SMO — On a clear day, when the sun shines brightly over Southern California and glints cool blue off the Pacific Ocean, an observer can likely find Lloyd Saunders at Santa Monica Airport.
Saunders, a Sunset Park resident, finds a rare bit of shade and watches as the small planes that populate the general aviation airport come and go.
If a plane touches down, scoots along and noses its way back into the air, he marks down the number displayed prominently on the plane’s tail along with the time.
He brings a pair of binoculars with him, in case the number is tough to make out.
“That’s the third one,” Saunders said last month, writing down the number 353MV onto the worksheet.
Saunders is a member of a team of residents that volunteer their time to collect data for quarterly reports about flight operations at SMO that don’t get captured in the monthly reports presented to the Airport Commission.
The plane in question, possibly a student pilot or just a private owner practicing maneuvers, completed three “touch and goes,” a maneuver that residents like Saunders find particularly offensive.
The propensity of private pilots to practice touch and goes and fly in loops through what residents call the “flight pattern” angers locals who complain that the sound of planes constantly overhead ruins their quality of life and rains dangerous lead down over their homes.
Although figures presented to the Airport Commission show a steady drop in overall airport operations, residents have become more agitated in their desire to put a stop to the flight schools or shut the airport itself down for good.
It’s become a touchstone issue in Santa Monica, which is assessing its options for the future of SMO in preparation for the arrival of 2015, a year that holds special significance for residents and City Hall alike.
That year, most leases at the airport end and City Hall believes its obligations to the Federal Aviation Administration will also expire, giving it wider latitude over the 227 acres of prime real estate in the heart of Santa Monica.
At the same time, outside political forces have begun marshaling against the airport in the form of L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl and more restrained State Sen. Ted Lieu.
With that light at the end of the tunnel, residents are ramping up their research and advocacy in an attempt to take their fates into their own hands.
Saunders and his wife live on a quiet street in the Sunset Park neighborhood with two dogs.
Saunders, a retired Navy man who ran a maintenance shop on an aircraft carrier is retired. His wife still runs an interior design business out of a home office in their backyard.
Sometimes the sounds of the airplanes flying overhead make it impossible to make phone calls, and the leaves on their orange trees bear a black grime that the couple attributes to plane exhaust.
While Saunders holds no ill will for the airport, he blames the flight schools for the large number of flights that disrupt his peace.
“Why can’t they go farther afield?” he asked, referring to nearby airports like Whitman Airport, Hawthorne or others without the dense residential population immediately around the runways.
Santa Monicans aren’t alone in their dislike of the flight schools.
Judi Russell and Lies Kraal, Venice residents who live near Lincoln Boulevard, created a garden paradise in their backyard since they moved into their home in the early 1990s.
Edible plants grow in raised beds and squirrels dart through tall stands of bamboo grown to block the view of their neighbor into their haven.
It’s difficult to enjoy, however, when planes buzz over in what the women describe as an endless cacophony, punctuated by gut-wrenching moments when the noise ceases and they fear that a plane will drop out of the sky.
Kraal has gone before the Santa Monica City Council and Airport Commission, inviting the members to her home to eat lunch in the garden and hear it for themselves.
“None of you have accepted,” Kraal, in a clipped tone, told the council and commission during meetings held over the past few months.
Venetians and other West Los Angeles residents are unwilling to compromise on the airport. It must be shut down, they say, particularly since they get all of the pollution and share in none of the $187.5 million in direct economic benefit generated by the airport.
Engaging the general aviation pilots in discussion to reduce the negative impacts is also out of the question.
“How do you talk to someone who’s ruining your life?” Russell asked.
On the other side of the fence, pilots and flight school owners feel under attack, and unable to communicate with the residents so keen to shut them down.
“The ones that are voicing their opinions are working with emotion,” said Robert Rowbotham, a pilot and president of Friends of Santa Monica Airport (FOSMO).
Part of the struggle comes when residents complain about airplanes, but don’t know the name of the activity that’s bothering them.
The term “pattern flying” has become troublesome as a result of the neighbor reports, Rowbotham said.
“Because of that report, people in the neighborhood believe everything is a pattern flight, so they blame everything on the flight schools,” Rowbotham said.
In fact, of the 17 arrival and departure routes only two — one arrival and one departure — are associated with the flight pattern.
While he and other pilots believe the airport will stay put, 2015 or no, FOSMO is willing to work with neighbors to understand their concerns and mitigate them where possible.
They’ve already convinced flight schools to reduce pattern flying by bringing their students in after 8 p.m. standard time and 9 p.m. in daylight savings time, Rowbotham said, and are working with City Hall on ways to make SMO more neighbor-friendly.
“We are working on understanding the concerns of the residents, and working with operators of the airport to see if there are ways to reduce concerns,” said Martin Pastucha, public works director at City Hall.
His department recently took over responsibility for SMO.
One possibility is ground wiring for jets, which would allow the planes to plug into an electrical network to start up their computer systems before passengers board. Now, plane operators accomplish the same goal by burning fuel to create electricity, which is both expensive for them and harmful to neighbors living on the east end of the runway.
“It would take a lot of design, electrical loads etc.,” Pastucha said. “But it’s an idea we’re looking into.”
As City Hall plans, other political forces are at work.
L.A. City Councilman Bill Rosendahl represents 285,000 Angelenos that surround Santa Monica.
“There are people in my district who are fed up with that airport,” Rosendahl said.
The airport had a place in 1917 when it was surrounded by orange fields and not homes, Rosendahl said, but “its time has run out.”
“First I want to see the flight schools go, the jets go, and then the whole airport shut down,” Rosendahl said.
If the congressional redistricting process that just finished stands up in court, Rosendahl believes he will have a powerful ally in Washington, D.C.
“It appears that Rep. Henry Waxman’s district will now include Venice, so the Venetians will now have a congress member that knows this is an issue to them,” he said.
On the state level, Lieu has made SMO an issue as well.
It first came to his attention while walking precincts for his State Assembly run.
An airport neighbor came to the door when Lieu knocked, left, and returned with a black ball.
“I said, ‘What is this?’” Lieu said. “He told me it was an orange, turned black with soot from the pollution from SMO. The homeowner described what they were breathing in, and what the effects were.”
Lieu himself had to call off his walk due to the pollution.
On Nov. 30, he will hold a Senate select committee hearing for residents to comment on four studies examining pollution at SMO and other general aviation airports.
“I want to let people come in and do exactly that, provide their experiences with SMO, good or bad,” Lieu said.
Here to stay?
City Hall will embark on the second phase of its airport study soon, and is hosting an open house at SMO on Saturday, Dec. 10 to give neighbors a chance to “get to know the airport a little better.”
The slant of that study, which in its first phase precluded discussion of closing SMO, angered many residents who believed City Hall wasn’t working hard enough to rid them of what Rosendahl calls “a blemish on our face.”
FOSMO doesn’t believe the airport is going anywhere either, Rowbotham said, which is why the organization will try to work be a good neighbor to Santa Monicans and Angelenos alike.
“There are things that we can do, if they want to help us,” he said.