The right place for the San Diego airport

There's trouble down the runway

‘‘Once we found out what the noise could do to your health, we had to move.”
  • ‘‘Once we found out what the noise could do to your health, we had to move.”
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Our plane taxis out onto the runway and comes to a halt, facing west down the long asphalt ramp of Lindbergh Field. Mike in hand, the pilot, Carlos Richardson, contacts the control tower for clearance. This is not a scheduled flight, and it will have to be squeezed in between the arrivals and departures of the big commercial jets on the airport's main runway; but our six-passenger Cessna 210 doesn’t need much time to lift clear of the ground, and it isn’t long before the little speaker in the ceiling of the cabin crackles with the controller’s voice: “Clear!” Richardson pulls back the throttle, the Cessna shakes as the engine roars, and we begin to move down the runway faster, faster, faster.

Clockwise from top left: Miramar Naval Air Station, Brown Field, Lindbergh Field, Carmel Valley

Clockwise from top left: Miramar Naval Air Station, Brown Field, Lindbergh Field, Carmel Valley

After only a few hundred yards the ground suddenly falls away and we are airborne, the plane wavering a little from side to side as we climb steeply into the bright blue sky.

Lindbergh Field, an airport that many planners and aviation experts consider too small, poorly located, and unsafe.

Lindbergh Field, an airport that many planners and aviation experts consider too small, poorly located, and unsafe.

Soon we can see the airport spread out below — huge jets parked here and there at the end of long, boxlike terminals — and beyond it the parking lots full of cars, their windshields glinting in the mid-aftemoon sun. Then we are banking sharply left, straightening out as we head across the harbor and leave behind one of the biggest headaches facing the City of San Diego today: Lindbergh Field.

Brown Field. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t want a new airport here to hinge on the possibility of a special treaty with Mexico.

Brown Field. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t want a new airport here to hinge on the possibility of a special treaty with Mexico.

For the last twenty-five years the city has been searching for an alternative to Lindbergh Field, an airport that many planners and aviation experts consider too small, poorly located, and unsafe. At least half a dozen studies have been commissioned, several million dollars have been spent, and more than a hundred different sites have been proposed. San Diego has been told it should build a floating, offshore airport; that it should level mountains and fill in valleys to create a suitable site; even that it should pave the desert near the Salton Sea and combine an airport there with a home for retired aviators. But in the end, only three practical places for a new regional airport have ever been found: Miramar Naval AirStation, Carmel Valley (east of Del Mar), and Otay Mesa. An update of potential sites in 1980 by lawyer and airport planning consultant George Cote of Newport Beach looked at these same three sites, and settled on Miramar as the only realistic choice.

“There are no alternatives to the physical requirements of an airport site,” Cote told me recently. “For the runways alone you need a hunk of flat ground two miles long and half a mile wide. There just aren’t many pieces of land like that left in San Diego County.” In addition, an airport site should have enough acreage to accommodate terminal and parking facilities, and it should be far enough from existing housing developments to make noise and safety of minimal concern. Most importantly, it should be easily accessible to a large percentage of the population, which eliminates the desert, according to Cote. “People think the desert is such a good site, but it’s not as flat as it looks. You also have a humungous transportation problem in trying to get people out there.”

After Cote completed his study for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) last year, SANDAG and the county board of supervisors briefly considered designating Miramar as the area’s future airport site. Then they backed down, primarily due to opposition from the Navy. Two years after an inbound PSA passenger jet collided with a small private plane in the crowded airspace over San Diego, resulting in the nation’s worst air disaster at that time, the search for a new airport here had run into a dead end.

Officially, San Diego now has no alternative to Lindbergh Field. A public vote on where to move the airport, once scheduled for last year, drowned in complications, and no one seems inclined to revive it. A group of residents who filed suit in 1975 over the noise created by Lindbergh Field recently lost the first round of their suit, and some of the group’s members have already given up and moved elsewhere. The numerous other citizen organizations that once championed the cause of moving the airport have begun to break up, “burned out,” as one former spokesman put it, by the lack of action. “We thought when the PSA crash happened, people would finally wake up to the problem. But they didn't, and after you’ve pounded your head against the wall for four or five years and you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing, you kind of lose your incentive.”

