The second plane crash involving Santa Monica Airport in less than four months has renewed neighborhood criticism of the busy facility, with some residents insisting it is only a matter of time before a much larger aircraft goes down--with catastrophic consequences.
"My concern is the big, old jets," said Virginia Ernst, a longtime critic of the airport who lives on Sardis Avenue near the east end of the runway. "I'm scared to death one of those things is going to come down and wipe out an entire neighborhood."
Some residents suggested that the March 11 crash of a four-seat, propeller-driven Piper 28 into a vacant South Barrington Avenue house could provide the impetus for a grass-roots coalition that would work to address issues from jet fumes to helicopter traffic.
One of two people aboard the aircraft was killed in the crash, which occurred after the plane developed engine trouble as it attempted to land at the airport about half a mile away.
The victim was Greg Leslie, a 35-year-old rock musician and airplane mechanic who was seen before the crash working on the plane with his friend, David Thompson, 22, of Culver City, who was the pilot of the aircraft. Thompson was released earlier this week from UCLA Medical Center after treatment for a broken leg and second-degree burns on his hands and arms.
Airport officials maintain that the airport, one of the busiest single-runway facilities in the nation, is exceptionally safe.
No one has ever been killed on the ground as the result of an incident involving the 75-year-old airport--a record that Manager Tim Walsh said "speaks for itself." But that record has been tested of late. Aside from the recent crash, which set a house ablaze, a small plane struck an apartment house in Santa Monica in November, killing the two men aboard the aircraft.
Supporters of the airport and even some of its critics cautioned this week against reading too much into the latest incidents, with some neighbors expressing resignation that the risks associated with living near an airport will never be eliminated.
"There's always going to be some chance in hell that something is going to go wrong with an airplane," said Stan Dounn, a tenants' activist at Lincoln Place Apartments, a 795-unit complex in Venice just west of the airfield. "You live with that."
At the same time, Dounn said he hopes the crash spurs scattered Westside neighborhoods to address airport issues such as noise and fumes.
"It may galvanize us into some sort of coalition," he said. In the past, neighborhoods have pressured the airport "at different times in different ways."
Century City resident Karin Machleder also hinted at a grass-roots campaign, which may involve the distribution of leaflets to protest the dangers posed by the seemingly endless procession of aircraft flying into and out of the airport.
"They seem to be getting louder, lower and bigger," she said.
Corporate jet traffic, which has grown dramatically in recent years, has fueled fears of a major accident.
"This was a little plane that got in trouble, and that happens," Ernst said. "I'm concerned about the big ones."
Walsh countered that corporate jets are safer than single-engine planes; they require significantly more pilot training to operate and have better safety records than commercial airliners.
The chance of a jet crashing into a Westside neighborhood, he asserted, is highly unlikely.
In addition, airport officials insist that the airport, which predates most of the houses around it, has worked hard to reduce noise and other nuisances. They say it remains one of the safest facilities of its kind in the nation. The airport averages about one crash per 200,000 takeoffs and landings--about one per year.
The general aviation accident rate is 10 times higher, or five incidents per 100,000 takeoffs and landings.
Yet the airport remains a source of worry and aggravation for residents who live below the flight path, a zig-zagging corridor between Century City and the Pacific Ocean.
Though officials strongly deny it, a number of neighbors insist that airport management, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Santa Monica Airport Commission often look the other way when violations occur--partly because a number of the so-called regulators are flyers themselves.
"They don't want to take the trouble to enforce their own rules," said West Los Angeles neighborhood activist Brookie Westbrook.