File photo

It defies gravity. You are suddenly looking down on the ordered patterns of Earth’s geography, the gulfs of time and distance erased.

Channeling Elijah, Zeus or Icarus or dreaming of Yeager or Sullenberger, pilots are in its thrall, the magic hidden in aviation speak. Flying is magic. Otherwise, why would aviators master their skill with such focus and discipline? The rest of us, passengers on the big planes going to see family, close a business deal or take a vacation, willingly use the magic, only dimly aware of its complexity.

Once in the high tech cocoon of a modern aircraft, the terrestrial world recedes. Speeding down the runway, it recedes further. Once airborne, for both pilot and passenger, the world is down there; you’re focused on the sky around you. The smaller the airplane, the greater is this awareness, technology keeping you aloft, having “slipped the surly bonds of Earth,” in the words WWII fighter pilot/poet John Gillespie Magee.

As a passenger, part of the fun of small airplanes also is watching the people keeping you safely up there – the pilots – with their precise adjustments and mysterious interactions. Certainly the last thing on my mind is what is happening down there, on the ground. At least this is what has occurred to me in the few small jets, prop planes and helicopters that I’ve ridden in during my life. For the people that fly them, the wonder and fun may wear off but I bet the magic never dies. Maybe this is the reason that aviators can’t understand why the commotion they cause on the ground can be so troublesome to the people in its path.

And here’s the thing. I didn’t need to be in any of these amazing machines except for my own or someone else’s convenience or pleasure. I can’t say that about the big planes at LAX, which have been necessities for some vital aspect of my personal or professional life. I think that the same can be said for at least 99 percent of the people who fly, which brings us to the heart of the Santa Monica Airport matter. With the exception of law enforcement and medical services, there is really no compelling need to use the airport land for aviation any more, other than to sustain the magic. The small businesses to which general aviation is essential – flight schools, air commuters and the business jet operators – are located on this land because it offers convenience to their clients who comprise a fraction of the population. And, with the view of Santa Monica Bay, SMO is also a beautiful place to land an airplane.

A less beautiful but perfectly functional place to land a plane is down the 405 Freeway about 12 miles. It has a 5,000-foot runway capable of handling the same jets as SMO and has all the amenities, which private jet travelers and recreational flyers have come to expect. It’s called the Hawthorne Municipal Airport and, if its advertising is to be believed, it is eager to expand its business. It is not surrounded by dense residential development but has business and manufacturing infrastructure on most sides and the city of Hawthorne would welcome more aviation activity, not having the varied commercial mixture enjoyed by Santa Monica.

As (local blogger) Frank Gruber pointed out in a recent post, the local pilots who provide air transport for seriously ill patients or donor organs to local hospitals are performing a valuable humanitarian service that in no appreciable way would be affected if SMO were not here, the need obviated by the close proximity of LAX, the Hawthorne and Van Nuys airports. As for law enforcement, the age of the police drone is not far off, substantially reducing the need for manned police aircraft. Even in the event of a major catastrophe such as an earthquake, what better place to set down a large helicopter than on a soccer field or open parkland?

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2013 scheduled U.S. (commercial) air carriers flew – or boarded – around 646 million domestic passengers, while unscheduled – private – carriers boarded some 2.5 million (numbers rounded), which translates to 0.4 percent of all passengers. If these figures are accurate, SMO is being controlled by the interests of a tiny fraction of the flying public, much smaller than even the much-maligned 1 percent.

Proponents of the status quo have never demonstrated convincingly the claim that SMO is an integral part of a national grid, crucial to our nation’s air travel. The argument that SMO brings $275 million a year into the local economy has not been demonstrated credibly either. A study that generated this figure has serious flaws. (Nevertheless, it is a useful political brickbat.) The canard – to use Councilman Kevin McKeown’s word – that the City Council will buckle under the weight of developer blandishments to turn the land into another Century City is poppycock. If the land becomes unencumbered by aviation, you can be sure that voters will be looking over the shoulder of every present and future councilperson for the slightest sign of any development agreement quid pro quo. Their careers will depend on it.

With all the things that this region needs for a sustainable future – open space, educational facilities, affordable housing, innovative businesses, the list goes on (and is the subject of other essays) – in its present state, this 227 acres of prime Southern California land is now being wasted on an archaic land use model that, at one time, did bring us great prosperity. Let’s honor its legacy by creating a modern vision of that prosperity, relevant to today’s world, not simply keep in our midst a noisy, polluting and arguably dangerous museum from a world that has choked itself with carbon. We are not asking the aviation community to cease and desist but only move down the road a few miles. So when you hear pilots get hysterical about the fate of SMO, remember they are under the magic spell of the gods of the sky (helpfully backed up by the Federal Aviation Administration and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.) I am not unsympathetic but times change and we must move on.




Peter Donald

Santa Monica Airport Commissioner

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