. The remainder are routed over the Netherlands, subject to voluntary compliance with the specified maximum number. The present maximum is 2600 flight movements per year. Normally the number of actual flight movement will be lower as a result of action to combine operations and the usual ‘export’ of noise.

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Why do your planes sometimes fly as much as 20 times a day over our local area? Could you arrange to fly only when the sun isn’t shining?

The maximum of 2600 flight movements per year is calculated on the basis of all the days when the base is open at normal times. The actual number of flight movements per day depends on very many factors. The most important of these is the need to train pilots in flying over the local area around Geilenkirchen, where they have to be able operate even in bad weather conditions. Furthermore the weather in Geilenkirchen and at other European airfields, as well as the availability of those airfields, is an important aspect for ‘exporting’ the noise we make. Visibility, wind and rain are the most important factors determining whether flying is possible. Whether or not the sun is shining makes no difference. If we only flew on cloudy days, our training needs would require far more and people would then experience far more disturbance.

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Could you spread the flights out more?

It is well known that an increase in the number of flight movements per day results in a steeper rise in the number of complaints. That is why the E-3A Component makes efforts to distribute as evenly as possible the number of flight movements passing over Dutch territory. The Commander has imposed additional restrictions for this purpose. A training flight is not allowed to involve more than 5 practice takeoffs and landings. An operational flight is only allowed two at most. But the weather and the availability of another airfield are also important aspects in this respect. If two or three training flights are taking place on the same day and other airfields report being unable to accept a sufficient number of AWACS flights, or if the weather in other locations is bad, then there may be more than the average 12 flight movements in Geilenkirchen on that day.

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Why can’t all the flight training be done in a simulator?

The amount of real and simulated training to be received by a pilot each year is specified in the local regulations and is partly determined by the total number of years of flying experience. The flight simulator provides realistic conditions, but it is unable to fully replicate all flight manoeuvres. In particular, air refuelling is a typically military skill not practised at all in civil aviation, and a flight simulator is of only limited usefulness for such training. Our flight simulator is used to the maximum extent, both for new pilots’ conversion training and for training qualified pilots. Geilenkirchen Air Base has two flight simulators; one of these has been certified by an independent authority as usable, in some cases, to replace real flight manoeuvres. The transfer of real flight manoeuvres to the simulator has now started and the noisiest movements have been reduced by 75 %. Further transfer of real flight manoeuvres to the simulator will take place step by step, in order to ensure flight safety. The next step will occur after the second flight simulator is taken into service in the middle of this year.

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Why do you fly over built-up areas?

Aircraft follow specified procedures (flight patterns) during takeoff and landing. These procedures have been laid down in consultation with the AWACS-Limburg Committee (CAL) and ensure that the aircraft can depart and land safely in all weather conditions. For residents of Brunssum and Onderbanken this means that departing and incoming aircraft fly through a specified tolerance zone between the two inhabited urban areas. This tolerance zone contains a number of houses situated on the edge of the built-up areas. It may happen that these houses are occasionally overflown, particularly during takeoff, but it goes without saying that aircraft are always intended to remain within the boundaries of the tolerance zone. Sometimes it happens that flights pass over a larger number of houses, perhaps due to an instruction from air traffic control (to maintain a safe distance from other aircraft) or to a situation in which, for example, the pilot decides to deviate from the takeoff procedure to avoid a flock of birds or a hot air balloon. As an aircraft may be deflected by the wind, it can also happen that a pilot misjudges the situation and flies beyond the boundary of the tolerance zone. Every violation is reported and investigated.

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Why can’t the aircraft turn (north) east straight after takeoff, as there are only fields and no built-up areas in that direction?

As a result of this and other questions about flight patterns, a number of different takeoffs and landings were trialled in 2008. A panel of local residents were then asked which types of flight movement they regarded as having caused the greatest disturbance. Turning to the right immediately after takeoff can only be performed by aircraft with a low takeoff weight. This only applies to planes that are going to land at the base again immediately after performing a few manoeuvres over Geilenkirchen. With the vast majority of training flight movements this is not the case, and an early turn is not feasible. It was also ascertained that when an aircraft makes an early turn to the right, the engines are directly toward the inhabited area of Schinveld, which means that local residents experience much more noise than when departing aircraft fly straight between Brunssum and Schinveld.

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Why do you only train at Geilenkirchen Air Base and nowhere else?

