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El Toro Takeoff Plans Shift With Political Winds

March 26, 1998|LORENZA MUNOZ and SHELBY GRAD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

"We feel that in our area we have enough flights coming into John Wayne," said Saltarelli, who is now a consultant with Newport Beach on the airport issue. "Traffic into John Wayne comes directly over my house. It's important that before any decisions are made we assess the noise [impact]."

The Foothill Communities Assn., a homeowners group representing nearly all of North Tustin, has voted for a resolution opposing the airport because of the potential noise problems, said Irene Brace, the group's director.

Another homeowners group, the Orange Park Acres Assn. in East Orange, plans to vote on the airport issue next week. Its president, Laura Thomas, said the members are worried about the airport's potential impact on their quiet community.

"We are equestrian and rural and we want to maintain that," Thomas said.

Wiercioch said "those communities expressed real strong concern and we said, 'Let's see if we can go back to the drawing table and see if there is something we can do.' So far, [the consultants] have not identified problems with straightening out that flight track," meaning that departing planes may be able to take off to the north without curving to the west over Tustin and Orange.

Feasibility Study Due in May

The county is now preparing four options for the soon-to-be-abandoned, 4,700-acre Marine base, and those options are scheduled to be released next month. It's unclear how much noise Tustin and surrounding communities would experience under the plans--or under the proposed shift in the takeoff pattern.

But an earlier county proposal found that while jet noise would increase in certain parts of Tustin, the levels would remain well below federal standards of 65 decibels, averaged over a 24-hour period, and commercial aircraft would be significantly quieter than the current military flights.

The Marines, who are scheduled to leave the base in July 1999, generally direct their F-18 takeoffs to the east and their larger aircraft to the north and south, El Toro spokesman Matt Morgan said.

County officials say before any changes are made to the existing takeoff patterns, they must finish a feasibility study on directing planes due north toward the Santa Ana Mountains.

The so-called "Terminal En Route Procedures" study, expected to be presented to the Board of Supervisors on May 5, will determine whether the heavy jets will interfere with John Wayne traffic, and if they can lift up quickly enough to avoid the mountains, which are due north of the El Toro runways.

The county is responsible for crafting a detailed airport plan that meets federal air safety guidelines and is acceptable to surrounding communities, he said.

Once the final plan is sent to the FAA, officials will review it to determine whether it meets standards.

The county's efforts thus far to shield other cities from airport noise have caused some difficulties with the pilots' unions.

Leaders of the nation's two largest unions, the Air Line Pilots Assn. and the Air Pilots Assn., have complained that the county is placing noise considerations ahead of safety concerns--which county officials vehemently deny--by having the majority of flights take off to the east instead of the west, where they would fly directly over areas of Irvine, notably the Woodbridge section.

Both unions object to easterly takeoffs, saying airplanes would be forced to take off up a sloped runway, toward the mountains and with a tail wind.

The pilots' unions have not taken a position on the northerly departures, but some aviation experts say that takeoffs straight over the mountains could raise many questions about the future of John Wayne Airport.

"They won't be able to do that if John Wayne stays open," said Don Segner, a former official with the Federal Aviation Administration who is now retired and lives in Laguna Beach, explaining that these departing flights would interfere with the approach path of John Wayne Airport.

The county has still not made it clear what it plans to do with John Wayne Airport if El Toro becomes a commercial airport. Though the county's reuse plan calls for John Wayne to become a general aviation airport, used only by small private aircraft, county supervisors made it clear they wanted it to remain a commercial operation when they approved of the initial plan in 1996.

Until the county finalizes its plan, many in central county cities are anxiously hoping for the best.

"There is a difference between what the county says and what it does," said Tustin Mayor Jeffery M. Thomas, who met with Saltarelli and County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier about the issue. "I am waiting to see this nailed down to the point there is no way it can change. If that happens, I would support the airport. If it doesn't, I'll be very concerned."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Takeoff Turbulence

County officials, fearing central cities could turn against a proposed airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, may change the takeoff route for planes departing north. Instead of turning northwest over Tustin and East Orange, they would maintain a more northerly heading over Irvine Lake.

Original flight path proposal

Possible new flight path

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