Rancho Bernardo man fights Navy helicopters

Crash and Burn (3)

— 'The rotor head of a helicopter doesn't know what kind of mission it's on," says Jeff Frederick. "It just goes 'round and around at 4000 revolutions per minute, and when metal fatigue reaches a certain point it breaks. When that happens, a helicopter goes down."

Frederick doesn't want to be sitting in his Rancho Bernardo house when that happens to a Super Stallion, the largest helicopter in the world. The Marines plan to use the subdivision in which he lives, next to I-15, as part of an overflight highway for 115 heavy-lift helicopters they'll be bringing to Miramar over the next year.

So Frederick is fighting the Marines. But don't anyone accuse him of being unpatriotic. We're standing in his den, surrounded by walls of plaques and citations from two decades flying fighters for the Navy, including five tours dodging missiles over Hanoi. He was voted Fighter Pilot of the Year for the East Coast in 1978,

Flying Navy jets and carrying a commercial helicopter license makes Frederick well qualified to talk about Miramar and the Marines' plan to mix jet fighters, heavy transport planes, and 115 heavy-lift helicopters at the same base -- something they've never done on this scale before.

"I'm not a part of MARCH [Move Against Relocating Choppers Here]," he hastens to point out. "I just answer their technical questions when they ask me."

There are two issues, as Frederick sees it: apart from the collision dangers of mixing choppers and jets at the same facility, he worries about helicopters and "bug-smashers" -- private planes -- using the same unregulated airspace; and he sees a sword of Damocles hanging over people living beneath the proposed new helicopter routes. One of the Marines' main north-south flyways follows the I-15; 600,000 to 700,000 people live below, from Scripps Ranch north to Escondido.

"The one thing I was always taught about flying helicopters," says Frederick, "you never, ever fly over anything populated unless you absolutely have to. You always pick your routes so that you have a place to put the thing down, or even crash it if you have to, but not on somebody's house."

He walks us out to the living room. His hilltop Rancho Bernardo home looks northward up Interstate 15. "See that?" he asks. "The most densely populated piece of the county." A sea of pink-tile roofs stretches up either side of the freeway until they disappear into the blue hills and mists of Escondido. "This is where they want to fly their helicopters. This has been my personal reason for joining the fight against the helicopters. I have no real objection to them being at Miramar. I have a real objection to the routes of flight that they have chosen in and out of there."

He points to empty lands to the East. "Why can't they put their routes over there?" he asks. Because, the Marines told him, flying east would add too many miles to trips between Miramar and Pendleton. So he points in the other direction. Across I-15 to the west. From his hilltop aerie, you can see how empty the countryside between I-15 and I-5 is. Why can't the Marines use that?

Influence from San Diego's powerful development lobby, Frederick believes. "That's owned by the Ralphs family. Ten years from now they want to build something called 'Four-S Ranch' up there -- houses that are yet to be built and yet to be sold. If you've got helicopters going right over the top of them, would you go in there and intentionally buy one, right under the flight path? But what you can do is put your helicopter flight path directly over houses that already have people living in them. And then there is nothing they can do about it."

Further west, he says, is another viable, sparsely populated route for the choppers. "But of course that happens to be where Rancho Santa Fe is. People there can get on the telephone and be talking to the President in 30 seconds, and I think the Marines didn't even want to try it. But from a safety standpoint, with one house per three or five acres up there, that is by far the safest way to go."

When he brought up these suggestions with the Marines, he got two words in reply: "not negotiable."

In his 20 years' flying time, Frederick has been lucky. But he knows how quickly things can go wrong, especially when you're flying low near your aircraft carrier airfield.

"The nice thing about a helicopter, if you just have an engine failure, or you accidentally run out of gas, you can auto-rotate -- just put the nose down, and the forward glide speed will keep the rotor spinning.

"That's the nice thing about helicopters. The bad thing about helicopters is they've got a lot of dynamic components under very, very high stress. You take a rotor blade that's 50 feet long and swing it around at 4000 rpms. The outward stress, the dynamic force on that is almost unimaginable. We always said in the Huey, if you lost a rotor blade, you'd never know it, because you'd get instantaneous 100 Gs [forces of gravity] sideways that would break your neck. It would rip the transmission right out of the aircraft.

"So if a piece falls off one of those things, it can be pretty disastrous. They'll shake themselves to pieces in a millisecond. It depends on what your failure is."

The smaller of the two workhorses the Marines propose to bring down, the CH46, the Marines' Vietnam-era Sea Knight twin-rotor workhorse helicopter, particularly concerns Frederick. "The '46 is on about its third service-life extension," he says. "It's a very aging aircraft."

It's not just choppers. "If you have an engine failure in your jet, you're probably not going to be able to dead-stick it [glide] in anywhere. It's not like with the old prop planes."

That risk is exactly why the Navy decades ago created the so-called APZs -- Accident Potential Zones -- around Miramar. These are corridors beneath jet fighter flight approach and departure routes in which the building of homes, hotels, hospitals, schools, churches -- anything that will draw a concentration of people -- has long been prohibited.

There's no doubt the Marines have signed onto this safety concept. Just last month they fought the city of San Diego to stop the building of an extension to the Lodge at Torrey Pines, which hotel magnate Bill Evans wants, because it reached out into a secondary APZ. The city council voted 6 to 3 to allow the building to go ahead anyway. Marine Major General Bob Magnus said the vote showed the council values economic development over "the city's responsibility for public safety around an airport," according to the Union-Tribune.

