COLLISION COURSE: THE BATTLE OVER VENTURA’S SKIES : Mugu Airport Concept Is Moving Ahead : Aviation: Business and government leaders say a commercial airfield would spur economic growth. Opponents fear noise and disruption of a peaceful life.


For 85 years, since farmers first cleared carrot fields for hard-packed runways, aspiring aviators have eagerly tested their wings in Ventura County’s uncrowded skies.

Even as lemon trees and walnut groves have given way to malls and tract homes, the county’s airfields have survived primarily as landing sites for private pilots and business executives.

But now, with the Navy’s blessing, Ventura County leaders are forging ahead with a plan for joint military and civilian jet airline service at the Naval Air Weapons Station at Point Mugu.


Airport supporters envision a strip serving two purposes--roaring with both mission-bound F-14 fighter planes and traveler-laden 737s.

The promise of this new regional airport is convenience. Supporters say it will draw high-tech companies and good jobs to a county moving away from its agricultural base and struggling to recover from defense industry cuts.

But at what cost? Opponents say the airport would destroy the rural, small-town quality that makes this county such a good place to live, bringing noise, traffic and smog.

Two of Ventura County’s three existing airports--at Oxnard and Camarillo--also fall in Point Mugu’s long shadow.

A public airport at the Navy base could well be the final blow for struggling Oxnard Airport, luring away two short-hop commuter airlines. And if Oxnard closes, its remaining small-plane pilots would probably move to Camarillo.

The impact on the county’s airports is, however, only one factor in the Point Mugu equation. Indeed, whether to convert Point Mugu’s world-class runways to passenger service promises to be one of the most important county decisions local leaders will make for years to come.


Point Mugu supporters--a coalition of business executives and government officials--argue that a larger airport would transform the county from an aviation backwater into a hub of air travel, while spurring economic growth.

“This is a windfall opportunity for the county,” said real estate investor Richard L. Fausset, a principal supporter of the Mugu airport. “If we don’t seize this, shame on us.”

For the first time, air travel in Ventura County could attract more than hobbyists, business executives and those catching an air shuttle to Los Angeles International Airport.

Some major employers like Blue Cross, which is moving a large subsidiary to Camarillo, value that convenience. And business leaders say other corporations could be drawn to the county by a local airport with flights to major cities.


In 15 years, between 500,000 and 1 million passengers annually could be scrambling for seats at a Point Mugu airport, zipping off to destinations like San Francisco, Sacramento, Las Vegas and Denver, according to a study by the Southern California Assn. of Governments (SCAG).

Cargo planes also could haul mail, flowers and other wares throughout the region. And the airport could generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in new business and economic growth, SCAG predicts.


The increased air traffic would also help keep military operations at Mugu, where flights have dropped by half in two decades. Without a new civilian dimension, officials in and out of the military worry the base could close for lack of use.

But opponents--mostly environmentalists, the city of Camarillo and residents near the flight path--argue that convenience and growth would come at the expense of farmlands and rural charm.

“If this airport comes, it will change the whole nature of the county,” said Camarillo Councilwoman Charlotte Craven. “The one thing I hear more than anything else as a councilwoman is, ‘Don’t take away our rural atmosphere.’ ”

County Supervisor John Flynn, an early and outspoken supporter of the Point Mugu proposal, cautioned nonetheless that the plan should be studied carefully before moving forward.

“This is a big undertaking with a potential for a big impact,” said Flynn, who represents most of Oxnard. “People are right to be concerned, because the stakes are high. And unless we are very careful, there are plenty of ways the whole thing could get really screwed up.”

Although the Point Mugu debate has been mostly theoretical so far, many participants look to John Wayne Airport in Orange County as an example of the best and worst a commercial airport can bring.



In Orange County, each element of the Ventura County debate has already been played out.

Today, after years of explosive growth and a recent $310-million expansion, that once-funky community airport has given way to a bustling complex with a nationwide reach.

In 1967, the Orange County airport served 50,000 passengers with 19 round-trip flights a day. By 1980, it offered 64 daily flights, and the annual passenger load grew to 2.5 million. In 1994, it served 6.8-million passengers with 141 flights a day.

