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Foggy Flights Fail to Convince Many : Silver Strand: Residents say they could not gauge the effects of Navy exercises on their neighborhood. But military brass calls aerial test a success.

September 29, 1993|JEFF McDONALD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was supposed to be an aerial demonstration that would clearly show Silver Strand residents how proposed military test flights would affect their beachfront neighborhood.

But a heavy mist that blanketed much of the coast Tuesday obscured the maneuvers of two U.S. Navy planes, making it impossible for dozens of invited guests to witness the approaches--and leaving some observers in a fog.

"We can't see them coming," complained beach community activist Mary Ann George, when a Lear jet passed at a height of 500 feet. "I'd like to hear one at 100 feet."

The Navy has applied to the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to operate up to 30 hours of test flights a month from Point Mugu, saying it would save taxpayers $13 million a year.

The exercises, which test the performance of antiaircraft weaponry and other naval warfare systems, have so far been conducted aboard 500-crew ships from San Diego at a greater expense, said Navy project manager Peter Becker.

The Navy has flown test planes as close as three miles from Silver Strand, but the pending application would allow pilots to fly within 2,000 feet and as low as 100 feet above the ocean.

But Tuesday's test left some residents worried about noise and possible crashes, wondering how they could approve a flight pattern they could hear but not see.

"I don't think this is an accurate test," said Marcia Marcus, a director of the Channel Islands Beach Community Services District. "We don't have any useful information.

"If I were to vote right now, I would still be in opposition" to the flight paths, said Marcus, although she has no say in the matter.

The hovering gray clouds Tuesday prevented the fighter pilots from flying lower than 200 feet and closer than one mile.

But top Navy brass called the demonstration a success, insisting that the weather conditions did not ruin the test.

"The fog really has no detriment to what we're trying to accomplish today," Cmdr. Alfred M. Joseph said. "At the 1,000- or 1,500-foot level, it's actually a little louder."

Under the proposed flight pattern, pilots would approach and then make a U-turn away from the beach, with the noisiest part of the maneuver occurring as they accelerate away from the coastline, Navy officials said.

The plan would instruct pilots to begin their turns a mile away from the beach, but they could approach as close as 2,000 feet.

Joseph said there would be no follow-up flight demonstration.

"Our goal was to present the profile and the noise so that people could hear it," said Joseph, who said the Navy came "as close as we're going to get" to meeting its goal Tuesday.

Clusters of Silver Strand residents remained unconvinced that the flights, which could be conducted as late as 10 p.m. under the proposal, would not infringe on their property values or safety.

"I don't want to be sitting on the beach listening to any more noise," Hollywood Street homeowner Debra Begor said. "It's already noisy enough with the (Navy) helicopters. I'm sure there are many other places they could do their tests."

Others were miffed at the timing of the public demonstration.

"It's kind of bogus that they're doing it at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday when everyone's at work," said Firefighter Bob Lanius, who speculated that his beachside home could drop in value as much as 20% because of the noise.

Joseph, however, countered that the exercises are vital to maintain national security and to protect servicemen from harm.

"If we'd have been doing these kinds of tests years ago, there's a good chance incidents like the USS Stark would never have happened," the Navy commander said.

In May, 1987, 37 American sailors were killed when an Iraqi jet fired two missiles at the Navy frigate. U.S. officials later accepted the attack as a case of mistaken identity along with a formal Iraqi apology.

Despite the marked lack of visibility Tuesday, the Navy found a friend in Nona L. Makinson, the operations manager for the county Department of Airports.

"I don't see there being any kind of delay or interference" to Oxnard Airport commuters because of the Navy flights, Makinson said. "If they were doing this at LAX it would be a whole different picture."

About 300 feet from the seashore, civilian engineer Brian Pendleton stood far from the crowd that had gathered at La Janelle Park near Point Hueneme scanning a small monitor and reporting to Navy officials on base.

"Most of the readings I've had are around 72 (decibels), or something like that," he said. "And that's only eight to 16 above the standard that's around here" without the flyovers.

One beach dweller said he looked forward to more beach buzzes.

"I live right here on the sand and I think it's great," said Rick Eskin, a sales manager who said he served in the Navy for 10 years. "I wish I could hear and see more."

NEXT STEP

Information on test flights near Silver Strand will be included in the U.S. Navy's final environmental assessment, a document scheduled to be forwarded to the Secretary of the Navy in Washington before the end of the year. If Navy officials in Washington approve the proposed flight patterns, the assessment would be forwarded to Federal Aviation Administration officials for final approval, which could come by July, 1994.

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