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El Toro's Military Runways Won't Fly With Airline Pilots

A veteran of both Air Force and commercial flying calls county report unrealistic and probably hazardous.

March 23, 1997|TODD THORNTON | Todd Thornton is a commercial pilot for a major airline and is an Air Force and Desert Storm veteran. He lives in Laguna Beach

Orange County planning officials are proceeding with plans to convert the Marine Corps base at El Toro into a major commercial airport. To allay fears about noise, airport proponents repeatedly point to a "buffer zone" surrounding the base--an area under current flight patterns restricted from development. County plans call for airliners to duplicate Marine flight patterns rather than depict realistic commercial flight paths. In so doing, the county's environmental impact report (EIR) describes a commercial airport that relies on unsafe runways that would place airliners at risk.

As an airline pilot likely to fly out of this future airport, I have serious concerns with plans to have airliners depart on the same runways now used only by high-performance military jets. The county proposes 70% of commercial takeoffs will be to the east (on Runway 07 Left and 07 Right) over the communities of Lake Forest, Mission Viejo, Portola Hills, Trabuco Canyon, Rancho Santa Margarita and Coto de Caza. The remaining 30% of takeoffs will be to the north (on Runway 34 Left and 34 Right) over north Irvine, Tustin and according to the county environmental reports, parts of Orange, Anaheim and Fullerton. Other probable flight patterns will fly over UC Irvine, Newport Beach and Corona del Mar.

The county plan to use the pair of east-facing Runways 07 Left and 07 Right as the primary departure runways violates several principles of safe commercial aircraft operations:

First, the east-facing runways have a steep up-slope in excess of permissible FAA standards. Standards for runway slopes exist to ensure planes can climb away in the unlikely event of an engine failure during takeoff.

Second, prevailing winds from the ocean create a tail-wind condition for the east-facing runways at El Toro. The effects of tail winds are twofold: on takeoff, the airplane uses more runway to become airborne, and after liftoff, climb performance is decreased.

Third, takeoffs to the east depart into steeply rising terrain--the Santa Ana Mountains. The proposed uphill, downwind takeoffs into rising terrain offer pilots the lowest possible safety margin for any runways at El Toro.

Despite county assertions to the contrary, the serious hazards inherent with east takeoffs on Runway 07 cannot be fixed. The county plans to rebuild the runways to reduce the up-slope. However, the terrain at the end of the runways still will rise precipitously into any proposed flight paths, and prevailing breezes still will create tail winds.

The hazards will not go away. To make east takeoffs conform to basic safety criteria, performance penalties must be applied: passenger and cargo payloads are reduced, resulting in lost revenue to the airlines.

The proposal to use Runway 07 as the primary departure runways did not escape the attention of other airline professionals. The Airline Pilots Assn. (ALPA), representing 44,000 airline pilots nationwide, has grave concerns about the county's plan. In written comments responding to the EIR it stated, " . . . ALPA will steadfastly oppose the use of El Toro as a commercial airport if takeoffs to the east . . . are a condition. . . . "

Given the numerous safety issues involved with east takeoffs, pilots will select another runway for takeoff. Surprisingly, many people are under the impression that the FAA determines which runway must be used for takeoff and landing. In fact, this is the pilot's decision. Under FAA regulations, the captain, or pilot in command, is the final authority in matters of safe conduct of a flight. This includes selecting a departure runway. To maximize the safety of their flights, pilots will demand other runways at El Toro. The flight patterns, particularly takeoffs, will look very different than those portrayed in the environmental report.

Despite the obvious merits of keeping future flight patterns similar to those already in use by the Marines today, the proposed runway use at El Toro is hazardous and entirely unrealistic with respect to commercial airliners.

The fact that planes actually will take off on runways other than those proposed in the EIR has serious implications. The environmental impacts of the more likely north, west or south takeoffs have not been studied. The cities and the neighborhoods under realistic commercial flight patterns need to be identified. The drawbacks and safety concerns of more likely runways need to be addressed as well as the economic feasibility of airline operations at El Toro.

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