But the problems of Lindbergh Field still exist, and they are what have led this small group of people to climb into the Cessna today for a flying tour of the three alternative sites, which loom even more importantly now in growth-conscious San Diego. No one expects to find instant solutions that have somehow been overlooked, but everyone in the plane shares a curiosity about the three sites and the conviction that, in the ten or fifteen years it will take to put a new airport into operation, Lindbergh Field will no longer be an adequate airport for San Diego.

In the middle of the plane, directly behind the pilot and the photographer, sit Lee Hultgren. SANDAG’s director of transportation. and Bill Cleator, city councilman for the Second District. Cleator, a burly man with a round, open face and a direct manner, is considered to be a firm supporter of the local business community. And so far. the local business community has been less than enthusiastic about moving the airport. But when I contacted Cleator, he was eager to look at the sites from the air. “It’s my opinion we’ll eventually outgrow Lindbergh Field, if we haven’t already,” he said. “This is something I feel very strongly about, and if I go along with you and learn something new, that’ll be great.”

Hultgren, who has studied San Diego’s transportation problems for the last twelve years, and who in that time has seen a number of city councils and airport studies come and go, is a man of medium height with wavy black hair. He can be both brilliant and noncommittal, sometimes at the same time; one senses that he prefers the role of advisor to any other. But he knows more than anyone else in San Diego about the complex pros and cons of the three alternative sites, and when I contacted him he immediately agreed to accompany the group on the plane.

Wedged into the back seat of the Cessna with me is Ardetta Steiner, a tall, handsome woman who is vice chairman of the county’s noise control hearing board. A few years ago, as a homeowner in the flight path of Lindbergh’s jets, Steiner was chairman of the Airport Relocation Committee, a private citizen's group, and was one of the people who eventually sued over the issue of noise. Since that time she and her husband and two children have moved to Point Loma, southwest of the flight path. ‘‘Once we found out what the noise could do to your health, we had to move,” she told me. “But I’ve followed the issue since then, and I still think we’ve got to move the airport. I’d like to come with you. It sounds exciting!”

Far below us in the harbor, tiny sailboats leave thin white wakes behind them as they move slowly across the water. We pass over the Thirty-second Street Naval Station, from the air a dull assortment of gray-roofed buildings, and soon we are crossing Interstate 5 and the houses of National City. The first site we will be looking at today is Brown Field on Otay Mesa, at times the focus of proposals for everything from an expanded light-aircraft facility to a special international airport with separate runways for both San Diego and Tijuana.

It isn't long before the unusual perspective of traveling across San Diego at 3000 feet has everyone a little disoriented; everyone, that is, except Hultgren, who has been up in a plane several times previously to look at potential airport sites.

Somewhere east of Chula Vista I ask him how it is that after twenty-five years of studies the city still hasn't come up with a solution to its airport problems. “A lot of reasons,” he says with a shrug. “The city has had various plans in the past, but for one reason or another they just never worked out.”

“My feeling,” puts in Cleator, “is that most of the people in this city do not want this airport moved. For the most pan, only the people who are impacted by the noise want it moved.”

Steiner nods. “Lindbergh is so convenient that the economic powers in this city like it just where it is. When it gets to the point where Lindbergh is too small to meet their needs, maybe they’ll change their minds.” After glancing out the window, she turns to me a moment later and adds, “Also, there’s no easy solution in this case. There never has been. It’s not just a matter of being able to choose from three available sites. ... So it’s always been a controversial issue, and the political leadership here hasn’t wanted to touch it.” We have to talk loudly to be heard over the roar of the Cessna’s engine, and I ask Steiner if the noise in the plane is comparable to the noise of the jets when they flew over her old house in Loma Portal. “Oh, the jets were much louder,” she assures me. “At the peak, even if we shouted we couldn’t be heard. In the mornings we’d all be screaming at each other over breakfast, just to be heard. That really got to me after awhile.’.’