General Magnus's fellow officer, Colonel Dan Pender, went farther. Allowing hotel-type development in the crash-hazard zone, he said, "has lit the fuse on an encroachment issue that will jeopardize the long-term viability of Miramar" as a military base.

So if the Marines believe so passionately in keeping land clear under approaches for fixed-wing jets, how come they don't care about land under the more accident-prone helicopters? Especially as they are more likely to have to hover over homes while waiting for jets to land?

"That," says Frederick, "has been my question from day one."

And accidents do happen. Statistics MARCH obtained show that in the ten-year period between 1987 and 1996, Marine helicopter squadrons located at Tustin, near Santa Ana, suffered an average of nearly two "Class A" accidents (causing at least $1 million worth of damage and/or one or more fatalities, in noncombatant-related operations) per year.

Sound is perhaps the least but the most constant threat North County residents like Frederick face. With CH53s lifting 73,500 pounds fully loaded overhead at 2000 feet, Frederick says, residents should expect to be deafened by around 85 to 87 dB (decibels). "You stop hearing your own speech at about 75 dB. And sound energy doubles every 3 dB: 78 is twice as strong as 75."

I ask Frederick if he's told the authorities.

"I have!" he says. "So has MARCH. Anyone who is opposed to the helicopters is not only not allowed to be on any of these committees, but we're not even allowed to sit in on their discussions and listen. People like the San Diego Airspace Users Group tell us, 'These are closed working sessions. We will send you a report.' That is part of the arrogance that certainly bothered me."

"We have no intention of letting them come in," says David Johnson, Barbara Warden's press secretary. "If I wanted to say, 'Gee, I want the soccer team to come to town,' would you choose the anti-soccer people to go negotiate with them? Of course not. It would be ridiculous. How do you negotiate with somebody who doesn't want you there in the first place? They cry and they whine and they act like babies: 'Oh! We weren't allowed...' Of course you weren't allowed. That's common sense!"

Johnson says Warden's office chose ten people from the community to form a technical committee to talk with the Marines.

"We said, 'Look, we're not getting anywhere screaming at each other.' Barbara doesn't even go to the meetings. There's no charter, there was no agenda. Then MARCH called up...and said, 'Why didn't you let us in there?' Because they would have disrupted everything. Every meeting they go to they disrupt. They scream at the top of their lungs. You cannot deal with these people. They hate helicopters. They think they're these giant bugs that [are going to] come down and kill their children, and they've said as much. For two years we've begged for ideas, and all they said was 'We don't want ideas! We want [the helicopters] out of there.' So now, when it looks like we're making some progress, gosh! Suddenly they want to help. Don't fall for it. We have no intention of letting them come in."

Johnson says his boss Barbara Warden was told by the Department of Defense that if the helicopters did not come to San Diego, there was no reason to send the jets to Miramar; no reason for them to use Miramar at all. "And [Warden's] district has always stood for supporting Miramar as a military facility and not an international airport. Anyone who tells you that the international airport idea is dead is fooling you. And that would mean jets, 747s -- traffic you wouldn't believe. [The Marines] are the lesser of two evils."

"I don't have a problem with helicopters flying over populated areas," says Barbara Baker, a Sabre Springs resident and technical committee member. "All the safety statistics we've received from the Naval Safety Center, plus the ones we've received from the Marines, indicate that it's a lesser problem than it is with jets and a far lesser problem than it is with the small commercial aircraft."

She says one reason for nixing flight routes over Rancho Santa Fe is they would conflict with routes out of Palomar airport and a nearby training field.

And noise? "Two years ago the Marines put on a demonstration for us. We stood in a higher point in Rancho Bernardo. The helicopters were flown over at their designated altitude. They flew one up and one down, one CH53 one CH46, and they crossed each other. At no point was our hearing impaired. And when someone started up a lawnmower next to us, we could not hear the helicopters over the lawnmower. So what's more significant? People mowing their lawns every day or a helicopter passing over?"

Back at Jeff Frederick's house in Rancho Bernardo, a helicopter passes over, heading north. But it's a light Bell chopper. Probably a TV news crew. You can hear it, but it's not oppressive.

Frederick says not to compare it with a Super Stallion or even a CH46. Size, among helicopters, matters.

"CH53s are much noisier even than the 46s, mainly because they've got three large engines, and there's a low-pitched rumble to those things. You can hear them from miles away; even when you can't see them, you can hear them. You can almost feel them. They have a seven-blade rotor [each blade a yard wide] and a great big tail rotor. The transmission, the gears, are massive, so there's a lot of gear whine. It's just a massive piece of machinery. You get a pair of those flying and it's oppressive."

And that's the point, says Frederick. The Marines won't want 115 of these monsters sitting idle. The most common phenomenon will be "flights" of these machines flying in formation. Then, he says, you'll know what noise means.

And on days when some crisis erupts in the Middle East, and the Marines get the "911" call and choppers are needed in Camp Pendleton, Frederick knows he and his neighbors will wait a long time before they can resume conversations.

"Believe me, I am as patriotic as anybody in America," he says. "I think my record demonstrates that. And it's not the local Marines' fault. They're following orders from Washington. I'm just saying this planning is not good. It could be better. This is a witches' brew. To do this in the middle of the sixth largest city in the country is going to be a real challenge. Any professional pilot hopes for the best, but always prepares for the worst. In this case, with these route selections, the Marine Corps is obviously hoping for the best. Because they sure haven't prepared for the worst."

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What if the rotor head of a helicopter DID know what kind of mission it was on?

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