Over the years, the airport and the development around it have remained tightly in sync, each feeding the other’s growth. Today the John Wayne Airport is flanked by shiny new office towers, as large companies have flocked to the area.

“The concept of having easy, convenient access to an airport is highly sought after by companies,” said Todd Nicholson, president of the Industrial League of Orange County, a general business association with a membership of 1,000 companies. “What has happened at John Wayne substantiates the idea that an airport is a magnet for commerce.”

But as the airport area has become a powerful economic hub for Orange County, freeways have clogged, farmland has disappeared and local residents have been left to quietly stew about the ceaseless noise from the sky.

In 1973, homeowners filed several lawsuits challenging the airport’s expansion because of noise. Few were successful, but in 1985 the airport agreed to follow strict noise guidelines by using super-quiet airliners.


For Georgia Schneider, a resident of Camarillo’s Leisure Village, which falls under the Point Mugu flight path, that sort of compromise is unacceptable.

“We don’t want to be in a situation where we just have to put up with it,” she said. “We’re the ones who have to live with it. And if we don’t want it, I don’t think it should happen in the first place.”

Environmentalists have more than noise on their minds when they look at John Wayne Airport.

“Before John Wayne Airport got so big, there was beautiful agricultural land all around that area,” said Russ Baggerly, a Ventura County environmental consultant. “Now all that is dead and gone. History.”


But some local business owners say their livelihoods depend on the economic surge an airport could provide.

“Ventura County needs to get with the program and do some things to stay competitive,” said Gerry Northfield, who owns a Port Hueneme flower shop. “An airport would be a big boost for everybody.”


No one believes that more strongly than Dick Sim, president of investment properties at Irvine Co., the giant land development firm in Orange County.

Despite a sluggish economy from 1989 to 1994, the company lured 1,000 businesses and 14,000 employees to a massive business park called the Irvine Spectrum.

How did they do it? John Wayne Airport is just 10 minutes away.

“Every time we talked to these companies about coming in, the first thing they wanted to know was, ‘Is there an airport nearby?’ ” Sim said. “I can’t tell you how important that airport has been to our success.”

To Sim, the formula is simple. Businesses are looking for pleasant, suburban communities with instant mobility.

“When businesses first started in the country, they always located along the rivers, because that’s how people got around,” Sim said. “Then it was the railroad. But if you look at it today, companies can locate any place they want. All they need is a place to live and an airport.”

At least one major Ventura County employer is counting on passenger service at Point Mugu.

Blue Cross of California is planning to move 1,800 employees from its Conejo Valley offices to a 60-acre Camarillo business park in early 1997.



By 2003, the Camarillo center could triple in size, making it one of the county’s top employers, said Executive Vice President D. Mark Weinberg.

The decision to expand will hinge in part on whether there is a regional airport nearby, said Weinberg, who has personally urged Camarillo officials to support the airport.

“When you get this far away from LAX and Burbank, it becomes a real hindrance when you need to get quickly to other offices around the state,” Weinberg said. “A regional airport with access to San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego would be a tremendous advantage to a company like ours.”

Despite such arguments, the Camarillo City Council has refused to join a new Point Mugu joint powers authority, which is composed of representatives from Ventura County, Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Thousand Oaks. It was formed to push the airport forward.

Weinberg, who lives in the Point Mugu flight path near Camarillo’s Mission Oaks neighborhood, said he is puzzled by his city’s opposition.

“Look up in the sky,” he said. “Is there anywhere you can live where there won’t be planes overhead?”


Perhaps not. But some Camarillo residents say they don’t want any more air traffic.

For years, F-14 and F-18 fighters have screamed above their neighborhoods. Now the Navy has moved many of its loudest jets away, and residents say they will not be as tolerant of commercial planes.

Schneider, 72, spent thousands of dollars installing double-glazed windows and extra insulation in her Leisure Village home. Yet the noise still rumbles through her living room several days a week, roaring over her phone conversations and shaking the windows and floors.