“Needless to say,” says Hultgren, turning to us with a broad smile, “we think noise is a major issue in this thing.”

Like many of the people who live or have lived in communities beneath Lindbergh’s flight path, the Steiners moved into their home when the aircraft arriving in and departing San Diego were quieter and smaller in number. With the advent of bigger jets — the Boeing 707 and 727, and the DC-8 — the noise immediately got worse. And Lindbergh’s location, sandwiched between Loma Portal, Hillcrest, Ocean Beach, and other neighborhoods, made it almost untenable. The Steiner’s youngest daughter, three years old, would run into the house crying when jets thundered over, at night she would often wake up with nightmares because of the noise. Once, the Steiners invited Dr. Robert Young, a local noise specialist, to set up equipment to measure the noise level inside the house. At a cocktail party where the noise reaches sixty-five decibels, you have to talk loudly to be heard three feet away; at eighty decibels you have to shout into someone’s ear. Pain sets in at 105 to 110 decibels. At times, the Steiners say, Young’s equipment measured a level of 110 decibels in their house.

In the fall of 1975 the Steiners and several hundred other families filed suit against the San Diego Unified Port District, which operates Lindbergh Field, charging they had not been compensated for the loss of value to their property due to increasing airport noise, and that the noise had also caused them emotional and physical damage. In April of 1980 a jury finally ruled that the homeowners had indeed lost a total of two million dollars on their property, but that they had waited too long to file their suit. The second part of the suit has not yet been heard in court, but in a similar case involving Los Angeles International Airport (Greater Westchester Homeowners vs. the City of Los Angeles, et al.) the state supreme court ruled that airports are in fact liable for emotional and physical stress to surrounding residents.

Below us Southwestern College slips by, then Otav Reservoir, looking like a sprawling blue lagoon in the middle of barren hills. “There's Otay Mesa." Richardson calls out, and everyone presses close to the windows to get a look. Already Brown Field is coming into view, a small gray rectangle on the broad yellow tableland below , and a mile or so south of it lies the border with Mexico. “I was living around out here with a friend a couple of years ago." Cleator says, turning away from the window to face the rest of us in the plane. “I wanted to get a feel for this site because at that time Mayor Wilson w as recommending it very strongly for our future airport. We were living real low and just nosing around, and when we finally landed some guy from the immigration and naturalization service came up to us with his gun drawn!” He laughs, shaking his head. “No kidding, a gun! He wanted to know what the hell we were doing.”

Ahead we can see the Otay Mountains, steep green peaks partially enveloped in haze and smog. We plan to touch down at Brown Field, but first we will fly east, turn, and approach the airfield over these mountains, which are a kind of rock on which plans to build a regional airport at Otay Mesa have always foundered. We sweep over the first ridge and suddenly the ground is much closer; here and there fire roads wind through the green chaparral. “There's Otav Peak,” says Hultgrcn, pointing to a mountain with a radio tower that we are passing over, and a few minutes later Richardson banks the Cessna into a 180-degree turn to the right. When we straighten out again, we are headed west on a long approach to Brown Field, the same approach a passenger jet might have to make if there were a regional airport here. To our left. Mexico is less than half a mile away, and we can see the long gray strip of Tijuana International Airport that was built just south of the border a few years ago.

Since the safest way for an airplane to land is into the prevailing wind, all runways in San Diego County are aligned so that inbound aircraft can land front the east, taking advantage of the usual onshore breeze. In addition, to land with the aid of an Instrument Landing System (required by the FAA for all major airports), today's passenger jets need about seven miles of straight approach path. But every study done for an airport on Otay Mesa has concluded that the Otay Mountains would screen off the radio beams that enable an Instrument Landing System to work, and that the mountains also make an approach from the east unacceptably steep. (The angle is roughly the same as the current approach to Lindbergh Field.) To approach Otay Mesa from any other direction, it would be necessary to have the option of flying into Mexican airspace if something went wrong, which would require a special international treaty.

