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Sparks Fly as Residents Go Toe to Toe with Santa Monica Airport Flight Schools  

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By Jason Islas
Lookout Staff

September 28, 2011 -- Tensions ran high as a crowd packed the Santa Monica Airport Commission's Flight School Workshop Monday.

Coming on the heels of a recent crash of a Cessna 172 into an unoccupied house in the Sunset Park neighborhood, the workshop stretched on for some three hours.

Representatives of the airport's biggest flight schools – Joe Justice, owner of Justice Aviation and Jay Elder, Director of American Flyers at Santa Monica Airport – made their case, as did John Fairweather, a Sunset Park resident who has kept his own log of flight school traffic.

“The purpose of this workshop is to begin a dialogue,” said Chair Richard Brown.

But as the evening progressed, the dialogue was often less than civil.

When Justice came to the podium, he received a hiss from an audience member – a gesture which Brown was quick to admonish. In spite of Brown's warning, the audience audibly groaned during Justice's presentation.

Justice is the owner of the flight school that rented the plane that crashed last month.

The accident appears to have been caused by a combination of instrument failure and pilot error, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report issued earlier this month.

Justice used the opportunity to emphasize his company's safety record. He explained that regulations require that a student have at least 50 hours of flight time with an instructor before he or she is allowed to fly solo.

But those who'd shown up for the workshop weren't easily placated.

The public comment session – which lasted over an hour with over 20 speakers – was full of complaints against the airport, ranging from noise to flight patterns to air pollution.

Many who spoke were from Mar Vista and Venice. They said that though they get none of the benefits of having the airport, they have to bear the lion's share of the burden.

Fairweather said his study – which he said was based on information that he and others gathered by observing planes, copying down serial numbers and charting flight patterns – indicated that “most of the traffic is the same planes going around and around.” The audience applauded his conclusion.

“Almost two-thirds of all traffic and noise at SMO is flight school and training related,” said Fairweather.

But according to Airport Director Bob Trimborn's opening report, “local ops” – flights that take off and land at Santa Monica Airport and include training flights – make up only 38 percent of flight traffic.

Many residents were upset by the fact that the small propeller planes used by the flight schools run on leaded fuel.

“The fuel itself is federally regulated,” said Trimborn. “We don't have the ability to change the fuel additives or fuel chemistry,” he said.

“All of us up here dance to the tune of the Federal government,” said Commissioner Peter Donald.

The city has lost more than one suit with the Federal government over the years, including an attempt to restrict jet traffic, said Commissioner David Goddard.

“These flight schools have leases,” said Commissioner Ofer Grossman. “And they have legal rights that arise from those leases,” he said, adding that no city body can evict the flight schools.

However, those leases expire in 2015, along with the city's agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, and, if Monday nights meeting was any indication, the Commission can expect to hear much more from people as that deadline draws nearer.

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