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The FAA Western-Pacific Regional Headquarters has released internal documents that reveal substantial concern amongst key officials regarding El Toro plans.  The documents, mostly internal memos and e-mail from May to August 1999, were released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Leonard Kranser, Editor of the El Toro Airport Info Site. (http://www.eltoroairport.org)   The documents reveal FAA managers raising pointed concerns about the management of crowded airspace around the base for the June 4-5 flight demonstration -  and about possible future operations at El Toro.

Most of the documents received had been written by, or addressed to, key personnel in three FAA divisions:-  Airports, Flight Standards, and Air Traffic.  In response to the Freedom of Information Request for copies of all El Toro communications, the Airports and the Flight Standards Divisions said that they had no such internal documents or claimed exemption from making them available if they did exist.  However, the Air Traffic Division provided their copies.

County’s demo flight paths not submitted for prior FAA approval.

The earliest document in the group is an e-mail dated May 6, 1999 in which Walter White, Manager of Southern California TRACON, the regional radar control system, tells colleagues that he has looked at the  flight demo’s proposed north takeoffs.  “This track is a significant problem with our current traffic system and will probably necessitate adjustments to SNA/LAX and ONT [John Wayne/ Los Angeles, and Ontario] traffic flows.”

Several day later, Bud Riebel, Manager of the Operations Branch, Air Traffic Control Division, writes, “When I read in the Orange County Register ‘The FAA has been notified of these flights’ my concern continued to escalate.... My local sources tell me no one is really supporting this beyond the County.”

Peter Melia, Manager of the Airports Division's Planning and Programming Branch responds to Reibel on May 18, “There are members of the FAA that are not for, or are against the establishment of a civilian aviation reuse of El Toro.  However, as an organization we have a mission to assist airport proponents develop an efficient and safe airport system.  The establishment of a civilian El Toro or other airport is a local decision.”

Riebel responds to Melia in a strongly worded memo that day, “Personally, I find it ludicrous that as an organization we would stand idly by while a local government agency with no Federal authority over airspace negotiates some undefined demonstration project with a host of air carriers....I suggest you get out of your ‘It’s a  local problem’ mode and deal with the reality of what such a demonstration means.”

Riebel goes further in a May 21 message to his boss and others.  “Here’s the issue as I see it... Orange County Board of Supervisors is generally split 3/2 in favor of the airport.    The citizenry is about 50% split pro/con on the airport. The flight demos are being propounded by the pro group as a way to demonstrate the noise issue.  If the noise isn’t terribly obtrusive (and we know that the carriers will fly as quiet as possible, and in any case will be significantly less noisy than the former F-18’s) the pro group will say ‘I told you so.’”

He continues prophetically, “Now the airport becomes a fait accompli.  ATA and the air carriers now say, ‘Wait, we can’t fly those regimens every day.’  The consultant, County and the Pro faction say, ‘Hey foul, you flew these procedures and had no problem w/them.’  Multiple arguments ensue and we (AT) are left sorting out how we make any of this work w/SNA, NZJ [El Toro], LAX Class B major loss of efficiency in the airspace and get hooked with the noise since we were a participant and advocate for the airport.”

After intense negotiations between the County, FAA, Air Transport Association, and the Air Line Pilots Association, the County is allowed to proceed with the demonstration. The Air Line Pilots Association sends two letters of concern to the FAA stating that, “departures straight out from Runway 34 over Loma Ridge... could place large transport aircraft operating VFR right in the face of the world’s busiest general aviation flight corridor... with a resultant great mid-air collision potential.  The United States Marine Corps has never approved instrument departure flight tracks straight out from Runway 34 over Loma Ridge.”  ALPA Western-Pacific Safety Chairman Captain Jon Russell calls it a “hazardous terrain mass.”

Flight demo does not reflect the real world

On June 3, the last day before the demonstration, White of the TRACON air traffic control operation writes that “Traffic into SNA/LGB [John Wayne and Long Beach] may be limited/held higher/rerouted for short periods of time as necessary to safely accommodate the demonstration aircraft (Rwy 34 departures)  As part of this the proponent expressed the desire to hold the demonstration departures on the ground as necessary to wait for traffic ‘windows of opportunity’ rather than causing lengthy delays into SNA/LGB.”  The demonstration proceeds under these artificial conditions.

The flight demo takes place on June 4 and 5.  No documents are provided, in response to the Freedom of Information Act request, to reveal what, if anything is learned by the FAA.  In telephone follow up by Kranser, as to why there are no additional communications,  Kathy Higgens of Air Traffic says, “We just try to accommodate the users.  On Monday it was done, and since nothing went horribly wrong we moved on to other projects.”  Chuck Hicks of Flight Standards says, “Our job was to make sure that air crews coming in from all over knew the routes and how they were to fly.  There were no formal documents written afterwards. We looked at it like any ordinary air show.  ”

What now?

Hicks of Flight Standards, in his phone conversation with Kranser, says that it would eventually be up to Airports Division and Air Traffic to decide whether El Toro fits in the Southern California airspace.

An August 4, 1999 message from Walter White, Manager of Southern California TRACON,  to Bud Riebel, Manager of the Operations Branch, Air Traffic Division, appears to summarize the situation. He writes, “Especially after our experience with the flight demonstration, I am concerned that the Airports Division is not going to let us comment on anything to do with El Toro.  Thus we may eventually be stuck with an airport layout that, while it looks great by itself on paper, is virtually unusable from an integrated ATC [Air Traffic Control] standpoint.... I do not look forward to the years of safety problems and litigation we might undergo as we work to fix a bad initial plan..”

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This page last updated on November 10, 1999