“Some things never change,” Hultgren comments. “Twenty years ago you needed a treaty for airspace in order to use this site, and you'd still need one.” He points out the window to a low gap in the mountains that incoming Mexican planes utilize to land at Tijuana International from the east. “You can see it’s a little lower over there.” he continues. “On this side of the border we just don’t have as much room to operate.”

There is a loud crunch from the tail of our plane, a sound not unlike rending metal; Richardson has lowered the elevators. “Brown Field dead ahead.” he calls out. and abruptly we leave the mountains behind and swoop out over Otay Mesa, dropping sharply down toward the airfield. From where I’m sitting the runway fills the whole windshield, the white dotted line down its middle wavering from side to side as our plane bounces and pitches on its descent. Finally we hit the pavement with a screech and hurtle down the runway at top speed, the Cessna’s stiff landing gear seemingly transmitting every crack and seam in the asphalt. With a glance out the back window of the plane. Steiner volunteers, “Well, it didn't seem all that steep.”

Like a number of people who closely follow the city's planning decisions, Steiner thinks Otay Mesa is by far the best site for a new regional airport. She believes the approach problems and airspace conflicts with Mexico could be resolved by creating a special international zone straddling the border; the two countries would have separate runways but would share a control tower and terminal. It is a plan the City of San Diego itself once favored, but later discarded as politically unworkable.

As we taxi over to Brown’s control tower and come to a stop, Steiner earnestly outlines her reasoning. The mesa on which the airfield is located is practically the last flat area left in the county that hasn't given way to development of some kind, she points out. By 1984 a new border crossing will be constructed just east of here, and the new four-lane road that will lead to it could easily be expanded to accommodate

the flow of traffic to a new regional airport. “An airport here would be an economic boon to the South Bay. too. This could become a major stopping-off point for people traveling to Mexico or South America. And people visiting this area could easily go dow n to stay at hotels in Tijuana, if they wanted to. But that’s why the hotel and restaurant business in San Diego is really opposed to this site, and they’re a powerful group.”

"But this is a political problem I see with Mexico,” breaks in Cleator. “Unless these two countries really get together, I just can’t see committing yourself to what’s bound to be a very, very expensive venture with Mexico. I wouldn’t vote for it, anyway.”

“Well, Otay Mesa is the cheapest to develop of the three alternatives, too,” Steiner says.

“What’s that?” asks Cleator.

“Oh, yeah, Otay Mesa is the cheapest of the three,” nods Hultgren. “But the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t want a new airport here to hinge on the possibility of a special treaty with Mexico, and you can understand that." His unspoken point: what if, twenty or fifty years from now. relations between the two countries deteriorate and some hardheaded politician cancels the treaty? Mexico's recent detainment of two San Diego-based tunaboats doesn’t help convince you it couldn't happen.

Out the window to the east, the Otay Mountains rise like a green wall, shimmering in the midaftemoon heat. The FA A is working on a new microwave landing system which is supposed to replace today’s Instrument Landing Systems at airports around the nation by the turn of the century. When it is perfected, the microwave system will enable commercial jets to land on a curve instead of the long, straight approach needed now. On Otay Mesa, the jets might be able to curve southward along the foot of the Otay Mountains and then turn west for their final approach, eliminating the terrain problems and also, perhaps, the need for using Mexican airspace. It's a fanciful scenario, but when I bring it up now. Hultgren responds, "That might make it possible, but the FAA keeps backing off on when the microwave system will*be ready. Informally, they say they don’t foresee it for a long time. But getting the FAA to tell you anything formally is almost impossible. Informally, informally they say they don’t like Otay Mesa, either, but if the city came on strong and said they really wanted Otav Mesa, the FAA would probably find a way to make it work."

A few minutes later we prepare to take off for a flying look at Miramar, the second of the three sites we will visit. Richardson opens the window next to him and shouts "Clear!" — an ingrained ritual to alert anyone near the plane that he is going to start the propeller — and soon we are bouncing down the runway again, passing an old automobile junkyard on the right as the wheels of the Cessna lift off the ground. We climb quickly to 3000 feet, then head north at ninety knots (about 104 miles an hour). The cabin soon grows hot in the afternoon sun, and when the photographer, Robert Burroughs, opens a window to poke his camera out, everyone welcomes the cool air that rushes in.

