A large passenger Jet gets ready to take off at Santa Monica Airport as a smaller plan lands. (photo by Brandon Wise)

SMO — On Monday, Aug. 29, a student pilot in a Cessna 172 crashed into a home in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Santa Monica for unknown reasons.

The accident raised old concerns about the safety of having airport operations, including flight schools and private planes, operating so close to homes.

It’s a complaint David Lerner is well-acquainted with.

Lerner doesn’t live in Santa Monica. He’s actually a resident of Nevada, the president of the Clark County Aviation Association (CCAA) and sometime patron of the North Las Vegas Airport, the second busiest airport in the state with 171,143 takeoffs and landings in the last year.

Like SMO, North Las Vegas Airport has neighbors.

“Well, it filled up as a result of poor planning, but that’s something that usually occurs,” Lerner said. “Airports have a nasty habit of being magnets for that sort of thing.”

Developers built homes right up to the outskirts of North Las Vegas, taking advantage of the lower land values, which resulted in a thriving community immediately under the flight paths of the seven flight schools and other general aviation aircraft that operate out of the airport.

“That does breed problems if you have an accident,” Lerner said.

And they did. Two fatal accidents out of flight schools within six days of each other.

Much as in Santa Monica, the community reeled. Activists mobilized. Legislators got involved. The future of the airport seemed in question.

VGT remains the hub of general aviation in a county-run five-airport system in Nevada, despite the tragedies. SMO’s fate is less certain.

A disclaimer: Although SMO and VGT share some similarities, they also have fundamental differences.

VGT is much bigger, with three runways and additional safety devices, largely due to the $80 million in grant money officials accepted from the Federal Aviation Administration since 1987.

Santa Monica has refused additional grant money from the FAA since 1984, and does not have emergency systems to catch jets and other planes that go awry.

That and other operational differences make it difficult to compare their accident rates directly.

However, according to statistics compiled by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 29 planes have gone down in the vicinity of North Las Vegas since Jan. 1, 2001, resulting in eight deaths.

The same query for Santa Monica shows eight, with seven deaths.

None of the airplane accidents out of Santa Monica resulted in “ground” injuries, meaning that no bystanders were hurt by the falling planes, said Chris Dancy, spokesperson for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, or AOPA.

“In a given year, the number of ground injuries can be counted on one, sometimes two hands,” Dancy said. “The danger to people on the ground is very small.”

The accidents listed do not fully describe the situation, according to statistics compiled by Zina Josephs, chairperson of the Friends of Sunset Park neighborhood group.

According to her totals, there have been 83 accidents and 40 fatalities resulting from airplanes at SMO, flying to SMO or operated out of SMO, as well as two in the Santa Monica airspace since 1982.

Those accident reports were gleaned not just from the NTSB database, but also from airport-related websites, including those run by locals — jetairpollution.com, casmat.org and badair.org — and national organizations like AOPA.

The additional sourcing fills in gaps left by NTSB searches, which only count flights that went down in Santa Monica city limits.

For instance, that search would not include a fatal wreck one year ago which went down at Penmar Golf Course, less than a quarter mile from the site of the August accident.

National statistics tend to throw local observations into sharp relief.

General aviation, which is the category of flights that both SMO and VGT supports, has seen a substantial decline in activity over the past decade, according to NTSB stats in a report entitled “Annual Review of U.S. Civil Aviation Accidents, 2007-2009.”

“The overall accident rate has remained relatively flat, at about six accidents per 100,000 flight hours, and the fatal rate has stayed at about one fatal accident per 100,000 flight hours,” the report reads.

In 2009, general aviation pilots logged just under 24 million flight hours, which equates to roughly 240 deaths, on average.

Compare that to the tens of thousands of fatal accidents that occur on America’s highways and byways — 30,797 resulting in 33,808 deaths in 2009 — and general aviation flying seems like traveling in bubble wrap.

That’s faint consolation to those that live in the surrounding neighborhoods, who, by dint of flyovers, pollution and noise — the three most common complaints about the airport — feel as though the sword of Damocles were hanging over their heads.

Martin Rubin, a Los Angeles resident and anti-airport activist, has felt that fear.

He saw a jet coming in low and gun its engines while it was still in a seemingly-awkward position, realizing it wouldn’t make its approach to the runway.

The plane righted itself and made the landing on a second pass, but it left Rubin flustered.

“It really shook me up,” Rubin said.

Relations between SMO and its neighborhood are sour. City Hall is currently engaged in a “visioning process” looking at possible uses for the airport if, as city officials hope, the FAA loses its control over the uses of the airport when its 1984 agreement expires in four years.

The FAA, for its part, maintains that is not the case.

In an attempt to impress the positives of the airport upon residents, a group called Friends of the Santa Monica Airport has engaged in a public relations campaign.

Its most recent attempt, called Day at the Airport, would have put old aircraft on display and taught visitors about different aviation occupations, had it not been canceled three days prior out of fears that too many people would attend.

Back in Nevada, it was exactly things like Day at the Airport that helped ease tensions between VGT and the surrounding community, Lerner said.

CCAA puts on annual open houses, inviting people into the airport to teach about airport operations.

“It’s a dynamic process, not something that’s static,” Lerner said. “We keep after it. You can’t just stop doing this. If you do, people have a tendency to forget.”


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