The E-3A Component aims to be a good neighbour and operates a strict noise reduction policy. Among other things, this means that we minimize the number of operational and training flights at Geilenkirchen Air Base, and we have initiated other noise reduction measures. The number of training flights at Geilenkirchen is being diminished by increasing the use of simulators and by transferring many training flights to other airfields elsewhere in Europe and in North America. We describe this as ‘exporting noise’. In 2011, about 65% of all flights were transferred to other airfields for this purpose. This ‘export’ costs the Component millions of euros per year in fuel costs alone. Increasing it further would not only be unaffordable but would also hamper the training programmes for pilots and for the base’s air traffic control personnel, who are also required to maintain their professional skills and certification.

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You’re operating completely outdated airplanes. How safe is the AWACS?

The NATO E-3A AWACS aircraft, purchased about 35 years ago, have been constantly modernized. As a result, this version of the aircraft is the most modern and versatile AWACS currently in service. Our planes are operated for only a fraction of the number of flight hours performed by civil aircraft, and they are maintained to the strictest standards. The NATO AWACS is therefore an especially safe aircraft. Throughout the 35-year existence of the NATO E-3A Component (in which the AWACS planes have accumulated about 350,000 flying hours), there have been no aircraft accidents involving fatal injury or damage to civil property. During that time, one NATO AWACS E-3A aircraft was involved an accident on the runway at Preveza, Greece, when it collided with a large number of birds during takeoff. As a result, the plane slid off the runway and was subsequently written off.

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The base causes a lot of disturbance, but does it bring us any benefits?

The AWACS programme involves the distribution of maintenance work among the participating nations. The Netherlands thereby receives its due portion of that work, which creates jobs in the Dutch aviation industry and other sectors. The E-3A Component currently has a workforce of about 2,900. This includes 350 personnel of Dutch nationality, about 50 of whom are military and around 300 are civilian staff members. Most of these Dutch members of the Component are from the province of Limburg. The air base is one of the largest employers in the border region. Some of the 2,900 NATO personnel rent or own houses in the Netherlands, go shopping there for all kinds of items, send their children to school there, go there for meals or overnight stays, etc. According to our annual Economic Impact Study, the Component’s overall contribution to the Dutch economy as a whole amounted to 71.8 million euros in 2011. About 20 million euros of that sum were spent in (the southern part of) the Netherlands by Component members in 2011.

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Why can’t the runway be shifted eastwards, so that people in the Netherlands get less noise pollution?

Decisions about far-reaching proposals of this kind fall within the competence of the NATO nations. The E-3A Component has no say in this. The Netherlands is indeed in favour of this project, but the funding of it has to be approved by all the NATO nations. The countries participating in the NATO AWACS programme have decided that extension of the runway is not an operational necessity. It is therefore almost impossible to obtain funding for this project. Furthermore, the German government has ascertained that as a consequence of runway extension the noise level increase in Germany would be greater than the noise level decrease in the Netherlands. Moreover it would be extremely difficult to obtain authorization for this project in Germany in view of factors such as the presence of a local nature reserve there. This aspect obviously resulted in complaints from German authorities and nature lovers who, unlike their Dutch counterparts in former times, had already had to accept the felling of trees in that nature reserve to create the obstacle-free zone on the eastern side of the air base

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The Dutch Minister of Defence is talking about cutting down more trees. Do the trees have to be cut down so that the AWACS planes can then fly lower?

No. Tree maintenance has to take place to ensure compliance with the international aviation safety regulations relating to obstacle-free zones, which have to be applied at all airfields, including Geilenkirchen Air Base. These rules state that no obstacles exceeding a specified height are permitted on approach and departure routes. The maximum permitted height of obstacles on these routes depends on their distance from the runway. The further away they are, the taller they are allowed to be. The upward growth of the existing trees is causing them to breach the required safety margins. This means that during takeoff from a wet runway in conditions with a strong side wind the aircraft have to carry less fuel. We then have to perform more flight movements or arrange additional tanker flights to provide the necessary air refuelling. During landing there is a decisive point where landing clearance will not be granted unless the pilot can see the runway. If he is unable to see it, a new landing attempt has to be made. As a result of the trees’ growth this decisive point is shifting from a location near the runway (with a greater chance that the pilot will be able to see the runway) to a location between Schinveld and Brunssum. If the landing has to be aborted, the pilot has to increase the engine thrust in order to ascend and ‘go around’. This acceleration inevitably occurs between the two built-up areas and results in an additional flight movement that would not be necessary if the height of the trees were properly managed. So the lack of tree management results in more noise, not less.

