Calls to close airport intensify after latest airplane accident

BY GARY WALKER

Advocates for runway protection and increased safety measures at Santa Monica Airport took airport officials and the Federal Aviation Administration to task after a pilot crash-landed into the backyard of a residence, injuring himself and another man on the ground.

A Cessna 172 airplane crashed into the backyard of a home near 21st and Navy streets in Santa Monica at about 2:30 p.m. Aug. 29, approximately a half mile from the airport’s runway. “The aircraft sustained substantial damage,” FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer told The Argonaut.

The pilot, whose name was withheld, was taken to a local hospital with a broken leg and underwent surgery the night of the accident.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates civilian accidents in the United States, transported the wreckage to a location north of downtown Los Angeles for further analysis.

“This is an active (National Transportation Safety Board) investigation and all information is preliminary,” Kenitzer added.

Susan Hartley, who lives approximately five blocks from where the accident occurred, said despite the tragedy, everyone, including the city, were lucky. “We dodged a bullet,” she said.

Hartley, a former Santa Monica Airport commissioner, said the situation could have been much worse if a jet that flew into the airport earlier that morning had crashed. “It’s inevitable that a jet will crash,” she predicted. “It’s just a matter of time.”

The airport’s runway has no safety protection and lies less than 300 feet from residential neighborhoods, a long-standing point of contention between nearby homeowners and the FAA.

Friends of Sunset Park, a Santa Monica nonprofit neighborhood organization, has been one of the most outspoken groups lobbying the FAA for runway protection. Federal aviation officials have offered to install an engineered material arresting system, but Cathy Larson of the neighborhood group dismisses it as inadequate and substandard.

Like Hartley, Ocean Park homeowner Marcy Winograd feels the airport should be closed.

“I would like to see the city of Santa Monica close the airport when its lease with the federal government expires in 2015,” said Winograd, who ran in the 36th Congressional District race earlier this year. “Some of the airport’s critics argue that banning the jets would suffice, but I’m concerned that if the airport stayed open, powerful special interest groups would pump millions of dollars into local council races to elect jet-friendly majorities to reverse such a ban.”

Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn confirmed that the pilot was a student at an airport flight school, Justice Aviation, and was attempting to land when his plane hit a wall next to the house near 21st and Navy streets and landed in the yard. A portion of the airplane penetrated a wall of the residence, where no one was home.

Trimborn said painters working on the house, whom he called heroes, extricated the injured student pilot from his wrecked airplane.

“It was an emotional roller coaster for all of us at the airport,” he said. “When we learned that the pilot was alive, all of our spirits were lifted.”

Initial reports claimed the Cessna had crashed shortly after taking off from the airport.

Luis Espana, one of the painters, told KNBC-TV that he saw the plane coming down.

“We were right in front of it,” he said. “We saw the plane wobbling. It hit a tree then it just went right in the house.”

Trimborn said the pilot had planned a cross-country flight. “He came back and attempted to land, but was going too fast,” said the airport director. “Something tragically went wrong.”

The Santa Monica Fire Department responded to the accident and also transported one of the painters, who was injured from debris from the crash, to a local hospital, said Capt. Judah Mitchell in a statement. The other worker was decontaminated at the scene after he was sprayed with airplane fuel and was released, Mitchell said.

To some residents of Santa Monica and Venice, the crash brought back memories of a July 2 fatality last year at Penmar Golf Course in Venice where pilot Robert Davenport was killed in an airplane accident. Subsequent to the crash, it was learned that Davenport, an experienced pilot, had been practicing what are known as “touch and go” landings, where a pilot essentially lands on a runway without coming to a full stop and then takes off again.

It was later discovered that Davenport had also been practicing at Justice Aviation.

“Fortunately, no (residents) were hurt in the (Aug. 29) crash, but unfortunately neighbors who live within 300 feet of the airport runway are still in harm’s way,” Winograd noted. “They know the potential exists for jets and planes to overshoot the runway and crash into their living rooms.

“If the city closed the airport, it could use the land to build a model green housing community with 100 percent energy self-sufficient homes, bike paths, a day care center, and theatrical venue, or the city could create aneighborhood recreation area with everything from tennis and racquetball to swimming and miniature golf,” Winograd continued.

“The key is to create a sense of community. You don’t get that with jets,” she added.

FAA officials insist that the existing agreement with Santa Monica expires in 2023, not 2015. The agency has also contended that because the land was acquired through the Surplus Property Act, the property must be operated as an airport in perpetuity.

Westchester resident Denny Schneider, who has been engaged in his own battles with the FAA regarding Los Angeles International Airport for several years, was struck by the contrasts in the controversies surrounding runways at both airports.

“I think it’s interesting that the FAA doesn’t want to give residents runway protection at Santa Monica but in Westchester they want to use (runways) to encroach upon us,” he said.

The Los Angeles City Council waded into a long-simmering debate over what two of its members consider to be serious airport safety concerns by passing a resolution April 19 asking for the closure of six flight schools that operate at the Santa Monica Airport.

The resolution, which was sponsored by Councilman Bill Rosendahl and Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Venice), who was then Rosendahl’s colleague on the council, calls for federal intervention in closing flight academies in Santa Monica as well as altering the existing flight path from the airport over Venice.

Trimborn said airport officials take pride in maintaining the airport operations to the best of their abilities. “Accidents occur in every form of transportation,” he noted.

Federal investigators are conducting interviews with Justice Aviation employees and airport tower witnesses, and are reviewing the Cessna’s maintenance records in the aftermath of the crash.

Justice Aviation did not return calls as of Argonaut press time.

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