“You can’t hear the telephone or the radio or TV,” she said. “If the air traffic is expanded, it’s going to be like LAX.”

For some residents, noise is an economic concern as well as an irritation.

A study cited in a recent Federal Aviation Administration report said home values drop 2% for each decibel of airport noise above 65 decibels, which is the level of sound heard while standing near a car.

Mary Ellen Bruskotter, who bought her Mission Oaks home seven years ago, said she has postponed plans to install a swimming pool. She does not want to invest more money in a house she fears will drop in value if passenger service brings loud planes to Point Mugu.

“We wanted to do an expansion on the house, but we’re not going to,” Bruskotter said. “Would you?”



Airport supporters point out that the 737s that would likely fly from Mugu are significantly quieter than military jets.

At takeoff, a Grumman F-14 fighter registers about 130 decibels, while the new, quiet Boeing 737-300 produces 87 decibels.

“It’s like the difference between a car with a muffler and one without a muffler,” said Capt. Tom Booth, public works officer with the Navy at Point Mugu.

Five miles after takeoff--the distance from Point Mugu to Camarillo-- a 737 would register at slightly less than 65 decibels, according to a SCAG study. And airplane decibel levels over Camarillo just before landing would be slightly lower.

Noise concerns have plagued most airports with housing under their flight paths, and Point Mugu is no exception. But a new type of navigation technology called the global positioning system could reduce the problem here within a few years.

Without the new system, fog and bad weather would force jetliners from Point Mugu to fly over noise-sensitive Camarillo about three months each year, according to a SCAG study.


But the satellite-based system would guide airplanes to the airport from over the ocean, even in foggy weather, said Tim Merwin, aviation program manager for SCAG.

He said the system could “eliminate the need for civilian flights over Camarillo.”

But Hank Verbais, a spokesman for the FAA, disputed that claim. Regardless of the navigational system, planes must follow the prevailing winds, taking off into the wind and landing with it, he said. A strong Santa Ana wind would force a plane to take off over Camarillo and come in over the ocean to land, while a stubborn offshore wind would allow takeoffs over the ocean, but would force landing approaches over Camarillo.


“It doesn’t have anything to do with fog,” Verbais said.

Nevertheless, he said, the new navigational system will allow flight paths to be curved more than usual. “It may be possible to avoid some of the sensitive residential areas,” Verbais said.

If noise is the principal concern in Camarillo, safety is not far behind.

Residents worry that the mix of high-speed military jets with commercial airliners and small general aviation craft would increase the risk of midair collisions.

Of particular concern is an area over Leisure Village pilots call “The Weave.” There, air traffic from Point Mugu crosses the path of planes heading for the Camarillo and Oxnard airports--only at different elevations.

Mike Gentry, air traffic control officer for the Navy, said the planes adhere to strict flight patterns that ensure safety in the air and on the ground. And the mix of commercial and military flights is not unusual, since 27 airports nationwide allow both types.


“We would not agree to anything that would in any way jeopardize safety,” Gentry said. “It really is not an issue.”

But sometimes strict standards are not enough.

In 1986, 82 people were killed when an Aeromexico DC-9 collided over Cerritos with a single-engine turboprop flying at 6,500 feet, where it was not allowed. Five homes were destroyed and seven damaged in the wreck, and 15 people on the ground were among those killed.

Harm to the natural environment is also high on a checklist of potential problems from jetliners at Point Mugu.

Jet fumes could further sully Ventura County skies. And environmentalists say noise could doom the 2,000-acre Mugu Lagoon as a favorite roosting spot of more than 200 species of birds, several of them endangered.

“I think the stickler on this project is going to come from the environmental side,” said the Navy’s Booth. “There’s going to have to be a lot of study before people are going to feel comfortable going forward with this.”

Merwin of SCAG acknowledges that a booming airport with 2.5 million passengers a year--about one-third the size of John Wayne--could have a serious impact here.


But the Mugu airport would be a much more modest undertaking, attracting 500,000 to 1 million passengers annually by 2010, Merwin said.