A moment later Steiner asks, “Is that a fire?” Smoke is pouring skyward over mountainous country to the northwest, and later we learn that a brush fire burned some thirty-five acres near Santee. But below us. the quiet hills and cultivated fields of Otay Mesa are giving way to row after row of streets and houses; here and there backyard swimming pools gleam like bits of turquoise. The air is so clear that even from this relatively low altitude we can see all the way across San Diego to the ocean, a shining blue plain fifteen miles to the west. Lindbergh Field is there, too, a whitish spot near the harbor, and now Steiner, who has been gazing out the windows with the rest of us. comments. “If you could put the airport anywhere, and you were up here planning where it should go, you'd look at where it is now and say. 'That’s no place to put an airport!’ That’s prime real estate out there, and it’s not on the tax rolls, so in effect the local taxpayers arc helping to subsidize Lindbergh Field. From a land-use perspective, it just doesn’t make sense.”

In only a few minutes we are crossing over Interstate 8 near San Diego State University, and the two long, parallel runways of Miramar come into view. When I ask what the main advantage of Miramar is compared to Otay Mesa and Carmel Valley, the answers come back quickly and nearly identical:

Hultgren: “Access.”

Steiner; “It’s centrally located.”

Cleator; “It’s the middle of San Diego, eventually.”

We are rapidly nearing the air base, and we can see a broad patch of undeveloped land surrounding it. Staring out of the window. Hultgren adds, “There’s a good approach here, too, a long, flat approach from the east, and they've done a good job protecting it.” The Navy owns more than 15,000 acres here in all — about thirty times the area of Lindbergh Field — much of it acquired in order to minimize the conflicts with surrounding development. “They do have a hell of a lot of land out here.” says Cleator. eyeing the ground. “Look, there’s a jet!”

Far below, a delta-winged Navy jet is coming in for a practice landing at Miramar. It moves slowly over one of the runways, toylike. but just before touching down it accelerates and begins to climb, and disappears off the far end of the runway toward the ocean. We are directly over the airbase now. about a half mile up. which is a lot closer than the City of San Diego has ever been to convincing the Navy to vacate Miramar and turn it over for development as a regional airport. Compared to Otay Mesa, the debate over whether or not this site would make a good airport is beautifully simple: the Navy says forget it. Thirty years ago San Diego had a joint-use agreement with the Navy for the civilian use of Miramar. But in 1952. the Navy canceled the agreement and began to develop Miramar into a major fighter base and pilot-training facility. Since then, every time the city raises the subject of moving it. say. to the desert or to Camp Pendleton, the Navy responds with a firm. “No wav.” Still, as one observer recently pointed out. “That’s what you'd expect them to say. Part of their responsibility is to protect that base. And they don’t want the camel's nose under the tent.”

Looking at the hangars and other buildings strung out along the northern edge of the runways. Cleater now observes.

“They’ve got a hell of a lot of money invested in that.”

“But they shouldn't have a training facility in the middle of our city anyway,” Steiner responds.

Cleator shakes his head. “The only way I can see we’ll ever get it is to pay the Navy enough to move.”

The Navy has said it would cost two billion dollars to relocate Miramar Naval Air Station, but the City of San Diego is expected to conduct its own cost study in the near future. Funded by the FAA. the $325,000 study — “The study to end all studies.” in the words of one city official — will search for alternative locations for Miramar, and look into the possibility of financing the move with money generated by building housing and light industrial facilities at Lindbergh Field. A well-placed source at city hall recently revealed that the FAA initiated the study, not the city, an indication that the federal government could be convinced of the long-range inadequacies of Lindbergh. The same source also said that the decision of whether or not Miramar is moved will very likely be made not by the Navy but by high-level political officials in Washington.

