Federal Aviation Administration investigators plan to take to the skies aboard two Los Angeles police helicopters Saturday to track down and cite errant flyers who violate controlled airspace around Los Angeles International Airport.
The cooperative effort, believed to be the first of its kind between a city police department and the FAA, represents the most dramatic expression thus far of the agency's promise to step up local enforcement efforts since the Aug. 31 collision of two planes over Cerritos.
"We are going to assist the FAA where reasonably possible," said Capt. Robert O. Woods, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's Air Support Division. "If the FAA can identify what appear to them to be clear violators . . . and if we can reasonably transport FAA inspectors to nearby airports to find those violating pilots, that's what we are going to do."
The enforcement plan will take place as a test for three hours on Saturday, Woods said. He would not say when or where the police helicopters will be flying because "it wouldn't make sense to tip everybody off."
On most Saturdays, the Police Department sends aloft only one of its 15 helicopters, Woods said. During Saturday's test, the department will continue to operate one police chopper to support ground patrol units, while two others that would otherwise have been grounded for the day will be used for FAA purposes, Woods said.
If the test proves successful, the Police Department may ultimately seek additional funds to accommodate requests by the FAA to use police helicopters and pilots, Woods said. The city is expected to incur whatever costs may be involved in Saturday's flights.
The two participating police helicopters will be directed by FAA radar controllers; the choppers will steer clear of the controlled airspace around the airport and will fly no closer than 1,000 feet to other aircraft suspected of violating that airspace, according to a source at City Hall familiar with the project.
Not 'Intercept Mission'
"This is not an intercept mission," the source said. "We are going to assist in finding out where these pilots wind up so the FAA can get to them, that's all."
FAA investigators will be out specifically to get pilots who enter the Los Angeles "terminal control area" without authorization. The agency has already begun increased enforcement against such intrusions in the wake of the Cerritos air disaster, which occurred when a single-engine airplane entered the control area without permission and collided with an Aeromexico jetliner as it approached the Los Angeles airport. Eighty-two people died.
Agency spokesman Russ Park said that as of Monday, the FAA had initiated action against 19 pilots suspected of violating the control area or rules relating to it since the Cerritos crash. That number equals all the control-area enforcement actions brought by the FAA in Los Angeles between 1981-1986, according to a review of agency records by The Times.
Park and other local FAA officials declined to reveal details of Saturday's plan, saying a press release would be forthcoming.
Shaped like an inverted wedding cake, the Los Angeles terminal control area extends outward to about 30 miles east and west of the airport, and about 12 miles to the north and south. Pilots must obtain radio permission to legally enter the area, and their aircraft must have altitude-reporting transponders, electronic devices that allow radar operators to better locate them.
Saturday's enforcement plan was the brainchild of City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who acted essentially as an intermediary between the Police Department and the FAA, according City Hall and FAA sources. Part of Alatorre's council district lies under the eastern reaches of the terminal control area, and he was "particularly disturbed" by the Cerritos collision, an Alatorre aide said.
Fred Farrar, an FAA spokesman at the agency's headquarters in Washington, called the concept behind the plan "pretty novel," saying he could not recall any other instance in which FAA inspectors boarded police helicopters to track violators of federal aviation regulations.
Under federal statute, the FAA can fine errant pilots or suspend their licenses, but cannot criminally prosecute them. Nor can the Police Department, Woods said.
Occasionally, Los Angeles police helicopter crews follow pilots whom they spot blatantly violating federal aviation regulations, "but about all we can do is turn them into the FAA," Woods said.
"I think all of us collectively . . . all of us involved in the aviation environment, have an interest in aviation safety," Woods said. "Whatever contributions we can make to that end, we will do."