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Valley Airspace Leaves Little Room for Error


Crowded. Frighteningly complicated. And getting more so.

Air traffic over the San Fernando Valley, fed by three airports within six miles of each other, is beginning to resemble the busy freeways below.

And with landings and takeoffs projected to jump about 15% over the next three to five years, congestion is likely to increase.

In an average 24-hour period, more than 2,000 jets, small planes and helicopters take off and land from Van Nuys, Burbank and Whiteman airports, each crowded by surrounding mountains into a V-shaped basin. Such conditions make the Valley's airspace one of the most complex swaths of sky in the region.

And while the air safety record is good, pilots, air traffic controllers and representatives of some airlines are planning to make it better.

"The Valley's airspace is extremely complicated," said Kevin Karpe, president of the air traffic controllers union at the Federal Aviation Administration's regional headquarters in Burbank. "It's possibly one of the most complicated in the nation."

Eight near midair collisions have occurred in Valley skies over the past 21 months, and five in-flight collisions since 1964, with none since 1981. Still, pilots, air controllers and flight instructors do not consider the situation to be dangerous. FAA officials say the number of near midair collisions for the Valley is comparable to other regions with similar volumes of air traffic.

The Valley's air safety system works because aircraft are strictly regulated and pilots are well versed in the rules of Valley air, federal officials said.

"Does the system work? Of course it works," said Robert Jackson, a flight instructor with 52 years of experience as an aviator.

But a number of changes have been proposed in the way airspace is regulated and the rules that guide how pilots proceed through a hodgepodge of jurisdictions. The objective is to make the airspace in the Valley and in the rest of the Los Angeles region safer and simpler.

Known as the Southern California Airspace Users Group, a group of pilots, air traffic controllers and others are trying to devise a system to simplify fixed routes to guide pilots from one region to another without having to turn, descend and climb around various restricted airspaces. The group is also trying to make air traffic jurisdictions safer and easier for pilots to understand.

The proposal is expected to be considered by the FAA sometime next year.

In a bid to better coordinate air traffic, the FAA is consolidating five Southern California regional air control facilities into one building in San Diego. The consolidation, to be completed next year, will help controllers resolve air traffic problems faster and easier because all controllers will be under one roof, according to the FAA.

Despite those potential improvements, veteran pilots say that several elements complicate Valley airspace so much that local practices are unlikely to be altered soon, if ever.

As an example, because of physical limitations imposed by the Valley's mountain ranges, about 75% of the commercial jets descending for landing at Burbank Airport fly about 2,000 feet above Van Nuys Airport.

Burbank's landing pattern forces Van Nuys airplanes performing takeoff and landing patterns to stay within 1,000 feet of the ground and helicopters to remain below 500 feet.

"If you had to pick a place to put an airport, Van Nuys would not be the place," said George Slade, assistant manager for programs at the Burbank TRACON, the FAA's Terminal Radar Control facility, which regulates airspace in a 30-mile radius around Burbank Airport.

But he and other aviators say the condition is not inherently dangerous as long as pilots understand the rules of flying in and out of the area.

"It's like playing a three-dimensional game of chess: You have all these pieces that you want to get to where they want to go," he said.

More pilots fly in and out of Van Nuys than anywhere else in the country, and that number is expected to increase.

The busiest general aviation airport in the nation, Van Nuys Airport is the site of 1,425 flight operations per day, with 1,450 takeoffs and landings per day predicted in 1995, airport officials said.

Burbank, a fast-growing commercial airport, has about 576 daily operations. Airport officials predict that figure will grow to 775 by 1998 and about 900 by 2010.

Whiteman Airport, a county-owned airfield, has 317 daily operations, and is projected to have 508 operations by 1998 and 815 operations by 2003, airport officials estimate.

Putting that blizzard of aircraft in some order is the responsibility of air traffic controllers at regional levels, within the Los Angeles Basin, and at airport control towers.

In Palmdale, controllers watch airspace throughout most of the state south of San Francisco, "handing off" airliners as they descend to Los Angeles or taking handoffs as the jets gain altitude after takeoff.

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