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Long Beach Seeks to Require Safety Device on Planes

December 03, 1987|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — After one airplane crashed and two others nearly collided earlier this week, the City Council ordered its staff to find out if the city can require that airplanes based here be equipped with transponders to indicate altitude.

But according to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elly Brekke, local communities do not have the authority to decide what type of equipment is required in aircraft.

That is a job for the federal government, she said.

At Tuesday's council meeting, several members said the two incidents have made them even more concerned about the safety of neighborhoods around Long Beach Airport.

Shortly before 7 p.m. Sunday, a single-engine airplane crashed on the San Diego Freeway near Redondo Avenue, killing the pilot and seriously injuring the passenger. Earlier that day, a United Airlines plane heading from the Long Beach Airport to Chicago with 116 people aboard was forced to dive to avoid colliding with a single-engine Cessna near the Seal Beach-Long Beach border.

"We could just as well be sitting here talking about scores of Long Beach residents killed" in either incident, Vice Mayor Warren Harwood told his colleagues.

The city already is battling airlines that want to increase the number of flights out of the local airport. Long Beach is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by several airlines that want greater airport access. The suit is expected to go to trial in March.

On Tuesday, Harwood suggested that the city review whether it has the power to require planes based here to have a Mode C transponder, a device that allows air-traffic controllers to determine a plane's altitude.

The Cessna that came within 300 feet of the Boeing was not carrying a transponder. (The Boeing pilot initially reported that the Cessna came within 100 feet of the bigger plane. But a United spokesman later said the two planes were about 300 feet from each other.)

Private planes such as the Cessna are not required to have such devices to fly into the Long Beach Airport, FAA spokeswoman Brekke said.

As of Tuesday, the FAA ordered 14 airports around the country to require Mode C transponders, Brekke said. Until then, only nine of the nation's busiest airports--including Los Angeles International--required the device.

Between 85% and 90% of all airplanes already have transponders, according to Patricia Weil, a spokeswoman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. in Frederick, Md. The Mode C transponder costs about $2,000, she said. Weil's organization represents 260,000 pilots, including about 40,000 in California, she said.

Both pilots involved in the near-miss over Seal Beach appeared to have been following FAA regulations, Brekke said.

But FAA officials are continuing to investigate the incident and search for the pilot of the Cessna because "it is a pilot's responsibility to maintain cockpit vigilance, to keep looking out the window and be constantly aware of other aircraft in the area," Brekke said.

Dennis Paboojian, 46, one of two licensed pilots in the Piper Malibu PA 46 that crashed on the freeway Sunday night, remained in critical condition earlier this week in a hospital burn unit. The pilot, John Spiesman, 62, was killed in the crash. Spiesman of Los Gatos was a certified flying instructor.

Gary Mucho, head of the Los Angeles field office of the National Transportation Safety Board, said this week he did not yet know why the plane crashed.

Kitty Kuhlmann, the airport tower's manager, said tapes of the conversation between the pilot and the tower did not indicate what was wrong with the plane.

The plane dived into the median of the freeway, where heavy traffic was moving at a slow pace. Although one car was hit and several others tangled in minor accidents as a result, no motorists were hurt, according to officials.

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