Aviation boosters praise Ford’s handling of engine failure, but many living under the flight path are tired of worrying

By Gary Walker

Harrison Ford’s vintage plane came to rest near the eighth hole  at Penmar Golf Course Photo by Mia Duncans

Harrison Ford’s vintage plane came to rest near the eighth hole
at Penmar Golf Course
Photo by Mia Duncans

For Carlos Gomez, actor Harrison Ford’s crash-landing in Venice was a little too close for comfort.

A Dewey Street resident, 39-year-old Gomez lives less than 100 yards from Penmar Golf Course, where Ford brought down his vintage Ryan PT-22 airplane last Thursday.

“This is the fifth time I’ve seen a plane crash here, and I’m afraid that someday some big jet is going to crash into my house or one of my neighbor’s houses. Just imagine if that happened,” he said.

According to a preliminary report issued Monday by National Transportation Safety Board investigators, Ford reported engine failure to air traffic control shortly after taking off from nearby Santa Monica Airport and requested “an immediate return.” Ford reportedly clipped a tree on his descent to the golf course but emerged from the wreck with only moderate injuries.

No one on the ground was injured, but Gomez isn’t the only one fearful of future crashes with deadly consequences.

For many airport neighbors in Santa Monica, Venice and Mar Vista, Ford’s golf course landing has resurrected memories of other crashes along the Santa Monica Airport flight path. It’s also renewed critics’ calls for the airport to be closed.

“It’s really, really scary to think how close it came to these homes,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents Venice and Mar Vista. “I join my constituents and my neighbors in saying that this [airport] needs to be shut down.”

Airport supporters caution against jumping to conclusions.

Christian Fry, vice president of the nonprofit Santa Monica Airport Association, takes issue with calling Ford’s landing a crash because Ford remained in control of his plane and was able to land it without striking a building or harming anyone on the ground.

“Aviators who operate out of Santa Monica Airport are very well trained, and [Ford’s] forced landing is an example of a well-trained pilot using his training to execute a perfect forced landing,” said Fry, a pilot and Santa Monica resident. “That’s the advantage of having a golf course adjacent to the airport. This provides an alternate landing space.”

But there have been several deadly crashes in the not so distant past.

In September 2013 a Cessna Citation 525A crashed into an airport hangar, killing 63-year-old Mark John Benjamin, who was president and CEO of the Santa Monica firm Morley Builders, Benjamin’s son Luke, 28-year-old Lauren Winkler and Kyla Dupont, 53.

Westchester resident Sean McMillian, who flew charity flights, died in August 2012 when his Cessna 210 single-engine plane crashed in West Los Angeles as he tried to return to Santa Monica Airport.

A Cessna 172 crashed in the backyard of a home near 21st and Navy streets in August 2011, the pilot suffering a broken leg and crash injuring a man working nearby.

A 60-year-old pilot was killed when his single-engine Cessna 152 crashed at Penmar Park (next to the golf course) in July 2010. Through a flight school he had been practicing a “touch-and-go” landing procedure in which a plane lands on a runway without coming to a full stop and then takes off again.

Another pilot was hurt in August 2009 when his single-engine Long-EZ propeller plane crashed on the Santa Monica Airport runway, which is less than
250 feet from a residential neighborhood, shortly after takeoff.

A January 2009 runway crash killed two men, and in 2004 a plane crashed into a Mar Vista home.

John Jerabek, a member of the Santa Monica Airport Association’s board, said crashes of small planes attract significant media attention and often trigger public fears but happen far less frequently —
and with fewer deadly consequences to bystanders — than traffic collisions.

“Aviation is held to a higher standard by default. If a car takes out a cyclist that might not make the evening news, but if an airplane makes a forced landing it’s an international story — no matter who it is,” Jerabek said.

Meanwhile, sky traffic at Santa Monica Airport has been on a steady decline.

In 2000 there were 172,754 departures and landings at Santa Monica Airport, according to airport records. In 2013 there were 95,152.

The airport has simultaneously experienced a steep decline in propeller plane operations, from 111,943 departures and landings in 2004 to 78,307 in 2013. Jet traffic has increased as a percentage of airport traffic, but it too dropped from a high of 17,575 departures or landings in 2007 to 14,284 in 2013.

Some Venice residents argue that the Santa Monica Airport traffic should fly over Santa Monica, not Los Angeles. Federal aviation officials tested an alternative flight path over Santa Monica in 2010 — a change that prompted 41,862 associated airport noise complaints versus 3,693 in 2011.

Venice resident Ilana Marosi lives under the flight path and like Gomez fears the day that an airplane might crash into a populated area.

“Thank God that he’s alive,” Marosi said of Ford, “but this airplane could have gone into any one of our homes.”

Venice resident Mindy Taylor-Ross, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee, said Ford’s landing should be a “wake-up call” to federal aviation authorities that “Santa Monica Airport is a danger to the surrounding community and must be closed.”

Santa Monica officials seeking to wrest control of the airport from federal officials argue that an operating agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration expires on July 1; the feds say it’s good until 2023.

“There is no question in our minds that the Santa Monica Airport needs to close this July. That will truly be an Independence Day for Venice and people in the region,” Taylor-Ross said.

Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown anticipates more calls for the airport to close during a March 24 city council discussion of airport lease agreements.

“I think we’re likely to determine next steps but not make a final decision on the future of our land now being used as an airport,” McKeown said.

Underscoring the complexity of the debate, even Marosi has mixed feelings.

“The noise pollution from the airplanes is the most disturbing issue to me, and I would also like to see the smaller jets banned,” she said. “But for emergency purposes, it’s good to have an airport close by.”