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Santa Monica Plane Crash Raises Questions  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

August 31, 2011 -- As federal aviation safety investigators begin the long process of finding out what led a small plane to crash into a Santa Monica home, some residents are questioning their safety.

A Cessna 172 flown by a student pilot went down in the back yard of an unoccupied house in the Sunset Park neighborhood Monday while apparently attempting to recover from a landing that had gone awry.

“When you have an airport like Santa Monica Airport (SMO) that's surrounded by homes, there's no safe place for a pilot to execute an emergency landing,” said Zina Josephs, president of Friends of Sunset Park, a neighborhood organization known for its stands on airport safety and noise issues.

“There have been about 90 accidents associated with Santa Monica Airport since 1962. Thank goodness no one was killed this time,” said Josephs. “And thank goodness it was a small plane that went down and not one of the large executive jets that land and take off at SMO.”

But there's no way to guarantee safety when it comes to an emergency landing, especially in the city, Airport Director Robert Trimborn told The Lookout Tuesday.

“The very nature of an emergency stretches the nature of safety,” said Trimborn. “In a highly urbanized environment like Santa Monica it's a very challenging issue.”

Like a number of smaller airports in the greater Los Angeles area, Santa Monica Airport was built in a relatively undeveloped area, said Trimborn. The houses came later.

So it's a lot harder for a pilot to bring his plane down safely in an area like Sunset Park than it would be in the open fields of a rural area, he said.

A number of neighbors surrounding the crash site told The Lookout Monday that they hear planes going over their houses all the time.

“This is like a runway,” said Davida Leal, who lives next door to the house where the Cessna went down.

Actually, pilots are not required to avoid flying over the residential neighborhood, said Trimborn.

Those flying under instrument flight rules – as do most of jets, though any other craft can do the same – take a straight shot out toward the ocean, and by necessity fly over houses, he said.

If pilots fly by visual flight rules, they are urged to turn over the Penmar Golf Course that runs alongside the border of Sunset Park, but the aiport has no regulatory authority to make them do that, Trimborn said.

So, “when you live in that area the airplanes are going to fly over your house,” he said.

In January 2010 a light craft crashed on the Penmar Golf Course, killing its pilot. In 2009, there were two crash landings at the airport. In one of them, two people died.

Monday's crash is being investigated by the Los Angeles office of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

NTSB Investigator Wayne Pollack told The Lookout Tuesday that the Board has just begun its investigation and will not publish conclusions until it is finished, in approximately nine months.


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