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Pilots Reiterate Their Concerns About El Toro Runway Safety

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite two recent reports concluding that jets could safely depart from the proposed El Toro airport, the nation’s largest air pilots union on Friday reiterated its concerns about the project and suggested that the county radically redesign the base’s runways.

The union’s position comes as a blow to county planners, who had hoped the new studies would prompt the Air Line Pilots Assn. to reconsider its stance and support the proposed design of the airport.

But the union stated in a letter to the county that it remains worried some jetliners will not be able to clear the hills and mountains located to the north and east of the base. The county’s plans call for 70% of departures to the east and 30% to the north, insisting that commercial jets will be able to climb above the hills with ease.

The union also called on the county to drop the current tarmac design--two north-south and two east-west runways--and build two north-south runways that are longer and more widely separated.

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This design, union officials argue, would allow jets to depart into areas clear of hills.

But county officials immediately attacked the idea, which they said would significantly increase the $1.4-billion cost of building the airport and result in more jet noise in dozens of communities. The county supports takeoffs into the hills because the areas are sparsely populated.

“The pilots’ ideas don’t take into account how the communities would be affected,” said Courtney Wiercioch, the county’s El Toro project manager. “The concerns they raise [in the letter] are inconsistent with the data we have.”

But airport foes express support for the union’s findings. “It’s no surprise. These kinds of safety concerns are not negotiable, no matter how much the county tries,” said Todd Thornton, a commercial pilot.

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In an effort to get the union to change its mind, the county worked with the pilots group in selecting the consultants who prepared the two safety reports. The reports said that departures into the hills are feasible.

According to one of the studies, jets taking off from El Toro would have to climb roughly 400 feet per nautical mile--more than is required at some airports, but less than at others, including John Wayne.

The report also said northerly takeoffs could follow a new path over scarcely populated areas around Irvine Lake. The original takeoff pattern had flights much closer to Tustin, Orange and Villa Park.

But Jon Russell, a jet pilot and regional safety chairman for the union, said in a letter that this new northern takeoff route would be “hazardous for heavier aircraft under normal operations, especially during stormy weather or Santa Ana wind conditions, and for any aircraft experiencing an engine failure on takeoff.”

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Russell expressed special concern about whether all jets would be able to climb over Loma Ridge, a 1,000-foot-high mountain about four miles from the airport.

The plan for northerly takeoffs is also at odds with a 1996 Federal Aviation Administration memo, which said the flight path might conflict with air traffic bound for John Wayne Airport and LAX.

County officials and airport backers said they remain confident the new reports will convince the FAA that the takeoff pattern is safe.

“The FAA will not allow an unsafe airport to be built,” said Tom Naughton, an El Toro supporter and head of the Airport Working Group. “I think they will ultimately determine El Toro is safe.”

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Runway Run-in

Orange County officials are at odds with the Air Line Pilots Assn. over how to position runways if an international airport is built at El Toro. The two plans: (map)


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