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How Safe Is Lax : In Southern California's Crowded Skies, The Most Dangerous In The U. S., There's Practically No Margin For Error

April 22, 1990|KATHLEEN BURTON | Kathleen Burton is the technology editor of Investor's Daily and a small-plane pilot.

LOS ANGELES CONTROLLERS call it, with awe in their voices, the Downey Rush. Between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. seven nights a week, they slam-dunk as many as 75 jets an hour--one every 48 seconds--into LAX on the main approach pattern for westbound jets, a downward-sloping sky highway directly over downtown Downey.

There can be no doubt that the skies above the 2,100-square-mile L.A. Basin, from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains, from Oxnard and the Tehachapis down to southern Orange County, are among the most crowded in the nation. Last year, at the 28 busiest Basin airports--including five major air-carrier airports, five military airfields and 18 small-plane airports--there were about 6 million takeoffs and landings. At LAX alone, the third-busiest airport in the United States (behind O'Hare and Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport), there were nearly 637,117 takeoffs and landings last year; about 15,000 are expected to be added to that total this year.

"What we deal with here is unlike anything in the world," says Jack Norris, the FAA's airspace safety specialist for the Western-Pacific Region. "It's unbelievably congested. (Basin) controllers average 23 planes an hour compared to Chicago and Atlanta controllers, who average 14 planes an hour."

The crowds of airplanes present their own hazard, but the more significant problem is the mix of the traffic. In Los Angeles County, there are 38,000 licensed small-plane pilots--more than in all of Europe--and 10,000 registered general-aviation airplanes. Their takeoffs and landings account for perhaps 25% of the Basin's air traffic.

Theoretically, the first line of defense against the crowds is the FAA's dividing the skies into airspace parcels, all with different rules and regulations. The object is to sort out the mix and to separate planes from one another.

At their simplest, airspace divisions create high-altitude superhighways, with planes going one direction required to be within certain altitudes and planes in another direction required to be in another section of air. But around airports, things are more complicated.

The granddaddy of regulated airspaces, Terminal Control Areas, surround the nation's busiest airports. TCAs are under the strictest control: Anyone flying within their bounds must have permission to enter from an air traffic controller and must stay in constant contact with the controller. A TCA shows up on a navigational chart as concentric circles; if its boundaries could be drawn in the air in three dimensions, it would look like an inverted wedding cake atop the airport runways.

At most of the nation's major airports, TCA boundaries are regular and recognizable on charts and in the sky. Pilots can avoid the airspaces or easily abide by their rules. But in the L.A. Basin, chockablock with smaller airports and their corresponding controlled airspaces, the charts show a jumble of overlaps and cutouts, awkward juxtapositions and abutments.

Those irregularities can be dangerous. Says Barry Schiff, a 26-year TWA captain and small-plane pilot: "With all the different shapes and heights of the LAX TCA, it's as if a sadist dropped the wedding cake on the floor and dared pilots to walk through the mess without getting their feet dirty."

According to Schiff, who began studying the L.A. Basin airspace on his own after the Cerritos crash, there are several especially hazardous bits of airspace design. For instance, there is a 13-nautical-mile stretch above the Hollywood Hills, where the LAX Terminal Control Area meets the controlled airspace surrounding Burbank Airport. Schiff says local pilots call it Kamikaze Alley. On the south side of the boundary, general-aviation pilots trying to avoid controlled airspace and jet traffic must be below 5,000 feet. As soon as they cross the boundary, they must be above 4,800 feet. The result is that many small planes cluster at the same altitude, 4,900 feet, with a clearance of only 100 feet from the jets overhead and below.

General-aviation pilots have to know where they are at all times to avoid penetrating LAX's regulated airspace. The Cerritos crash happened when the Piper Archer strayed into the Terminal Control Area without permission and without controller guidance.

One measure of just how hard it is to stay out of the LAX Terminal Control Area is the number of unauthorized incursions by small planes. In 1988, there were 107 such incursions; in 1989, there were 78. "They sometimes occur two or three times a day; some days there aren't any. Half are caught, half aren't," says Karl Grundmann, a controller and president of the L.A. TRACON division of the National Air Traffic Controllers Assn.

"Most TCA violations are inadvertent, caused either by ignorance or error," says Barry Schiff. "It doesn't have to happen often to be dangerous. To have another Cerritos, it just has to happen once."

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