Safety at Santa Monica

AOPA hosts public discussion

October 30, 2013

Ninety-six-year-old Santa Monica Municipal Airport sits on a plateau slightly above the densely populated community, surrounded by office and industrial buildings and, on either end of its single runway, houses. And while airplane noise has been an issue with those local residents for years, they voiced new concerns recently about a fatal accident at the airport last month.

AOPA on Oct. 24 hosted a pilot safety seminar in the city to address those concerns.

Bruce Landsberg, president of the AOPA Foundation and Air Safety Institute, spoke to about 100 local pilots, AOPA members, and airport opponents about the accident involving a Cessna Citation jet that veered off the airport’s runway and into a hangar, igniting. He also discussed practices for noise reduction, safety, and fuel management at airports surrounded by development.

“Would everyone agree that Santa Monica is a congested area?” Landsberg asked the pilots gathered in a ballroom of the Santa Monica Doubletree Suites-Hilton Hotel during a discourse on emergency landing locations. “As old as it is, this airport obviously has some unique features.”

However, Landsberg noted that Santa Monica Airport’s safety record is on par with other area airports, and that and that there have been no off-airport fatalities to nonparticipating individuals since 1982, when the National Transportation Safety Board started keeping such records.

Landsberg discussed the best way to select off-airport landing sites near airports in developed areas, glide ratios, and the “Impossible Turn,” or the perils of turning back to the airport after encountering engine problems after takeoff. Only after gaining enough altitude and airspeed, he counseled, are turn-backs possible.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport opened in 1917 and was once the site of a Douglas Aircraft manufacturing facility.  In fact, the first houses near the airport were built by Douglas for its employees. Today, Santa Monica Airport is surrounded mostly by office and light industrial buildings. Residential development has expanded on either end of its 5,000-foot runway, 3/21.

Several anti-airport groups routinely complain to the city, population 92,000, about airport noise and emissions. However, an AOPA poll of Santa Monica residents has shown that more than 70 percent of the community favors keeping the airport open.

Homes at the end of the east-bound runway are separated from the airport by blast fence and a busy road. On the airport’s western end, some homes are closer to the airport, but they remain separated from it by a berm and a six-foot-tall concrete-block wall.

But Bill Dunn, AOPA’s vice president for airport advocacy, told seminar attendees that, “This evening is focused on aviation and airport safety. It is not any type of political rally for or against the airport. And we’re holding this seminar here, in a public space, so it is available to any member of the general public who has an interest.”

During the seminar, several anti-airport residents asked Landsberg whether it was safe to operate jets at Santa Monica, and whether aircraft were not increasing the amount of particulate pollution for area residents.

“Flying into here, we started to see pollution and smog around about 100 miles east of Santa Monica,” Landsberg replied. “Aircraft are not creating that particulate, cars and trucks are.”

In August the City of Santa Monica increased its landing fees—over objections by AOPA—by 250 percent to $5.48 per 1,000 pounds of maximum certificated gross landing weight. The city also removed a previous landing fee exemption for aircraft based at the airport, also despite AOPA objections.

Santa Monica pilots and airport business operators said the new fees have begun to drive some flight instruction and tenants away. AOPA’s airport directory shows that about 270 aircraft are based at Santa Monica in tiedowns and in hangars.