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Pilot’s-Eye View of Lindbergh Field

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From time to time, I’ve been asked, “What’s it like to land a large, heavy jet at Lindbergh Field?” Almost always, those who asked have been fellow pilots--not passengers, most of whom seem to assume that Lindbergh is a routine airport.

Lindbergh is by no means routine, as the pilots who ask know. Because of the city’s steep terrain, it has never been among pilots’ favorite airports. Add to that the many obstructions that have been built over the past two decades--most recently the six-story Laurel Travel Center--and Lindbergh is now a “tight fit” at best, and hazardous at worst. (Pilots compare it in some ways to Hong Kong’s airport, where, just last week, a jet skidded into the harbor, killing seven people.) Thirty years ago, when airlines were flying piston-engine planes such as Convair 340s or Douglas DC-6s, Lindbergh Field was, in pilot jargon, “technically comfortable.” The airport’s design allowed for that type of aircraft, and the “operational fit” was good.

The introduction of jets, however, changed this. The runway had to be lengthened, and that meant planes came in closer to nearby buildings. The operational fit got tighter. Since then, new buildings have sprouted everywhere.

The Federal Aviation Administration may say that the buildings are not hazards, but airlines and airline pilots are concerned, and the community should

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be, too.

The danger is not just that a plane

may hit the Laurel Travel Center. The

greater danger, perhaps, results from

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what the pilot has to do to avoid

hitting it, or what gets left undone

because the pilot is distracted. In fact, pilot distraction is the leading cause of accidents.

To a pilot, the optimum is to have clear land or water for some distance before he has to descend to the runway. When there are obstructions, the pilot has to compensate either by landing farther down the runway or steepening his angle of descent, which reduces his margin for error. If his precision is off, he runs the risk of landing short of the runway or overshooting it, both of which would have severe consequences.

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In other words, landing at Lindbergh is somewhat like trying to drive your car into the garage at high speed. You don’t want to hit your kid’s bicycle as you enter, and you want to brake hard enough to stop in the garage rather than the family room.

Airline flight crews succeed at this feat daily without accident. But the question is, can they continue to do so?

That can best be answered by looking at what’s involved in safely landing a large plane, such as a DC-10 or a Boeing 747, at an airfield with steep terrain and many obstructions.

For starters, the pilot cannot see his landing gear. It might be more than 100 feet behind and 40 feet below his eye level. So he can’t see if he is clearing the obstruction.

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If the obstruction is right near the beginning of the runway, such as the Laurel Travel Center parking garage on Laurel Street, the pilot has to steepen his angle of approach, which can be hazardous for several reasons:

1. Engine power must be cut to reduce forward speed. At the same time, downward speed is increasing markedly, which can destabilize the plane. To slow the downward speed, the pilot must pull on the controls quicker and harder than usual, which may be psychologically difficult for the inexperienced pilot.

Usually this results in no more than a hard landing, but on several occasions the consequences have been far more serious and even fatal. In 1965, a Boeing 727 descending at an excessive rate crashed 335 feet short of the runway at Salt Lake City. In 1982, a Boeing 707 hit short of the runway at Geneva, Switzerland, snapping off a wing and breaking in half. And, last December, the tail of a DC-9 snapped off in Pensacola, Fla., after a steep approach and a hard landing.

2. Sometimes, however, it is inappropriate to reduce engine power at the beginning of a steep descent. In this case, the danger is that excessive forward speed will build up and the aircraft might speed hundreds, even thousands of feet down the runway, without its wheels touching. When the landing does occur, the aircraft may be too far down the runway to stop safely.

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Overruns caused the destruction of a DC-10 at Boston in 1982 and at New York in 1984.

3. An additional hazard occurs when a pilot realizes he might overrun the runway and tries to push full power on the engines to pick up speed and fly out for another attempt. But jet engines do not respond quickly, and the plane can crash-land beyond the airport before engine power kicks in. This happened in June at Mulhouse-Habsheim Airport in eastern France when the pilot of a new, highly automated A-320 attempted to fly out of a low pass just above the runway and crashed well beyond the airport.

Needless to say, any of the above scenarios would be disastrous in San Diego, where the terrain and the obstacles are unforgiving.

Preventing such disasters cannot be accomplished by the flight crew alone. Air safety requires a partnership between the airline and the community--and a commitment to high standards by both.

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It must be remembered that the standards set by the FAA for pilot qualifications, airline operation and airports are minimums only. Many airlines and communities have chosen to set theirs higher.

For airlines, this means investing millions of dollars in salaries for the best pilots; for top-notch training, which allows pilots to fly into difficult airports such as Lindbergh; and for aircraft maintenance. It also means going a step further by conducting hazard research and developing safety programs over and above those required.

But communities must reciprocate by demanding that airport operators and government officials also set high standards. Some have. Cities such as Chicago and Sacramento have kept their airport approach zones free from obstructions. With all of the billions of cubic feet of space in a large city, it’s illogical to permit buildings near the end of a commercial airport runway in the path of dozens of jets and thousands of passengers every day.

That San Diego has allowed such building is a reflection of the standards the community is willing to accept. If it wants a safer airport, the community must demand more than the minimum.

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