During that same period, the airport would spur growth leading to between 5,000 and 10,000 new jobs at airport-related businesses and at companies such as Blue Cross, the SCAG study predicts.

And an airport would actually help ensure that the farmland near the runway remains undeveloped because of problems created by noise, Merwin argued.

“The concerns have risen to a level of paranoia,” he said. “We don’t want any development at Mugu, except a terminal. I see the airport as helping to protect the open space, and I see the economic development as modest.”

Even as the debate about Point Mugu builds, however, the overriding question is: Will any airline spend the money and have the patience to make jet service fly?

SCAG has listed a number of airlines that could be recruited to Ventura County. But critics point to the troubled airline industry--only Southwest has consistently turned a profit--and the struggles of airports such as San Bernardino and Long Beach to attract and retain air carriers.


Airline representatives lend some weight to those concerns.

According to the SCAG study, one of the most promising prospective airlines for Point Mugu is Sky West, a short-haul subsidiary of Delta Airlines. But spokeswoman Annette Mikat said: “Right now the market is not boding well for a lot of carriers. We would have to take a long, hard look at what this airport had to offer, and then we could very well say no.”

Mike Mitchell, a spokesman for America West, said the carrier took a similar risk when it began service to Palmdale in 1990, only to pull out 18 months later because of the lack of passengers.

“We would certainly be cautious about doing that again,” he said.

And Alaska Airlines’ Greg Witter said it is “fairly unlikely” his company would be interested in Point Mugu. The airline, which pulled out of Long Beach in January, serves several other airports in the region, including Burbank and LAX.

“We would have to decide if we were simply taking people off other planes to put them at Point Mugu, creating two marginal operations rather than one strong one,” he said.

But Merwin is confident that by the time Point Mugu could open in five years, Los Angeles Basin airports will be overwhelmed and looking for relief--and the airlines will be hungry for new markets.

“I think personally that it’s a good hedge for the future,” Merwin said. “It’s something that should not be dismissed lightly.”



Ventura County Airports

For years, three small public airports at Camarillo, Oxnard and Santa Paula have handled the private planes and commuter hops flying into and out of Ventura County. But now business and government leaders are considering an airfield large enough to handle commercial jetliners at the Point Mugu Navy base. Military jets would continue to use the airstrip under the joint-use proposal.


* Opened: 1934 * Acres: 216 * Annual flights: 95,400 * Planes housed: 130 * Type of airport: general aviation/commercial

Santa Paula

* Opened: 1930 * Acres: 32 * Annual flights: 32,000 * Planes housed: 250 * Type of airport: general aviation


* Opened 1941 * Acres: 650 * Annual flights: 190,850 * Planes housed: 600 * Type of airport: general aviation

Point Mugu

* Opened: 1946 * Acres: 2,400 * Annual flights: 55,400 * Planes housed: 106 * Type of airport: military

Sources: Oxnard, Camarillo and Santa Paula airports and Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station


Researched by SARA CATANIA / Los Angeles Times


County Air Traffic Patterns

Noise concerns have plagued most airports with housing under their flight paths, and Point Mugu is no exception. For years, military jets have roared above some Camarillo neighborhoods, and some residents say they will not be as tolerant of airline traffic. Others worry that the mix of high-speed military jets with airliners and small private planes would increase the risk of midair area called “The Weave,” where the flight paths cross.

Commercial and military approach to Point Mugu Airport: elevation 1,500 feet

Noise-sensitive area:

* Mission Oaks * Leisure Villege * Camarillo High School

Approach to Oxnard Airport: elevation 3,000 feet

Approach to Camarillo Airport: elevation 2,000 feet

Commercial and military approach to Point Mugu Airport: elevation 2,600 feet

Sources: Southern California Association of Governments. Point Mugu Naval Air Weapons Station

Researched by SARA CATANIA / Los Angeles Times


Is Airport Service Up to Par?

The debate over a public airport at Point Mugu has led to questions about how well Ventura County is served by its existing fields. Eight residents offer their views of service as it is today and the changes they would like to see. Among those interviewed were a retired airline official, an environmental consultant, a planning expert, a legal expert, a chamber of commerce leader, a local publisher and a businessman.

