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Beating the Buzz - Marc Haefele on Santa Monica's airport noise plans

Susan Dusenbury takes off from the Santa Monica Airport, Aug. 19, 1989.
Susan Dusenbury takes off from the Santa Monica Airport, Aug. 19, 1989.
Mike Sergieff/LAPL/Herald-Examiner collection

Not too high overhead, it’s that noise again. Something like a tenor blowfly trapped in a large cola bottle, the muttering whine of an Eisenhower-vintage Lycoming flat-four aircraft engine, hauling along a mid`50s Piper Tri-Pacer, exactly the type of tiny aircraft budding retail tycoon Sam Wall is said to have used, decades ago, to patrol his then-infant Walmart empire.

This plane is off to nowhere in particular on this sunny Santa Monica Saturday morning. It’s going to hang in the area for a few minutes, maybe even half an hour. Not because the pilot and his companion, his flight instructor, are obsessed with the local scenery -- including my back yard. It’s because they’re practicing that essential drill of manned flight, the touch-and-go landing. The plane will descend out of sight, the engine note will drop. Invisibly, the wheels will touch the runway of the nearby airport, and then the note will rise as the little yellow Piper returns to my view. I don’t happen to mind. I like little planes, and this one is really no louder than the rotary lawn mower next door. Plus, it's part of the rigorous pilot training larely responsible for the big drop in air fatalities over the past decade or so.

But I'm in a tiny minority locally. If the city of Santa Monica could only vote its airport and its denizens -- such as my practicing Piper pilot -- out of existence and put the site up for development, it would have done so long ago. As it happens, airports are a federal jurisdiction, and the FAA won’t hear of its being shut down, as homeowners in both Santa Monica and the nearby Mar Vista area of Los Angeles have demanded.

The locals seem to have been most steamed up over the raucous shrieking takeoffs and landings of private business jets. The best the city could do as to limit noise levels and takeoff hours. Accordingly,  the collective aim was recently lowered to instead expunge the relatively peaceful little prop planes of weekend aviators. Last week, the proposal failed in the City Council.

This latest noise abatement  proposal, which seemed intended to please everyone but was resented by all, was a bid to pay local student flyers to use other private aviation airports throughout LA County instead of Santa Monica’s.

It would have eliminated  the local flight schools’ 4,800 weekend and holiday practice landing-takeoffs over the next 5 months —at a cost to the city of $90,000. The pilots and their instructors would instead be paid $150 per practice flight to take their drills to proximate private aviation airports in and out of LA County—like those of Oxnard, Compton, Torrance, Carson and Camarillo.

There were objections to the plan, however. First, most obviously, while Santa Monica with its high development and reliable tax revenues, isn’t hurting from the recession, $18,000 a month is no small sum to toss away on something that offers no benefit to the city or most of its residents.

Second, how about those other airport cities out there? In planning its proposal, Santa Monica city staff seemed oblivious to this one. But the other cities’ officials were not. Santa Monica’s Daily Press quoted Mayor Frank Scotto of Torrance as asserting Santa Monica was trying to dump its practice flying on other cities whose residents didn’t like airport noises any more than Santa Monicans do. Some basic  home truth seems appropriate, like you really ought not get rid of your trash by dumping it on your neighbor’s lawn.

So the proposal was tabled. But the issue continues to burn, because the weekend landing dispute merely foreshadows the Santa Monica airport war that comes in 2015, when the original FAA agreements may be renegotiated. That’s when the airport opponents want to shut the 90-year-old airfield down completely.

It’s not hard to imagine what a ruckus this will raise among other cities, as they object to not just getting the weekend practice flights, but every other aspect of Santa Monica airport’s hefty air traffic -- including all those new 50-ton, 33,000-pound-thrust private Gulfstream bizjets, roaring in and out from before dawn until after sunset -- dumped in their municipal laps.