A week after Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl requested that a flight school be closed due to a fatal airplane crash at a local golf course, Venice residents are seeking support to halt a variety of landing maneuvers at the Santa Monica Airport, including the procedure that the deceased pilot was practicing.
Pilot Robert Davenport’s tragic airplane accident July 1 at Penmar Golf Course has brought a flurry of renewed attention to the general aviation airport from lawmakers, the airfield’s neighbors and local organizations that have been lobbying for increased safety enhancements and air quality studies at the airport.
Rosendahl, whose council district includes Venice, requested that the procedure Davenport was practicing be halted and the flight school where he was taking landing training be closed.
“I think it’s a safety issue that has got to be dealt with, and I would like to start by shutting that school down,” the councilman said. “This is not a location for training when you’re in a dense urban environment.”
Davenport, who was a licensed commercial pilot, was training at Justice Aviation, a Santa Monica flight school, to learn what are called “touch and go” landings, which require a pilot to land on a runway without coming to a full stop and then take off again.
The Venice Neighborhood Council submitted a motion at its Tuesday, July 20 meeting to send a letter to a number of lawmakers asking to support eliminating the landing maneuver.
“People are afraid because many of them live over the flight path,” Laura Silagi, the chair of the local council’s airport committee, said prior to the board meeting. “If you didn’t have (‘touch and go’ maneuvers) you would have a lot (fewer) flights over Venice.”
Santa Monica Airport Manager Robert Trimborn says the airfield has several restrictions on the various types of aircraft landings, including the touch and go procedure.
“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 told The Argonaut.
“Stop and go” landings occur when a pilot brings an aircraft to a full stop before taking off again.
These restrictions are part of the city’s municipal code under Section 10.04.04.090. It also includes permitting the pilot of the aircraft to perform a touch and go only after receiving permission from the air traffic controller in the control tower. The procedure cannot be executed unless the aircraft has initiated takeoff prior to reaching the touch and go limit lines painted on the runway.
The Venice resolution approved by the council also included “taxi-backs,” which are defined as an action by an aircraft consisting of a landing on any runway followed by exiting the runway, with or without a complete stop, and returning directly to the approach end of any runway for a subsequent take-off.
The hourly prohibitions on landings do not apply to taxi-backs, and these aforementioned conditions do not apply in emergencies, where necessitated by safety considerations or when required by the Federal Aviation Administration, according to Santa Monica’s municipal code.
But Martin Rubin, the executive director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution, says despite the limitations on certain landings, residents of Santa Monica and nearby Mar Vista and North Westdale are still at risk.
“Enforcement of weekend and hours of restrictions on ‘touch-and-goes’ does not remove the risks from the other practice flights,” Rubin asserted. “Santa Monica Airport claims to be neighbor friendly, but the constant irritation of noisy piston planes flying around and around is not at all neighbor friendly to Venice and Mar Vista neighbors.
“Minimize the risk; no more practice of touch-and-goes.”
According to the Web site of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, touch-and-go practice provides advanced students and certificated pilots a technique for an emergency go-around should he or she detect a runway hazard after touching down, such as an animal or another airplane on the runway.
In addition, the association’s Web site states these landings can also reduce training time and student costs.
“‘Touch and goes’ are used in training to learn to judge the distance when a pilot is descending on a runway,” Trimborn explained. “One of the most critical points in instruction in aviation is landing.”
There are certain risks involved with this type of landing procedure. The association’s Web site lists loss of control due to excessive pilot workload and, in retractable-gear airplanes, inadvertent gear retractions on the ground as potential risks.
According to the association, the FAA reports that as many as half of all accidents involving piston-powered, retractable-gear airplanes result from landing-gear mishaps.
Like Rosendahl, Rubin cites the residential neighborhoods in close proximity of the airport as one of his reasons for requesting the cessation of the landing procedure.
“It is reckless to allow students to practice takeoffs and landings over a densely populated area,” he said. “Schools for pilots should be located in an area that minimizes every safety risk.”
Former Santa Monica Airport Commissioner Yoral Tal, who is a licensed small plane pilot, says when he was learning to fly he always tried to avoid practicing touch and go landings in Santa Monica.
“It was my experience that it was not the first choice for many students to train there,” Tal, a television editor, recalled. “Besides being very expensive, the neighborhoods always seemed so close. Many of us went to Van Nuys instead.”
The aircraft owners and pilot association’s air safety foundation conducted a survey among certified flight instructors on their views on touch and go landings in 2008. Fifteen percent of the instructors who responded said they were opposed to touch-and-go landings under any circumstances, 30 percent endorsed the maneuver and 55 percent said they utilize touch and goes selectively, depending on the situation.
Silagi said Rosendahl’s involvement has been crucial to Venice residents and their efforts to draw attention to their concerns regarding the airport.
“We’re glad to have a councilman who has been outspoken about the problems at the airport,” she said. “Venice has really been up in arms (since the plane crash at Penmar).”
Tal said if a pilot had to make an emergency landing after takeoff it would likely be at Penmar.
“Most pilots immediately turn left after departure and that puts you over the golf course,” the former commissioner said. “When you’re learning to fly, you’re taught to always look for a place to land in an emergency, and in Santa Monica, that place doesn’t exist.”
Trimborn said Santa Monica Airport has a safety and noise abatement record that he and the airport’s employees are very proud of and one they work hard to maintain.
“We have one of the most stringent noise abatement and operational restriction systems in the entire country,” the airport director said. “I would put our record against just about anyone’s.”