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Threat to Smaller Airports Seen If FAA Curbs Student Flights

December 21, 1986|GEORGE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

A recommendation by the Federal Aviation Administration prompted by the midair disaster over Cerritos last August could lead to the banning of solo student flights within a 10-mile radius of Los Angeles International and 22 other major airports, according to the agency's chief regional accident prevention official.

Adoption of the recommendation--which is by no means certain--could have a major impact at general aviation airports in Torrance, Hawthorne, Santa Monica and Compton unless it is adjusted for local conditions, said Jack Norris, accident-prevention coordinator for the FAA's Western-Pacific region. All of those airports lie within 10 nautical miles of Los Angeles International and depend to varying degrees on flight instruction schools.

The regulation could "have a drastic effect on a lot of airports and a lot of businesses," said Edmund Pinto, senior vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. "It could threaten a lot of airports," both here and nationally.

The FAA is proposing to standardize the geometry of restricted air space near the nation's 23 busiest airports. The effect here would be to ban solo student flights within 10 miles of Los Angeles International. Student pilots have sometimes violated the airport's control area, according to Larry Lehr, an FAA accident-prevention specialist based in San Diego.

Help Commercial Pilots

The FAA argues that commercial pilots will find it simpler and safer to deal with uniform procedures near major airports, rather than keeping track of varying dimensions of terminal control areas, or TCAs, as the restricted air spaces are known.

If it is adopted unchanged, the recommendation would put added economic pressure on the smaller airports, some of which are already feeling cramped by noise limitations that are increasingly restricting student flights and by a general decline in airport use.

"It could strangle us," said Barry Jay of Peninsula Aviation, which is based at the Torrance Municipal Airport.

An estimated 75% of the annual 250,000 take-offs and landings at Torrance in some way are connected with training, officials said.

38% at Santa Monica

At Santa Monica airport, 38% of the 180,000 takeoffs and landings a year are training flights, many of them made by student pilots. At the Hawthorne airport, about one third of the 126,000 takeoffs and landings a year involve training flights. At Compton, between 15% and 20% of the 97,000 annual takeoffs and landings are training flights.

Although the recommendation was announced Oct. 27 in a package of 40 proposals to tighten air safety regulations, some airport officials were unaware of its import.

Hank Dittmar, director of the Santa Monica airport, said he was not aware of the proposal's possible impact on student flights.

Instead, most attention has focused on a recommendation to require planes flying in TCAs to carry "Mode C transponders"--devices that automatically tell air traffic controllers the altitude of the airplane. The single-engine Piper Archer that collided with the Aeromexico DC-9 on Aug. 31 was not carrying a Mode C transponder. The smaller aircraft was not flown by a student pilot.

82 Killed

The midair collision killed 82 people, 15 of them on the ground.

Although student pilots are not now permitted to fly solo in terminal control areas, the TCA for Los Angeles International Airport permits solo student flights close to the airport.

Indeed, about 40,000 training flights, many of them solos, take off and land each year from the Hawthorne airport, which is about two miles from Los Angeles International.

The Hawthorne airport fits into a corner of air space just outside the Los Angeles TCA, which begins at 5,000 feet directly above the municipal airport. To the north and west, the Hawthorne airport is hemmed in by two 5,000-foot-high TCA "walls" that run along Imperial Highway and the San Diego Freeway. Planes from Hawthorne that wish to cross those "walls" must have permission from Los Angeles International.

On a larger scale, the Los Angeles TCA resembles a stack of pie-shaped wedges extending east and west of the airport with the narrow end of the wedges sitting on the airport.

10,000-Foot Cylinder

Norris, the FAA official, said the standard TCA most likely to be adopted would include a 10,000-foot-high cylinder with a radius of 10 nautical miles where no solo student flights would be allowed. At Los Angeles International, that cylinder would include Hawthorne and the three other municipal airports. Compton's is just within the boundary. The Torrance airport is about 9 1/2 nautical miles from Los Angeles International Airport, and Santa Monica's is eight miles north.

The FAA has yet to set hearing dates, request comment or take any of the steps required before the agency could adopt the proposal.

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