JOSEPH JUSTICE of Justice Aviation said the number of student pilots at Santa Monica Airport has decreased over the years. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Citing what they feel is an adverse reaction to a plan that would have paid Santa Monica-based flight schools to practice landings at other airports, city leaders decided to abruptly suspend the unpopular proposed venture at their July 10 City Council meeting.

Santa Monica City Manager Rod Gould announced at the meeting to the audience and the council that his office recommended postponing the relocation proposal.

“I’ve concluded that public fears and perceptions have escalated to the point that it is impossible to imagine that this test would be able to receive fair and objective evaluation,” Gould told the council. “For those reasons, staff requests that this creative response to community wishes be tabled indefinitely.”

Under the proposal, the city would have paid Santa Monica Airport’s flight schools $150 when student pilots practiced their take-offs and landings on holidays and weekends at other municipal airfields. According to city officials, the program, which would have lasted for six months, had a budget of $90,000.

The plan faced opposition from other airports in the region. The mayor of Torrance, Frank Scotto, stated categorically that several of his constituents did not want to see more students at Torrance Municipal Airport.

Santa Monica Councilman Kevin McKeown said the response from Torrance’s elected leaders and their residents played only a small part in the city’s decision.

“It wasn’t Torrancethat scotched the plan; local residents told us curtailing weekend and holiday flights wasn’t enough,” he said. “They want the flight schools gone entirely.”

Flight schools are one component of a larger puzzle that has pitted a group of anti-pollution activists against Santa Monica city leaders over the future of the airport. Los Angeles Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who represents Mar Vista and Venice, has stated publicly that he would like to see the academies closed.

Rosendahl and Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Venice), then a city councilwoman, sponsored a resolution last spring, calling for federal intervention to shut the flight schools down as well as alter the existing flight path from the airport over Venice.

Residents in Santa Monica, Venice and nearby Mar Vista have weighed in with their thoughts on the city’s decision to put the relocation plan on ice.

Santa Monica Airport Association President Steven Siry commended Santa Monica officials for tabling the plan. “I think it’s a good decision,” he said.

Mindy Taylor-Ross, a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee, thinks the idea to farm out student pilot training to other locations was not sound policy and did not address the concerns that many Venice residents have.

“They were trying to mitigate a problem by sending it to a neighboring community that had not been asked if it wanted (student pilots),” she noted. “There were no mitigating measures in this plan to solve the problem of pollution and noise.”

McKeown said his reason for wanting student flight training moved out of the area was out of concern for his constituents who live near the end of the airport runway.

The airfield has no safety barriers and some residences are within 300 feet of the runway.

“Moving flight school activities from over dense residential neighborhoods was, for me, a safety issue,” he said. “Santa Monica Airport has more homes closer to the runway than any other airport in the country.”

Bill Koontz, co-chair of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Santa Monica Airport Committee, questioned the manner in which the relocation plan was handled.

“I was not surprised when I heard that the motion had been tabled. I was surprised at the process up until that point. It should have gone through the Airport Commission first to be properly vetted,” he said. “Clearly there was public opposition to the program of paying to move some of the flight school pattern flights to another airport.”

Siry noted the flight schools bring in revenue to Santa Monica and should not be driven out by those who want to close the airport.

“They are a part of the airport community and they deserve to be here,” he said. “In an economy where jobs are fleeting, I have a problem with discouraging employment.”

Joseph Justice, the proprietor of flight school Justice Aviation, believes that the City Council misinterpreted the level of air traffic that would have moved away from the airport with the student relocation test. He also thinks the reaction from Torrance and other cities with municipal airports was telling.

“I think it’s interesting and it gives us an idea of what neighboring cities like Torrance will feel if Santa Monica Airport is closed,” he said. “We saw their reaction to what would have been a slight increase in air traffic at their airports, not a dramatic increase, which could happen if Santa Monica Airport is closed.”

Residents in Mar Vista and Venice have complained of “touch and go” landings by student pilots, where a pilot essentially lands on a runway without coming to a full stop and then takes off again. Opponents of this maneuver say it causes additional air pollution because of the frequency of the takeoffs.

“I can appreciate them practicing to learn their maneuvers, but the particulates that the leaded fuel creates leaves a toxic environment,” said Taylor-Ross.

On July 1, 2010, pilot Robert Davenport was killed when his single-engine Cessna 152 crashed at Penmar Golf Course in Venice. Subsequent to the crash, it was learned that Davenport, an experienced pilot, had been practicing “touch and go” landings.

Santa Monica Airport Director Robert Trimborn told The Argonaut in a previous interview that there are restrictions on many types of landings at the airfield, including the touch and go maneuver.

“We have restrictions on ‘touch and go’ and ‘stop and go’ on weekends, holidays and weekdays, from one hour after sunset to 7 a.m. of the following morning,” Trimborn explained. “Touch and goes are used in training to learn to judge the distance when a pilot is descending on a runway, and one of the most critical points in instruction in aviation is landing.”

Koontz said he was puzzled by the city’s offer to pay student aviators to take lessons at other airports.

“I can’t even comprehend the idea of wanting to pay the flight schools to stop doing what they shouldn’t be doing to begin with. This to me flirts dangerously close to the definition of extortion,” Koontz asserted. “If they were truly good neighbors the flight schools would hear the opinions of the taxpayers who help pay for the airport and re-schedule their pattern flying to possibly happen during weekdays from 9 to 5.”

“Additionally there is also no real mechanism in place to track the effectiveness of the program.”

Taylor-Ross said the problem of what she calls “the constant barrage of airport noise” remains and the city has done little to mitigate those problems, including changing the flight route over Venice back over Santa Monica.

“(Venice residents) accept all the noise from flyovers and Santa Monica residents don’t get any,” she lamented.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been considering a possible change in the departure path for nearly two years.