After flying across Miramar. Richardson banks the Cessna to the right, and a few minutes later we are above Carmel Valley, the third of the three alternatives to Lindbergh Field; The ridges below are covered with dark green chaparral, and here and there we can see bright green ribbons of oak and willow trees in the canyon bottoms. Carmel Valley is as yet undeveloped, but it is supposed to become the southern third of North City West, the largest of San Diego’s planned new communities. An airport here would mean the remainder of the development — about 28,000 people — would be living virtually across the street from arriving and departing jets. But the biggest objection to the Carmel Valley site is the amount of cut-and-fill necessary to convert the area’s steep canyons and hills into a pad suitable for airport runways. Alvord Pauli, a former spokesman for citizen groups seeking to relocate Lindbergh Field, once told me the site should be known not as Carmel Valley but Carmel Mountain, since that peak would have to be reduced from 427 feet above sea level to 250 feet to make way for an airport. In all, some two or three hundred million cubic yards of earth would have to be relocated — ten times the amount needed for construction of North City West itself — costly work that would encounter fierce opposition from the county’s environmentalists.

Builder and former city councilman Lee Hubbard, the most outspoken advocate of the Carmel Valley site, claims that developing Carmel Valley would be cheaper than acquiring Miramar. ‘‘I just think it’s a mistake to build houses on it until we know for certain whether we want to use it for an airport or not,” he said recently. Before our flight today, Hubbard contacted Cleator and asked him to take a particularly close look at Carmel Valley. But as we pass over the site now, Cleator exclaims, “It’s nothing but mountains!”

“Miramar says that an airport here would create airspace conflicts with their ocean departures,.” adds Hultgren.

Circling slowly over Carmel Valley, the Cessna seems suspended from the sky by invisible threads. The terrain below could become an airport, but it typifies the high development cost and environmental problems of trying to put an airport on land that isn’t already flat. Carmel Valley is a possibility, everyone seems to agree, but a remote one.

With the three sites behind us, the discussion turns to how urgent it is to find a new airport site. “What is the calculated guess now about when Lindbergh will reach capacity?” Cleator asks Hultgren.

“Ten to twenty years.”

“That was mv guess.” nods Cleator. “But an airport is not like a glass of water,” Hultgrcn continues. “It doesn’t fill up until it overflows. It just becomes less and less convenient. . . . I doubt if it's going to be a crisis kind of a thing. But in the long run, Lindbergh will simply not have the capacity.”

“I think we ought to have a goal and work towards it,” says Cleator. “And so far, Miramar is the best alternative we've come up with. But I'm really beginning to wonder about the financial feasibility of this thing, and I mean ever. Where do you get the dough?”

When the citizens of San Diego voted to build Lindbergh Field in 1927, construction took almost a year and $650,000. To build a new regional airport today could take ten years and more than one billion dollars. But part of the money could come from the federal airport trust fund, earmarked specifically for the expansion of the nation’s aviation system. Since 1970, eight percent of the price of every domestic airline ticket sold nationwide has been diverted into this fund, along with three percent of every international ticket. “It doesn't take a calculator, Hultgren had told me a few days earlier, “to figure out that here in San Diego we've put millions of dollars into that fund." Additional money could come from continuing ticket taxes, municipal bonds (“Airports are big moneymakers." Hultgren said), and from the redevelopment of Lindbergh Field. The city’s new study of Miramar is expected to address some of these issues. “Every time you look at Miramar, it looks good," says Hultgren now, pressing his lips together firmly. “It’s a good airport site. I think we should do the best job we can to protect the land around it, and wait."

“Meanwhile, what if Otav Mesa fills in with housing developments?" Steiner interjects. “It takes a long time to put in a new airport, and we need to designate a site now. The longer we put it off, the more expensive it gets."

No one contradicts her. and soon we turn west to return to Lindbergh. As we cross the coastline at Torrey Pines we can see the beach below — a long, thin strip, white as bone — and beyond it the shallow green water giving way to deeper blue. We fly south, eventually angling inland over Mission Bay while Richardson talks to the control tower at Lindbergh. Apparently the afternoon traffic is backing up, because we turn and fly back and forth over Mission Bay for a few minutes, eating up time. Finally we head east again toward downtown, and it isn’t long before I see a passenger jet, below us and about a mile away, beginning its long descent toward the airport. Although we are well above the usual altitude for planes approaching to land at Lindbergh, we are flying across their path almost at a right angle, a procedure that has me a little nervous. Among the people in the Cessna, though, 1 seem to be alone in my reaction. When a small plane appears out of the sky to the east, I am the only one who watches it grow larger and larger until it sweeps past about 1000 feet below and to our left.

