The crash of a single-engine airplane into a West Los Angeles neighborhood Sunday as it approached Santa Monica Municipal Airport has revived questions about the safety and appropriateness of a busy general aviation airport in a densely populated residential area.
The crash-landing of a six-seat Piper Malibu into a home in the 1800 block of Sherbourne Drive, about three miles east of the airport, was the sixth crash since July, 1989, involving planes heading for or departing the Santa Monica airport. The plane’s four passengers and the house’s four occupants all escaped serious injury.
The airport, in the southeast corner of Santa Monica bordering the Los Angeles neighborhood of Mar Vista, has been the focus of debate and legal battles for years.
After each accident since 1989, critics have called for the immediate closure of the airport. This week, however, the focus of concern appeared to have shifted to the pilots and to proper maintenance of aircraft.
Although it will be several weeks before federal officials issue a formal statement on the cause of the crash, preliminary findings by police and fire officials at the scene Sunday indicated that the plane had run out of fuel.
“The airport has been there since the beginning of time it seems, and the number of accidents has been very minimal,” said Greg Thomas, a Mar Vista resident who in the past has been critical of the airport. “But what I’m really concerned about is that the pilot apparently knew he was in trouble and thought he could make it to the airport. That’s kind of a crapshoot. When you run out of gas on the freeway, you can pull over. The alternatives in a plane are quite different.”
“Sunday’s crash was very, very unfortunate. . . . But it and other crashes were not, per se, the fault of the airport,” added Veronica Pinckard, who is co-chairwoman of the airport noise and safety committee of the Friends of Sunset Park, a Santa Monica neighborhood group near the airport.
Los Angeles City Councilman Nate Holden, whose district includes the site of Sunday’s crash, also questioned where blame should be placed.
“I think pilots of these small planes should be reminded not to fly them unless they are mechanically safe and, by all means, unless they have enough gas to get to their destination,” Holden said this week after inspecting the crash site.
Airport Director Jeff Mathieu said he could not explain the flurry of crashes that has occurred in less than two years, but he is convinced that the airport did not directly contribute to any of them. (Prior to a July, 1989, crash, it had been nearly two years since a plane leaving the airport was involved in a crash.)
“All of the crashes have been for different reasons,” said Mathieu, who has held his job since January, 1990. “We have been unable to glean any particular reason or solution to preventing any that have occurred.”
Mathieu said that after each of the crashes, his staff conducted its own evaluations to look for patterns or similarities. He said his staff could not find any.
“Air traffic controllers are doing their jobs. . . . Lighting and navigation apparatus are functioning. . . . Runway surfaces and markings are adequate not to have caused any of the accidents,” Mathieu said.
After the October, 1989, crash of an experimental airplane heading toward the airport, Mathieu’s predecessor, Hank Ditmar, asked the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to ban such aircraft from its runways. However, the FAA denied the request, saying that experimental planes--a category consisting mostly of home-built craft that nonetheless must meet the agency’s tough safety standards--could not be singled out for banishment.
Unlike most general aviation airports, Santa Monica airport is surrounded primarily by residential areas. Mathieu said that fact makes him even more concerned about airport safety.
“We do not have the typical buffers between residential neighborhoods surrounding the airport.” he said.
A spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates airplane crashes, said statistics comparing crash frequencies at general aviation airports were not immediately available.
One readily available comparison, however, is Van Nuys Airport, the nation’s largest general aviation airport with more than 527,000 landings and takeoffs each year, compared to about 200,000 for Santa Monica. A spokeswoman at the San Fernando Valley facility said there have been just two crashes there since 1989--one at an air show in 1989, the other in August, 1990, when a plane’s landing gear failed to open.
Sunset Park resident Pinckard, who lives about a quarter-mile from the Santa Monica airport and who has dealt with airport-related problems for several years, said she thinks calls for closure of the airport have diminished in part because of conscientious noise-reduction efforts by airport managers, and because residents seem to have accepted that the city has a legal obligation to keep it open for at least another 25 years.
That obligation was set forth in a 1984 settlement of conflicting lawsuits filed by residents and pilots. The pilots and the FAA won the right to keep the airport operating until at least the year 2015. In return, city officials agreed to consolidate airport facilities on the north side of the 215-acre property, as far as possible from nearby homes, and to enforce anti-noise regulations.
But strict enforcement of noise and curfew laws was not always maintained, Pinckard said, creating tension between residents and the aviation community.
However, since Mathieu took over management of the airport, airport officials have been “very responsive,” Pinckard said.
“All the laws on the books are being enforced,” she said. “They are being very responsive to all aspects of the airport. I really feel that Mr. Mathieu has cleaned up the airport’s act, so to speak.”