For the first time since the 1978 PSA plane disaster over North Park, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) is changing San Diego's air traffic control system.
According to Jerry Hargarten, the FAA's new plan looks like a disaster-in-waiting, at least for Miramar. Under the plan, the Marine Corps will be authorized to mix squadrons of "Super Stallion" and "Sea Knight" helicopters with fixed-wing transport planes and F-18 jet fighters -- all flying out of the same airfield.
Hargarten, a Poway resident and chairman of MARCH (Move Against Relocating Choppers Here), began fighting the transfer of Marine helicopters to Miramar because of their noise. Now he thinks his neighboring communities of Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Peñasquitos, and Del Mar -- nearly 700,000 people -- are sitting under potential aerial accidents.
"The [military] has never done this before," he says. "There's no air base the United States has in the world where they operated these huge numbers of jets and helicopters off the same base. Never."
Hargarten holds the FAA accountable. "The FAA has not said one public [word about it]. And that's because of the collusion between the federal agencies, the Navy and the FAA. You know -- the [Navy] gets deference."
But Jim Holtsclaw is happy. The L.A.-based Air Transport Association's regional deputy director helped set up a San Diego Airspace Users Group to advise the FAA on the changes. Everybody from local balloonists to private pilots to firefighting water-bomber flyers had a say. According to him, the result, the FAA's "Proposed Modification of the San Diego Class B Airspace Area," published late last month, is the first significant change in 20 years.
The impetus back then was the PSA crash, which involved a collision between a commercial airliner and a private plane. Unlike this time, the FAA didn't consult pilots before laying down airspace control rules. "When the FAA does things it's pretty long-term, so you had to live with it," says Holtsclaw. "But at least 51 percent of [San Diego pilots] hated it."
Private pilots, Holtsclaw says, felt they'd been punished for the PSA accident and squeezed out of San Diego airspace. "Once you have a serious accident, you probably go too far to make sure it doesn't happen again. So [private pilots] wanted access to air space that really wasn't being used by anybody else."
With private plane use increasing 4 percent a year, Montgomery Airfield pilots definitely feel squeezed in, says Terry Price, original co-chair for the Users Group and the City of San Diego's airport community relations officer. "We have 600 aircraft here," he says. "Last year we logged 243,000 operations. We're busier than Lindbergh."
Under the new plan, he says, Montgomery Field pilots at last will have more room to takeoff and fly without crossing into regulated space. And now, the FAA promises, it will be easier for private pilots to stay out of trouble.
"We aligned some of the [controlled airspace] borders with major freeways or major mountain ridges, so that the pilot can navigate much easier," says Walter White, airspace and procedures manager for the FAA's Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), from his office on Kearny Villa Road. "In one case there's an island out in the middle of San Vincente Reservoir where we have a point [marked]."
Safety and simplicity and "triple redundancy," he says, were the FAA's priorities. "You [can navigate using] radio, satellite-based navigation, or by looking out your window."
Prior to the PSA crash, there was no Class B airspace (protective airspace in which all planes are required to fly under tower instructions and radar observation, previously called Terminal Control Area). "The result of the PSA accident was the implementation of Class B airspace," White says. "Class B is designed to safely protect all the airliners that come in and out of Lindbergh. That particular danger has been greatly reduced. Things are exceedingly safe today. The conditions that existed when PSA crashed no longer exist. We have new airspace, we have aircraft with new equipment. Our FAA computers have new equipment to virtually eliminate [a similar crash]."
White knows a lot about risks. He runs the busiest radar-control operation in the country, probably in the world. "Southern California TRACON ran 2.3 million [flight] operations last year. That's seven to eight thousand per day. We're 20 percent busier than the next busiest, New York."
But is the FAA turning a blind eye to the risks of allowing a mix of 150 fast fighters and 115 heavy helicopters to share the use of Miramar?
"[It] is basically a procedural matter," says White. "Picture the freeway. It works real well because there are a lot of cars going on it that are all the same speed. And if you want to put bicyclists on it, you could do that safely, but you would not be running bicyclists and cars at the same time. You'd be running a group of cars, closing it down, stopping it, and then running a group of bicyclists.
"How the military does their scheduling is going to be crucial. Should the military elect to schedule all their jets at one point in time and all their helicopters at another point in time, it will be a much more efficient operation. But we will maintain absolute safety [even if] they want to schedule helicopter, jet, helicopter, jet. We just will not be able to work as many aircraft."
Hargarten is deaf to White's soothing words. "People are scared to talk on the record," he says. "Some people here feel it's unpatriotic to speak out against the Marines' plans. But the dangers are real. One is the danger of mechanical failure. In order to be able to operate the helicopters on and off the same runway at Miramar, the [FAA] had to create whole new routes to separate the helicopters from the jets [in this latest Class B proposal]. That means the helicopters have to fly over us -- the populated areas. The fixed-wing aircraft have been here for years, and they've created these Accident Potential Zones [APZ] in which it's really illegal for people to build under. But what they very cleverly ignore is the fact that they have created all these new [helicopter] routes over populated areas because they were forced to. Otherwise they'd be flying into the jets."
On-base or near-base jet-chopper collisions are Hargarten's other fear. "They're going to have at least 155,000 flight operations [per year], mixing huge numbers of helicopters and jets; helicopters flying at very low speed, jets flying at high speed approaching the field. Their heavy-lift Super Stallions are the largest helicopters in the world, the length of two Greyhound buses. [Together with the Marines' Ch-46 "Sea Knight" helicopters] they will add 317 tons of pollutants to San Diego airspace per year."
More important, Hargarten says, data his group obtained through a Freedom of Information request shows that in a ten-year period ending 1996, the Marine helicopter squadrons located at Tustin suffered an average of almost two "Class A" accidents per year in noncombatant-related operations. Class A accidents, says Hargarten, are defined as those with at least $1 million worth of damage and/or one or more fatalities.
He reads from a letter sent by a retired Marine aviator, concerned enough to write but afraid that he'll lose his retirement pension if he reveals his name.
" 'Miramar [will be] used for multiple go-around touch-and-go landings for Field Carrier Landing Practice. The combination of helicopter operations in the vicinity of repetitive close multiple approaches by jet fighters is the most dangerous and conflicted. The objective of carrier landing practice is to [land on a] small landing zone which replicates a carrier deck. This requires consummate skill and concentration. Pilots should not be expected to also watch for potential conflicts with helicopter operations.
" 'The first and second Marine Aircraft Wings, of similar size to the third Wing [the one coming to Miramar], have two and three separate bases respectively. In no other location than Miramar have the Navy or Marines carried out or proposed to carry out a mixed-use operation of this magnitude.' "
The FAA's White says he's not sure how many planes and choppers the Marines will be operating out of Miramar. He's never asked them for actual numbers.
"To my knowledge we did not talk about [it]. Until we have actual schedules to deal with, the numbers of airplanes that we're able to accommodate could change. Our commitment to them has always been that...we'll serve them the best that we can."
He acknowledges that, as his proposal paper says, the airspace review was triggered particularly by safety concerns "of the addition of diversified Marine helicopter and fixed-wing assets at Miramar." But he insists the changes to Class B airspace around Miramar only need to be minimal.
"Perhaps [Hargarten's organization] MARCH feels that what they've got here is the FAA admitting there's a big problem, and so they've had to have this radical change of airspace to take care of it, but that's not the case. We have a new customer in the Marines. And we have made some very minor adjustments to the airspace to accommodate their operations. And that may not be exciting, but that's the truth of the matter."
But Hargarten says there's a double standard. "I guarantee," he says, "that if that were a civilian airport, you'd hear a different story out of the FAA."