University City residents continue to express their concerns for the safety of residents at the west end of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station runways, saying that the flight webtracker they used to identify aircraft they believe were off-course has stopped carrying military flight data.
"We gave (the Marines) thousands of these complaints, and nothing was done. Their response was to make it so we can't identify the flights," said Andy Gurney. "They tell us to identify the offending flights and report them, and then they shut down the tools we use to do that."
Miramar's commanding officer, Colonel Jason Woodworth, said that the Federal Aviation Administration, not the Marine Corps, caused data to be removed. "The FAA made a decision that it's illegal to put that data on websites that other countries can see," Woodworth said. "Because the FAA made a decision to enforce that."
Asked what prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to withhold military flight data, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor gave this statement: "At the Department of Defense's request, the FAA may filter certain sensitive flight information from public release."
Initially, Gregor said the FAA does not make such decisions because it has no authority over the military. He did not answer the question of what prompted the FAA to take the action and directed this reporter to contact the company that does flight tracking for the airport, Casper Aero.
Sigmund Lenize, for Casper, said that the company — and many others — uses data provided by the FAA. "I know the FAA does not give us all the flight data," he said. "They provide us with the data we use but they don't tell us what they don't provide." Asked if the Marines requested that military flight data be removed, the base responded that "the FAA initiated the removal of data associated with military aircraft being tracked on public domains in order to be in compliance with federal policy. Force protection is something we all take very seriously."
Some area residents are concerned about the arrival of the military's new F-35 aircraft, which can take off and land vertically. Construction designs for an F-35 hangar are underway, according to Maj. Kurt Stahl. Construction is expected to start in early 2018 and end in 2019. Two squadrons will fly them and they will each start with six of the aircraft, Stahl said. The F-35 costs between $95 million and $123 million each. Under current plans, there will be a total of 26 F-35s at Miramar by 2022, he said.
University City residents are more affected by the base than other neighborhoods. They are near the end of the runway and get some noise from take-offs. The area was the site of an FA-18 crash in 2008 that destroyed two houses and killed a mom, a grandmother, and two children. An investigation concluded that the crash was caused by poor maintenance and faulty decision-making by the pilot and ground personnel, according to the Marine Corps investigators. Four Marines were relieved of duty and eight were reprimanded; the pilot was grounded.
The crash and destruction left bitter memories for some people who live in the area. "What about the people who live under the take-off area?" said Barry Bernstein. "I really want to develop a forum to represent the 300 or 400 families that are in the immediate area to find out what the Marines are doing to make sure their school kids are safe, their homes and businesses are safe."
Woodworth pointed out that there have been no mishaps with the new jet. "Safety is our number one priority, after training," Woodworth said. "Training comes first. In order to defend the country, we have to train."
The environmental studies for the base additions was completed in 2010, and that noise studies show that the volume is roughly equivalent to the FA-18s that fly out of there now. The aircraft do have a unique sound, but the decibel levels are within two or three of the FA-18s, according to Department of Defense documents. Residents say that the jets flying out of Miramar frequently go outside the prescribed flight path. "Why are they flying over my house? Why are they flying over the high school?" another resident asked, saying it happens frequently.
Jet pilots are trained to turn north by the time they reach the 805 (at the west end of the base), Woodworth said. "If it's frequently, you've got to tell me the time and date," Woodworth replied. "I have all those data. If you look at the data, those airplanes are within (the acceptable) deviation." But residents say it has gotten harder to identify the flights because of the data being removed. Woodworth said that the complaints are evaluated and when he finds a pilot has gone off course, the pilot will get additional training and may even be disclipined.