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S.D. Must Press the Hunt for Airport Site : Lindbergh Field Simply Will Never Fulfill City's Needs

November 09, 1986|GORDON SMITH | Gordon Smith is a free-lance writer. and

The San Diego Unified Port District's recent hearing on aircraft noise at Lindbergh Field has again raised the idea that San Diego would be better served by a new airport at a new location. Residents of Loma Portal have long complained about mind-numbing noise from commercial jets; now, residents of Mission Beach, Pacific Beach and La Jolla are reacting with alarm to a consultant's recommendation that Lindbergh's major takeoff pattern be shifted northward over their communities.

The new route would supposedly reduce the overall impact of aircraft noise on local residents, but a new airport could virtually eliminate the impact. It also would be safer than Lindbergh Field and could be critical in determining whether San Diego becomes an important economic center or sinks into oblivion as a large provincial town.

Over the last 30 years, various imaginative alternatives to Lindbergh Field have been proposed--including building a floating offshore airport, or turning the edge of the Salton Sea into an airport combined with a home for retired aviators. But only two sites have ever been seriously considered: Brown Field on Otay Mesa and Miramar Naval Air Station.

At first glance, Brown Field has some advantages. It is already a city-owned airport, has little residential development near it and offers easy access to one of San Diego's major new industrial zones. Unfortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration has concluded that nearby Otay Mountain would screen off the radio beams that enable FAA-required instrument-landing systems to work, rendering impossible the long, straight, gradual descents that commercial jets must make.

In addition, because of the proximity of Mexico and Tijuana International Airport, a commercial airport at Brown Field would require a special treaty with Mexico so that jets taking off or landing there could fly into Mexican airspace if they suddenly encountered problems. Our government's current, rather acrimonious, relations with the Mexican government suggest that such a treaty would be difficult to negotiate.

Councilman Mike Gotch is among those who support a new evaluation of Brown Field as a commercial airport site. He will probably run into stiff opposition from local businessmen and the Chamber of Commerce, who in the past have complained that Brown Field is too far from the city's center. Others also have grown used to having an airport sandwiched conveniently between downtown and the tourist-oriented areas of Mission Bay, Shelter Island and Harbor Island.

Miramar Naval Air Station presents a different set of problems and advantages. It is already a functioning airport, has none of the geographical impediments that Brown Field has, and is more or less central to the rapidly developing greater San Diego area. It also has buffers of land to the north, east and south that are virtually free of residential development.

But to the northeast is the new community of Scripps Ranch, while to the west--the direction in which commercial jets would take off most of the time--lie University City and La Jolla. All of these places are considerably farther from Miramar than Hillcrest and Loma Portal are from Lindbergh Field, and commercial jets passing over them would be farther away and higher than they currently are near downtown. But residents of these communities can understandably be expected to oppose a new airport that could affect their lives and property values to any degree.

Perhaps the main problem with Miramar, though, is that it is owned by the Navy.

It is appealing to speculate that the Navy might make Miramar available by consolidating its airborne operations at Camp Pendleton and North Island Naval Air Station; or that the Navy, recognizing the harm done to its local image by its insistence on building a massive new hospital in Balboa Park, might seek to make amends by offering San Diego some sort of deal for Miramar. But so far, the Navy has given absolutely no indication that it intends to do anything with Miramar other than continue to use it.

With all of these obstacles to the only two possible sites for a new airport, why not simply make do with Lindbergh Field and continue to deal with a handful of irate homeowners in Loma Portal and Hillcrest? There are two reasons: safety and economics.

The tragic air crashes in Cerritos in August and in San Diego eight years ago are proof enough of the dangers of having a major commercial airport in the middle of an urban area. But in addition, experts say, Lindbergh Field's relatively short, 9,400-foot runway could also pose problems if, for example, a commercial jet were to have a flat tire just as it reached takeoff speed. Under some circumstances, there might not be enough room left on the runway for the jet to safely stop before plowing into buildings or houses.

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