In the long run, the choice between building a new airport and making do with Lindbergh boils down to this: either having a major airport here or having nothing more than a commuter airport that shuttles people to and from Los Angeles. Recently there has been talk that the increasing cost of air transport has caused the number of passengers to drop drastically, which, coupled with a new generation of quieter aircraft now being built, might just make Lindbergh adequate indefinitely. Hultgren, however, says that passenger traffic always dips in a recessionary period and always recovers afterward; the long-term forecast shows demand exceeding Lindbergh’s capacity to deal with it, whether it is in 1995 or 2005.

‘‘What’s San Diego,” asks Steiner, ‘‘the eighth largest city in the country? The second largest in California? For a major metropolitan area like this to have just a commuter airport would really hurt the local economy.”

“It doesn’t seem reasonable to me either.” agrees Cleator.

At last Richardson gets clearance to land, but on the small back-up Runway 31, which angles northwest across the airport’s main runway. The Cessna's engine revs higher and we swing south around downtown, past the monolithic sky-scrapers of the Chamber of Commerce, San Diego Gas and Electric, Bank of California and others. Cars are streaming across the Coronado Bridge as we roar over it at full speed, and now we can see Runway 31 ahead. We're dropping steeply toward it over the harbor, and first tuna-boats and then the Star of India slide by beneath us. For a long moment we seem to float above crowded Harbor Drive — long lines of cars backed up at stoplights — and at the last instant I wonder if we'll clear the tall cyclone fence on the far side that surrounds the airport. And of course we do, and a moment later we’re back down where we started — and where the city’s search for an airport has always ended up — on the runway at Lindbergh Field.

A few weeks ago, George Cote sat in his office in Newport Beach and tried to sum up the airport problem in San Diego. ‘‘The only long-range solution I see is Miramar,” he said. “The city should just designate it as the future airport and then figure out how to implement it. It’s arbitrary as hell of the Navy to say, ‘We know it won’t work.’ and I think they’ll eventually cave in. But nobody listens to planners. We’re saying there’s no problem until 1995 and that it takes ten to fifteen years to put an airport into operation. So in other words, if the site was selected today. . .

Cote left that thought unfinished, but a moment later started in again. *‘ Maybe my crystal ball has a crack in it, but the way I see it, San Diego has a choice of finding an airport that meets the regional needs of the area, or opting for second-class citizenship. People who think Lindbergh will somehow work out — if they can prove it to me, fine. But based on the studies I have done, and everything the aviation community has done nationwide, that viewpoint just doesn’t make sense.” He paused, and then he said, “But people down in San Diego have always looked for ways to avoid the issue.” □

What's Wrong With Lindbergh Field

Lindbergh Field was originally dedicated on August 16. 1928. Less than two miles from downtown San Diego, it is one of the nation’s most conveniently located airports. But as the city has grown around it. the locution has become fraught with problems, among them;

• Noise, or rather, NOISE. Flying low over Loma Portal on the west and Hillcrest on the east, jets landing and departing from Lindbergh routinely subject some 60.000 people to noise levels well in excess of standards set by the state department of transportation. This means Lindbergh requires a noise variance from the state to operate, as do most major airports in California; but unlike most of the state’s major airports, Lindbergh’s noise is such a problem that planes are not allowed to take off between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. (During these hours, certain types of aircraft are allowed to land.) The airlines complain that these constraints make it difficult for them to schedule flights to and from other cities.

• Size. At 480 acres. Lindbergh is considered by most experts to be too small for a major regional airport. Currently there is almost no land available for terminal additions. and planners say that even with costly — and perhaps impossible — acquisitions from the adjacent Marine Corps Recruit Depot and the Naval Training Center. passenger demand will exceed the airport's capacitv sometime around the vear 2000.

