It didn’t take three planes tumbling from the sky to get the attention of neighbors of the Santa Monica Airport.
Residents have complained for years about noise from planes landing and taking off, while pilots, for their part, have tried to explain the safety precautions they take and the inevitability of noise from what is one of the nation’s busiest single-runway airports.
But three fatal crashes in the past nine months have given the issue even more urgency. At a community meeting Tuesday night, residents will have the opportunity to share their concerns with local and federal officials, who plan to discuss recent safety recommendations made by a citizens’ committee created after the most recent crash.
The recommendations include increasing pilot education, purchasing new air traffic control gear and other safety equipment, conducting more aircraft inspections and re-evaluating the process by which residents file complaints concerning the airport.
Los Angeles Councilwoman Ruth Galanter and U.S. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) are sponsoring the meeting, which is primarily for residents of Venice and others with complaints about planes taking off to the west of the airport. Galanter previously held a meeting for residents of Cheviot Hills and other neighborhoods under the flight path to the east.
Galanter said she has received a growing number of complaints about the airport from residents recently. If it’s true that pilots are flying lower or not following noise-reduction procedures, she said, she will urge the airport and the Federal Aviation Administration to do something about it.
“The airport can step up its educational efforts for the pilots,” she said. “The FAA has a lot of power, if they choose to exercise it.”
Harman gave the committee’s recommendations to FAA officials last week, and she hopes they’ll respond by Tuesday, said Ed Hatcher, her chief of staff.
“The requests are very reasonable,” he said. “The residents have very legitimate concerns.”
But reconciling them with pilots’ concerns won’t be easy. For example, under one noise-abatement procedure already in use at the airport, pilots taking off to the west must fly over Penmar Golf Course instead of the surrounding residential streets. One of the committee’s recommendations is that the airport tell pilots the exact heading to follow over the middle of the golf course.
To overfly the golf course, however, pilots must turn left as soon as they take off, then turn back to the right, said airport manager Tim Walsh. “It’s a tricky little maneuver,” he said.
In fact, outspoken pilot Don Brandsen says it’s simply not realistic to expect pilots to follow an exact heading over the center of the course.
When you take off from the airport, he said, you’re busy enough trying to gain altitude and keep up airspeed “without trying to find out whether you’re 12 inches this side of the golf course or 18 inches to that side of the golf course.”
Compliance with the procedure appears marginal. During one 20-minute period on a sunny afternoon last week, only two of eight planes that took off kept to the middle of the golf course. Three flew along its edge and three others missed it completely, flying over residential streets.
Neighbors say that’s not unusual. Pilots who stray are likely to find themselves over the Lincoln Place apartment of Frieda Marlin, who helped organize her neighbors against airport noise. Humans, she said, aren’t the only ones disturbed by the planes.
“The birds don’t sing anymore, not like they used to, because of the planes,” she said.
Another frequent complaint of residents is that pilots ignore another procedure that is supposed to be in use--to fly west until they reach Lincoln Boulevard. One of Marlin’s neighbors, Gideon Dagan, said planes often turn early.
“It bothers me. Sometimes you’re on the phone,” he said as he stood on his front porch, distracted by a plane flying overhead. “You hear it yourself.”
Griff Hoerner admits he’s one of the early-turning culprits. He said that when he’s flying a Piper Cub, a relatively slow plane, he has to stay closer to the airport on takeoff. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to glide back to the airfield if his engine dies.
But he’s trying to cooperate, he said. When one neighbor complained about his early turns, he called the resident to explain and even offered to give him a plane ride to demonstrate the problem.
Brandsen, sitting in his office over the Spitfire Grill, said pilots and residents have shown they can work together, but he doesn’t expect everyone to be happy. “As long as there are planes and people living next to airplanes, it’s never going to go away,” he said.
That’s particularly true when the airplanes are crashing. In the most recent accident in April, cable television director Patrick Dean Brinnon died while trying to accumulate enough flying hours to get a pilot’s job. The engine of the Piper Saratoga he was piloting failed shortly after takeoff, and he crashed into a garage while trying to return to the airport.
The crash was the third in five months involving planes taking off or landing at the airport. Five people in the planes died, although no one on the ground was hurt.
There’s no evidence that airport procedures contributed to any of the crashes. The airport has averaged one crash per 200,000 takeoffs and landings--about one a year--a safety record considered better than average.
Walsh, the airport director, said the explanation for increased airport noise of late is the increased number of flights in summer. Last summer, airport construction kept the number of flights down, but now on sunny days pilots are taking to the skies enthusiastically.
He doesn’t have to tell that to Marlin.
“On a clear day,” she said, “you can hear forever.”