(photo by Daniel Archuleta)

SMO — Santa Monica officials announced that they will be traveling to Washington, D.C. next week to take on the FAA regarding the operation of flight schools at Santa Monica Airport.

In an information item released on City Hall’s website Friday, Public Works Director Martin Pastucha and assistant to the City Manager Kate Vernez laid out City Hall’s response to the Aug. 29 incident where a student pilot crashed into a Sunset Park home.

At 2:30 p.m. that Monday, an unidentified student pilot in a Cessna 172 rented from local flight school Justice Aviation was trying to return to the airport after takeoff. He was attempting to fly to an airport in Santa Barbara.

He failed and flew around to make another attempt when something went wrong, according to Airport Manager Bob Trimborn.

While in the air over the Sunset Park neighborhood, the pilot lost control for unknown reasons and crashed. He skirted the top of one house, blew through the upper branches of a tree and then hit the side of an unoccupied house on the 3100 block of 21st Street.

The pilot suffered a broken leg and one of four men painting the house at the time of the accident was hit, possibly with debris, according to Santa Monica Fire Department spokesman Judah Mitchell.

The incident is still under investigation, although Wayne Pollack, a senior investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board said that a preliminary report would be available as soon as Thursday.

The final report will take around nine months to complete.

The crash has renewed local outcry that the airport is a danger to homes, and that flight schools, which constitute over 80 percent of the flight traffic according to some estimates, are a burden on both air quality and residents’ well-being.

Vernez and Pastucha wrote that Santa Monica officials would be meeting with members of the FAA to talk about flight school operations and safety at the airport.

City Manager Rod Gould wouldn’t give exact topics for the trip or even the dates city representatives would fly out.

“I don’t want to negotiate with the newspapers, and so forth,” Gould said. “We have got negotiating to do with the FAA, the flight schools and talks with stakeholders. We don’t want to create expectations that we cannot meet.”

City Hall is bound by a 1984 operational agreement with the FAA, which lists flight schools as a “prescribed activity.”

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor has previously stated that, generally speaking, the operator of an airport that has accepted money from the federal government for airport improvements could be in violation of its federal agreements if it tried to evict a certain type of tenant without “just cause.”

Santa Monica last accepted money from the federal government in 1984. Generally, grants carry with them a 20-year obligation to the FAA, codified in the operational agreement.

City officials contend that agreement expires in 2015, at which point the FAA will not have control over the fate of the airport.

The FAA counters that it’s actually in control until 2023, and that the airport represents a crucial link in an aerial emergency safety network in the Los Angeles area.

Vernez and Pastucha acknowledged in their report that Santa Monica officials may not have much say in the presence of the flight schools right now.

“The city alone cannot restrict flight school operations outside of the Santa Monica Municipal Code, Federal Air Regulations or provisions of their respective lease agreements,” they wrote.

Officials have begun a review of the leases to see what flexibility exists for local control over the flight schools, however.

These efforts come at a time when City Hall has begun a “visioning process,” looking at the potential uses for the airport in a post-2015 world.

No options are off the table, and range from shutting it down and creating public open space to keeping it more or less as it is.

“Any decisions about the future of the airport will eventually be made within the context of a complex jurisdictional and legal environment,” the information item states. “However, the expiration of the 1984 agreement presents opportunities for the city to determine what is in the best interests of the city and its citizens.”


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