In addition, while the traffic on Lindbergh's single commercial runway (most major airports have at least two) is considered to be well under capacity, critics point out that almost any kind of runway accident could shut down the entire airport.

• Attitude. Among people who work for Lindbergh Field or its operator, the San Diego Unified Port District — including, in some cases, the highest levels of management — there is an extremely defensive attitude that Lindbergh is necessary and has served us well, and that anyone who complains about noise or safety is being unrealistic. “The management at Lindbergh Field doesn’t seem terribly interested in trying to reduee the noise.” says Susan Johann, a lawyer for the state depiinment of transportation, which recently lost a court battle with the port district over Lindbergh’s nighttime “curfew” (the state wanted it) extend the curfew from 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.). “Our feeling is, they could give a damn. When people call Lindbergh to complain about noise, the management tells them to call the control tower, which has absolutely nothing to do with limiting noise. That’s like a slap in the face.”

Officially, the port district claims that aircraft in the air are the responsibility of the Federal Aviation Administration, and that therefore the port district can do nothing to control their noise.

• Access. Although the airport is located near the center of the city, the route to it (along Kettner Boulevard, Laurel Street, and Harbor Drive) is relatively narrow and encumbered with a lot of traffic and stoplights. No one has ever been able to figure out a practical way to make it any faster or better.

• Safety. Because of the number of nearby military and general-aviation airfields. and the proximity of the border (which in terms of airspace is like a wall extending along southern San Diego County), there is a lot of air traffic above Lindbergh going in a lot of different directions. “The infringement of one airport on another in San Diego is worse than most other places in the nation,” says airport planning expert George Cote. “Airspace-wise it’s a big cul-de-sac.”

On September 25, 1978, a Cessna 172 that had just completed a practice approach to Lindbergh Field from the west was circling to make another approach from the east when it collided with an inbound PSA passenger jet. All 135 passengers and crew on the PSA jet. the two men in the Cessna, and seven people on the ground w ere killed in the ensuing crash. In the year following that accident, there were at least half a dozen near collisions over San Diego, several of which involved commercial jets.

In May, 1980, mounting criticism from local governmental officials about air safely in San Diego led the Federal Aviation Administration to put into operation here a new Terminal Control Area, or TCA. The TCA separates the airspace above the city into a system of layers, or “envelopes,” which must be strictly adhered to. Commercial jets approaching San Diego along the coast from the north must stay between 6800 and 12.500 feet, for example; private planes flying near the coast can operate only between 2500 and 6800 feet; the Navy’s jets departing from Miramar must remain below 2500 feet until they cross the coast, and so on. Federal air traffic controllers keep track of planes within the TCA on computerized screens at Miramar and Lindbergh Field, assigning code numbers to ail aircraft and keeping a close watch over their direction, speed, size, and altitude with the aid of an electronic unit called a transponder in individual planes.

Not everyone is convinced the TCA is adequate, however. George Cote said not long ago. "The only thing the TCA does is give the controllers positive identification of what those blips on their radar screens are. [In terms of traffic and airspace] the environment in which the PSA accident occurred is exactly the same today.”

But crowded skies and the nearness of other airports are not the only safety problems at Lindbergh. One source contacted for this article, an expert who asked not to be identified, said Lindbergh’s relatively short runways are an even more critical concern. He described what could lx* the next big accident here: A departing passenger jet will be approaching full speed on its takeoff when one of the tires on. say, its left side bursts. The weight of the plane will collapse the other tire on the same side, and suddenly the plane will be unable to lift off the runway. As it hurtles on at one-hundred fifty miles an hour, one of its metal support struts will be scraping along the asphalt, sending off showers of sparks that could ignite a fire. At a typical airport with 12, 000-foot runways, the plane would eventually come to a stop, but on Lindbergh’s 9400-foot runway it could plow into the housing and commercial development at either end of the runway. In an incident nearly identical to this one that occurred not long ago at Los Angeles International Airport, a disabled passenger jet full of people came to a stop with only a few hundred feet to spare on a runway several thousand feet longer than Lindbergh’s.

  • Gordon Smith

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