William Dunkle

Retired vice president of flight operations,

United Airlines

I think Ventura County is extremely well-served. The county has good proximity to Burbank. It takes about an hour to get there. The population would have to double before you’d get enough demand to make it worth the while of an airline to consider setting up shop for a major operation at Point Mugu. All these studies and plans for an airport at Point Mugu are ridiculous. They have no idea if any airlines would actually be interested. It’s like building the Forum and then looking around to see if there’s any interest in chariot racing.

John V. Newman

Ranch manager on the Oxnard Plain

It’s a Catch-22. A lot of people could be much better served if there was a real airport here that was properly planned and really done right. But I am strongly opposed to seeing our pretty Oxnard Plain get covered by concrete. Practically everybody around here that farms likes land and likes to farm. They don’t like to see everything get covered over. But there are very few that wouldn’t like to see their land values go up. When you’re looking at overall benefits, a new airport might well be the way to go. An airport at Point Mugu could become something very good for the county, but only if you don’t lose all the farmland while you’re at it.

Russ Baggerly

Environmental consultant

It’s true that people who need to fly nationally or internationally have to drive to Los Angeles to make their connections. So, on the surface, it might appear that Ventura County is not served by its airports. What we can’t overlook is what airport service would mean to Ventura County. The reality can be seen around John Wayne Airport, which used to be a relatively small airport. Between Santa Ana and the airport, there used to be nothing but agriculture. Look at it now. We’d be absolutely foolish to convert any more agricultural land and watch it all die in the next 10 years.


Carmen Ramirez

Attorney, Channel Counties Legal Services Assn.

There is a lot of room for improvement with the airports in Ventura County. I have to fly up to San Francisco about once a month for State Bar activities, but I hesitate to fly out of Oxnard Airport because I’ve had really bad luck there. I get there, plop my $20 into the long-term parking machine and then it’s too foggy to fly. So I end up driving down to LAX. I used to fly out of Santa Barbara, but it’s just too expensive. Another problem at Oxnard is the planes are so small. They’re noisy and they don’t have bathrooms. I like good service, and you just don’t get that kind of service on such a small plane. I have to go to San Diego on Friday. There’s no sense in me getting on a plane in Oxnard, getting off at LAX and getting on another plane to San Diego. What a hassle. So I’ll get up a 5 a.m. and make the drive.

William Fulton

Editor and publisher,

California Planning & Development Report

From a planning perspective, the question of commercial aviation in the county is a tough one. There is no question that if you put in an airport and it is successful, you will induce a spiral of growth that a lot of people might not be happy with. But what happens if you don’t do it? The single, most-important fact about this county is that it is adjacent to the fastest-growing industrialized city in the world. The more we can maintain an independent economy that exploits that proximity, the more control we’ll have over our future. If we have commercial aviation in Ventura County, we will see commercial growth, but we will have control over it. Without commercial aviation, our future growth is going to be housing--providing more bedrooms for Los Angeles and the Valley.

Steve Rubenstein

President, Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce

What airports? We are not served. We are not doing anybody a favor by not having a real commercial airport. What happens and what is going to continue happening is we drive to Los Angeles, cause congestion and pollution and take advantage of our neighbors to the south. Furthermore, we are losing the economic base that would complement the trucking, railroad and deep-water ports we already have. For a well-rounded community, we need an airport. I’d like to see a real modern, state-of-the-art airport that is environmentally safe, with takeoffs and landings parallel to the coast, and proper roads that would be less intrusive and less congested than those in metropolitan areas like Los Angeles. We can have it all and we can do it right, if we plan properly.

Tina Gee

Manager, Simi Travel Service

I don’t think people get a good level of service from the airports in Ventura County. The only place to get a flight is from Oxnard, and what you can get from there is very limited. I’d like to see the airport at Point Mugu begin offering service. The airports in Burbank and Los Angeles are so crowded. Trying to drive down there is a hassle. Clients try to avoid going down there like the plague. We’ve even had people ask about flying out of Santa Barbara. But the other factor is prices. People hate driving down to Los Angeles, but they will do it if it will save them money on a ticket. I think the only way service from Point Mugu would work is if the prices were competitive.

