Tustin city officials prepared a letter Tuesday urging the Marine Corps to stop flying the controversial Super Stallion helicopters over populated neighborhoods, even though the military expressed steadfast confidence in the airworthiness of the aircraft.
Prompted by the Jan. 8 crash of a CH-53E Super Stallion that killed five Marines based at the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, the Tustin City Council on Monday voted 5 to 0 to send a letter to Marine officials asking that the flights over that community be discontinued until there is conclusive evidence that the helicopters are safe.
"We don't believe we necessarily have to wait for a major disaster to act," Tustin Mayor Donald Saltarelli said Tuesday, adding that the accident rate of the CH-53E appears to be higher than other Marine aircraft. "We think it is wise for the Marine Corps to reconsider the airport approach it is now using."
Two squadrons of the giant helicopters, which are designed to carry up to 55 Marines or lift up to 16 tons, are stationed at the Tustin base. The helicopters fly over the center of Tustin, according to City Manager William A. Huston, when they are practicing instrument approaches to John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa. The aircraft lock into the approach pattern over the middle of town with their on-board instruments, but they move out of the pattern before landing at the airport.
The practice approach, Huston said, "virtually cuts through the middle of town."
No one, including the Marines, the Federal Aviation Administration or city officials, could produce a figure showing the number of flights that carried the helicopters over the populated areas of Tustin.
Saltarelli said he spoke Tuesday to Col. David McEvoy, commander of the Marine base, about the council's desire to stop the helicopter flights over Tustin neighborhoods.
"He was most cooperative," Saltarelli said. "But he said at this point the Marine Corps still believes that nothing is wrong with the design of the helicopter. He said they would not send anyone up in an aircraft if they thought it had structural problems. He said he would await the letter."
Capt. Joanne Schilling of the Marine public affairs office said base officials would have no comment on the matter until they received the letter.
Asked what the city's position would be if the Marines refused to stop the flights, Huston said that neither he nor the City Council is "under the illusion" that the Marines would discontinue the flights because the City Council wrote a letter.
A legal fight among the city, the FAA and the military did not appear likely.
"Quite frankly, it probably will not come to that," Huston said. "The council is saying, 'Look, we are concerned.' "
The latest crash of a Super Stallion helicopter prompted Saltarelli and the four other City Council members to initiate the letter. The Tustin-based helicopter crashed and burned in the desert at the Salton Sea Test Range in Imperial County.
The aircraft, built by Sikorsky Aircraft Co. of Stratford, Conn., has been plagued by numerous fatal crashes.
In all, 30 Tustin-based Marines have died in the Super Stallion or its predecessor, the smaller CH-53D Sea Stallion, since 1981.
Councilman Ronald B. Hoesterey said he is "not totally convinced" that the helicopter is safe. "We don't want it grounded, we just do not want it to fly over our populated areas."
Hoesterey, like other council members, believes the helicopters should use flight corridors over unpopulated areas.
Saltarelli and Hoesterey said they understand the importance of military readiness and the council is not trying to tell the Marines how to run their operations.
"We're not trying to jump on the Marines' case," said Saltarelli, a former Marine officer. "But there is a clear public concern."
Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach), who called for congressional probe into the Super Stallion last year, assured Saltarelli on Tuesday that he believes "there is no inherent design flaws in the aircraft. . . ," Saltarelli said.
On Thursday, Irvine's Public Safety Commission will begin hearing testimony on the forced landings of helicopters in that city.
The hearing was called after the Oct. 21 emergency landing of a Super Stallion in an Irvine field.