A mechanical shriek followed a low rumble as the Boeing 737 came closer, a looming albatross partially obscured by a thin, misty cloud.
Within moments, it had passed and was soaring over the gunmetal waters of the Upper Newport Bay and toward the ocean.
Then, the jet did something it wasn't supposed to do: It flew straight ahead.
"He didn't turn," observed Ken Shapero, a GE Aviation Systems official, peering skyward.
The plane, striped in Southwest Airlines' distinctive yellow and red, should have curved left to stay roughly over the bay to comply with a flight pattern aimed at protecting residents from noise. Instead, the craft roared right over upscale houses on a bluff, where families living in Newport Beach's Westcliff and Dover Shores neighborhoods were starting their days.
A casual observer might not have thought much of its path. After all, planes have criss-crossed the skies over Newport for decades, as nearby John Wayne Airport grew from a private landing strip in the 1920s to a multimillion-dollar operation, with international flights to Mexico and Canada.
But for Newport Beach residents living under the airport's departure path, that 737's flight represented countless battles fought to stifle the noise disturbing what residents say are otherwise just about flawless communities.
Indeed, the city's residents and politicians spent much of the 1990s fighting unsuccessfully to turn the shuttered Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro into an airport in hopes of diverting the roar of jetliners to southern Orange County.
But when voters chose to turn the Marine base into parkland instead of an airport, Newport's leadership turned away from politics and toward technology in its quest for quieter skies.
"The airport is the No. 1 quality-of-life issue in Newport Beach," said Mayor Keith Curry. "We'll do anything we can to reduce the impact and noise to our residents."
The city's latest effort, the result of a $75,000 report by GE Aviation Systems division Naverus, would have John Wayne as the site of a pilot program for the regular use of a departure procedure now reserved stateside for especially difficult take-offs surrounded by tough terrain.
Pilots departing from Juneau, Alaska, for example, have special permission to use the more-precise form of GPS navigation to help departing aircraft avoid mountains.
In Orange County, the procedure known as a Required Navigation Performance (RNP) departure, would guide airplanes through an extra curve to stay along the middle of the bay as it snakes toward the sea. That way, neither the west nor the east side of Newport's Back Bay, which is home to wildlife and lined by homes and on both sides, would bear the brunt of direct flyovers.
Of course, officials warn, this is all subject to Federal Aviation Administration approval. And with a budget clobbered by sequestration, an agency spokesman said, the resources to develop the regulatory framework necessary to get the RNP program off the ground — in Orange County or anywhere else in the continental U.S. — likely won't be there any time soon.
"Once we develop criteria for new types of procedures, there will be demand for these new procedures throughout the country and limited FAA staff to work on them," regional FAA spokesman Ian Gregor wrote in an email.
Newport Beach City Manager Dave Kiff said his community is going into the process with eyes wide open.
"We didn't go in saying, 'Certainly the FAA is going to accept this,'" he said. What sets Newport apart, is that "here, we're willing to pay for it to start to be developed precisely because it would be the first."
Aviation experts and officials said that the kind of pinpoint navigation possible using RNP technology is likely the way of the future. Naverus executives envision national air traffic that runs more like a Swiss rail system than a grocery store parking lot, with computerized coordination through both time and space.
"Let me be clear be perfectly clear about this," Shapero said. "It will happen."
The technology exists, experts say. Already, the FAA is working to move navigation from ground-based systems to satellites under its NextGen program, and as of last May, 337 RNP arrival (not departure) procedures were in place at airports around the U.S.
Nevertheless, the city's push may be a step too far for now.
"We don't know if the city's proposal is technically possible," Gregor wrote.
But the bounds of what's possible for most communities haven't discouraged Newport residents in the past.
"A lot of people in this community are like high achievers. These are movers-and-shakers type of folks," said longtime resident Tom Anderson, who lives in the Westcliff neighborhood near the harbor. "They're not afraid to go right to the FAA and complain."
Put another way, said resident Millie Noble, 74, as she walked her dog near Dover Shores' Galaxy Park: "There's people always raising a ruckus."
As a result, the county-owned airport is perhaps the most strictly regulated in the country.
A curfew mandates that no commercial planes can take off from JWA before 7 a.m. or after 10 p.m. most days, nor can they land at JWA any later than 11 p.m., except in emergencies.
A 1985 legal settlement among the city, the county and two airport activist groups placed passenger and traffic caps on the airport. The terms of that settlement have recently been the subject of a years-long renegotiation process. A new settlement to take effect in 2015 that will allow some growth — despite rallying cries of "10.8 [million annual passengers] and shut the gate" — is making its way through the environmental review process.
And the airport's unusually steep take-offs, designed to mitigate noise, have earned JWA something of a reputation among passengers and pilots.
Planes take off from JWA at up to a 25-degree angle, about 10 degrees steeper than normal, then throttle back once they're in the air — which creates that stomach-dropping sensation tourists more often feel at Disneyland than on the plane ride home.
"John Wayne's an interesting airport — one because you have a very short runway, so landings are more critical," said Jon Russell, an Air Line Pilots Assn. regional safety director who's flown for a major airline for 26 years. "And, of course, the take-off profile. Those are two important catalysts for making an airport unique and more difficult."
For passengers, though, much debate stays firmly behind the scenes of the pristine terminals.
On a recent weeknight, as the evening's last passengers trickled through security, Irvine resident Albert Li, 50, sat at a bench working on his laptop. A consultant who travels frequently, he said he noticed that the pre-flight warnings from pilots about the departure seem to have tapered off.
"Pilots used to tell you, 'We have a steep departure, blah, blah, blah,'" he said. "Now they don't do that anymore."
Either way, he added, "I'm just along for the ride."