Al Urias

Mayor of Santa Paula

I’m not a private pilot, so I don’t think we have any airports serving us. Our airports serve 2% of the people. The rest of us go to Burbank or Los Angeles airport. As far as the private airports go, they’re fine and they do serve a purpose. People say, ‘Hey, Santa Paula, that’s where the little airport is.’ But for most people I’d say service is very poor. I’m retired, . . . but when I was working I would have supported having something within 20 or 30 minutes. What we need is a Burbank-type airport. Even with all the talk about Point Mugu, I don’t think we’ll see anything happen in my lifetime.


Regional Airports

Ventura County is not the only jurisdiction to struggle with questions about airline service. Cities throughout Southern California have addressed the issues of growth and noise while trying to balance the regional supply of flights with passenger demand. Here is a snapshot of proposed and existing airports in the region:


Los Angeles International

The nation’s fourth-busiest airport has grown so fast--from nearly 40 million passengers in 1983 to 51 million last year--that operators say most future expansion must happen elsewhere in the region. In 1984, an international terminal was built and the entire airport was double-decked at a cost of $750 million.

Santa Barbara Airport

Over the last decade, the number of passengers at Santa Barbara Airport has risen only 60,000, to 560,000 in 1994. A study predicts 850,000 passengers a year by 2005, and the airport plans to spend $19 million to lengthen its runway and triple the size of its cramped terminal. Nearby residents lodge about 1,000 noise complaints a year.

Burbank Airport

Stalled by lawsuits for 11 years, Burbank Airport is now moving toward building a $185-million terminal four times as large as the existing one. The city of Los Angeles, which has repeatedly sued the Airport Authority, argues that the environmental analysis of the project is inadequate. The airport, formerly known as Glendale-Burbank-Pasadena Airport, ended last fiscal year with a record 4.66 million passengers, up 57% since 1990, mostly because of expanded service by Southwest Airlines. It has 111 round-trip jet and commuter flights a day.

Long Beach Airport

After a federal judge ruled against strict city-backed limits on noise in 1985, Long Beach exploded with new flights and passengers. By 1989, eight airlines operated 39 daily round-trip flights, up from eight. But now, after a recessionary collapse, there are just four flights a day.

John Wayne Airport

There were only 56 round-trip daily flights when residents first filed noise lawsuits against Orange County’s John Wayne Airport in 1973. After settlement of the lawsuits in 1985, daily flights increased to 70. Following a $310-million expansion in 1990, daily flights soared to 130 and have continued to increase. In 1994 there were an average of 141 round-trip flights each day.

Toro Marine Corps Air Station

In south Orange County, El Toro is set to close in 1999. The 4,700-acre base is already embroiled in legal disputes over its conversion to a commercial airport. Irvine and Lake Forest have sued Orange County to try to overturn a November ballot initiative that allows the public airport. El Toro could attract 6.2 million passengers by 2010, the Southern California Assn. of Governments found.


Ontario International Airport

Originally opened in 1923 and taken over by the city of Los Angeles in 1967 to augment service at LAX, Ontario served about 6 million passengers in 1994, up from 5.5 million in 1991. It is planning a $275-million, 240-acre domestic terminal, 10 times larger than the existing one. It employs more than 5,000 people and serves as the West Coast hub for United Parcel Service.

Norton Air Force Base

Norton was converted to San Bernardino International Airport after it was closed as a military base last March. So far, it has attracted neither an air carrier nor fuel provider, despite a SCAG projection of an immediate demand for 820,000 passengers a year. The airport had hoped to lure Southwest, which decided instead to continue flying out of nearby Ontario. The airport authority issued $7 million in bonds to cover operations for 2 1/2 years. It received $20 million in federal grants for terminal, runway and parking improvements.

Monday: The future of Camarillo and Oxnard airports.