Traditions die hard at Santa Monica Airport. When pilots and mechanics gather over coffee at the Kitty Hawk Cafe, they still talk about the freewheeling days before noise abatement and other modern intrusions. And the airport itself, with its 1940s-era architecture, has the look of a place locked away in time.
One of the longstanding traditions there is flight training. Thousands of pilots have earned their wings at the general aviation airport during the past several decades. But that tradition may go by the wayside if the Federal Aviation Administration moves forward with plans to restrict student flights around the nation's major airports, including Los Angeles International.
"I don't think it would be viable to remain under those conditions," said Sidney Amster, chief instructor at the Claire Walters Flight Academy, one of four schools based at the airport. "The airport would be useless for us."
Amster's words were echoed by other Santa Monica Airport flight school managers last week. They reacted with surprise and anger to the news that the FAA is considering banning solo student training flights within 10 nautical miles of Los Angeles International Airport in the wake of the disastrous August midair collision over Cerritos involving a commercial airliner and a private plane.
Cost Would Skyrocket
Flight training teachers at Santa Monica Airport said that the cost of training students would skyrocket if the ban is enacted, and they would be forced to relocate.
Glenn Barnum, the director of admissions at American Flyers Flight Training, said student pilots are required to log about 20 hours of solo flying time. The FAA ban would force instructors such as Barnum to fly their students to outlying locations such as Ontario. The extra time incurred could add 25% or more to the student's cost, which is already about $4,000, Barnum said.
Gunnell Aviation is the biggest training school at Santa Monica Airport, with about 300 students at any given time. Robert Gunnell Sr., founder and owner of the school, said he was unaware of the proposal. But he predicted that school owners would challenge the student flight ban in court if the FAA tries to enforce such a regulation.
"I don't think it's legal," said Gunnell, who has been based at the airport for 28 years. "The FAA can expect a terrible amount of flak over it."
Opened in 1919
Santa Monica Airport is the oldest continually operating general aviation facility in California, according to airport officials. It opened in 1919 and served as headquarters for battle plane manufacturers during World War II.
In recent years, the airport has been better known for controversy. Neighbors have complained about aircraft noise for the past 25 years. The city, which is required to operate the facility until 2015 under a contract with the FAA, has recently tried to quell the controversy by enacting tough noise restrictions.
Tom Kirwan, a Venice resident who has been at the forefront of the battle against airport noise, said he would be delighted if the ban were approved.