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2 airports, different directions

Santa Monica's facility meets resistance to expansion, but Hawthorne's finds the neighbors receptive.

December 27, 2007|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

While Santa Monica seeks to banish fast corporate jets from its much-contested airport, Hawthorne has rolled out a new asphalt carpet for them and other private planes.

Hawthorne Municipal Airport, a.k.a. Jack Northrop Field, has just completed a $5.5-million resurfacing of its runway, part of a $25-million renovation intended to entice new air traffic and add momentum to the revitalization of the east side of the 90,000-population municipality.

"This is a tale of two cities," said Jeffrey Dritley of Kearny Real Estate Co., a partner in the renewal effort. "The Hawthorne community is very supportive of the airport, and Santa Monica isn't. Hawthorne is encouraging new aviation, not trying to kick it out."

The Santa Monica and Hawthorne airports are among the six designated "reliever" airports that take the pressure of private air traffic off Los Angeles International. The others are L.A. County-owned Whiteman Airport in Pacoima and Brackett Field in El Monte, and municipal airports Torrance/Zamperini Field and Compton/Woodley Airport.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, December 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Airports: An article in Thursday's California section comparing the municipal airports in Santa Monica and Hawthorne identified Brackett Field as being in El Monte, and as being one of six "reliever airports" for Los Angeles International. Brackett Field is in La Verne and is not a reliever airport. El Monte Airport is one of the six.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, December 29, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Airport ownership: An article in Thursday's California section comparing the municipal airports in Santa Monica and Hawthorne incorrectly stated that Compton/Woodley Airport is municipally owned. It is owned by Los Angeles County.

With a projected 135,000 takeoffs and landings this year, Santa Monica Municipal Airport, in operation since 1919, is about twice as busy as Hawthorne, which opened in 1939. The two airports have runways of similar length, about 5,000 feet, and can accommodate aircraft of similar size. Each was the home base of an aircraft-building company: Santa Monica of Douglas Aircraft, and Hawthorne of Northrop Aircraft.

Hawthorne officials say their airport has certain advantages. Its runway approach passes over the parking lots of large discount stores. At the end of its runway are several blocks of commercial development. The airport is only a block from the 105 Freeway and 1 1/2 miles from the 405 Freeway.

The Santa Monica airport, by contrast, is in a high-cost residential area of congested surface streets. Some houses are a scant 300 feet from the runway. The airport sits atop a plateau with steeply sloping sides, and a recent city staff report likened landing there to putting down on an aircraft carrier. Complaints about engine noise and fears of aircraft crashing into houses are common themes in that city's civic debate.

In January, the Santa Monica City Council will take a final vote on banning the fastest jets that use the airport, including such models as the $37-million Gulfstream IV and $20 million-plus Cessna Citation X. The council voted 7-0 in favor of such a ban in a preliminary vote in November, but the Federal Aviation Administration has vowed to fight it.

The Hawthorne redevelopers are betting that business jets are a vital part of the future of private aviation, as use of single-engine propeller planes continues declining from its heyday in the 1980s.

Hawthorne Mayor Larry Guidi said the faster jets have not been an issue among local residents.

"You don't hear the new jets," he said. "I know because I live right under the flight path. The noisy ones are the little, single-engine propeller jobs flying low."

Dritley added that when the airport redevelopment plan underwent a series of public hearings, "there was almost no opposition. That's got to be unique in the United States. People in the FAA were dumbfounded."

Jose Gutierrez, president of the homeowners association of Holly Park, the residential area nearest the airport, said community reaction to the renovation has been generally positive.

"We hear more hum from the commercial jets on approach to LAX to the north of us than we do from the sporadic private aircraft that touch down at Hawthorne Airport," he wrote in response to an e-mail requesting his comments. "The Hawthorne Airport has been good to us. No flights leave before 6 a.m. and no flights land after 6 p.m. during winter, and no later than 8 p.m. during summer."

Significant socioeconomic and historical differences exist between seaside Santa Monica and workaday Hawthorne. Santa Monica is wealthy and mostly white and has a tradition of civic protest. Hawthorne is largely blue-collar and middle-class. In recent years, it has become increasingly Latino. These differences, Guidi said, help explain why the two cities have such divergent attitudes about their airports.

In 2001, Hawthorne residents voted 71% to 29% against a plan to close the long-neglected airport and develop the property for housing and other uses.

Hawthorne residents, especially those of long standing, consider the airport part of local history, Guidi said. Northrop founder "Jack Northrop came here, and many people will tell you, 'My grandfather worked for Northrop,' 'My father worked for Northrop,' 'My uncles worked for Northrup.' The airport was nostalgic for them, like the Beach Boys and Marilyn Monroe."

For four years after the vote, however, nothing was done to improve the airport. Finally, Guidi approached Dritley's company and its partner, Wedgewood Enterprises, about setting up a public-private arrangement for running the airport.

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