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The question of managing the Schinveld woodlands is causing confusion. Sometimes we’re told that an area of 14 hectares has to be cleared of trees, and other times it’s a matter of topping a few trees. What exactly is the situation.

Under international safety regulations every civil and military airfield has to have specified obstacle-free zones. Several trees are currently protruding into the obstacle-free zone on the west side of NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen. The issue therefore does not involve an area of 14 hectares, as is incorrectly stated in many media reports; of course the number of trees is still slowly increasing as a result of natural growth season season. These trees are standing on the Dutch side of the border, on land owned by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Defence and privately owned land. Accomplishment of tree management work needs to be authorized by a permit from the municipal authority of Onderbanken. The E-3A Component takes the view that the topping of trees will be sufficient to enable operational restrictions to be lifted and unnecessary flight movements avoided. The question of whether the trees should preferably be topped or completely cut down is a matter for the Dutch forestry agency, which is reviewing which of these options is better for the quality of the woodland. The Component has no say in this matter.

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How often do AWACS planes dump kerosene over the Schinveld woodlands?

Never. AWACS aircraft do not dump any kerosene over the Schinveld woodlands and have never done so. Kerosene discharge is an emergency procedure used by either civil or military aircraft in extreme situations when they have to land immediately and are still too heavy to be able to do this safely. In such cases, after obtaining permission from the air traffic control authority, the pilot can lighten the airplane by discharging kerosene at high altitude and within a designated zone of the airspace. This exceptional measure is not used recklessly in either military or civil aviation, and certainly not during the landing itself.

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Is it true that the AWACS aircraft in Geilenkirchen are the only airplanes in the world that are still fitted with noisy, environmentally unfriendly engines?

No. The U.S. AWACS aircraft are equipped with the same engines as the NATO AWACS, and various other American military planes are fitted with almost identical engines.

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Because of their noisy engines the AWACS aircraft are not allowed to fly in America anymore, so why can they still do so here?

This idea is wrong. Neither in America nor in Europe is there a “flight ban” applying to AWACS aircraft. Military airplanes are not subject to the same standards as commercial aircraft, just as the standards for trucks using the roads are different from those for passenger cars. NATO AWACS aircraft can be operated anywhere in the world - they regularly make use of civil airports such as Munich and Berlin, and every year they take part in exercises in the U.S.A. and Canada.

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Is it true that the noise pollution caused by flight movements from the base in Geilenkirchen has increased in recent years?

No, this is not true. The annual number of flight movements over the Netherlands from Geilenkirchen Air Base has steadily decreased since the year 2000, from approx. 4000 at that time to about less than 2000 in recent years. The low number of flight movements at Geilenkirchen Air Base in recent years is particularly due to several operations, in Afghanistan, Libya and NATO's Eastern border. The decrease from a total of 4000 to less than 2000 movements is the result of the noise reduction policy and the measures taken by the E-3A Component to limit the disturbance experienced by local inhabitants. The flight simulator is therefore being used more intensively, and about 65% of flight movements per year are accomplished at air bases in the Netherlands and elsewhere. 

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Why is no instrument landing system (ILS) going to be installed on the Dutch side of the base?

NATO Air Base Geilenkirchen is equipped with radar for air traffic control. This enables our air traffic controllers to ‘talk pilots down’ to the runway from either direction. The German side of the runway - our preferred runway for reasons relating to noise pollution control and other aspects - is also equipped with an instrument landing system enabling pilots to guide themselves by using onboard instruments, and an air traffic controller on the ground is not essential. As both a radar-controlled landing and an ILS landing make about the same amount of noise, there is no major difference between them in that respect. To ensure that an ILS can operate without hindrance, large areas of terrain have to be kept completely obstacle-free. On the Dutch side that would require not the topping but the cutting down of the trees in large areas of woodland there. An ILS is more accurate than radar control: aircraft are therefore able to land with the aid of ILS under worse weather conditions than they are permitted to do under radar control. That is certainly an operational advantage, but there is no operational necessity to have an ILS for both runways. In view of the mandatory requirement for the rigorous cutting down of trees the installation of an ILS on the Dutch side was designated as unacceptable within the AWACS Limburg Committee.

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