| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Oct 3 The fatal crash-landing of a
small business jet at Santa Monica airport has reignited
a debate over safety at the historic Los Angeles-area aviation
hub, which local politicians and homeowners have fought for
years to scale back or close.
Critics of the 86-year-old facility, where some Hollywood
celebrities and showbiz executives keep their private planes,
have pointed to the wreck as a wake-up call to hazards they say
the airport poses to densely populated nearby communities.
A twin-engine Citation Cessna 525A jet touching down at the
airport after a flight from Idaho on Sunday evening veered off
the right side of the runway, slammed into a nearby hangar and
burst into flames.
All four people aboard the plane, including a wealthy
construction executive, Mark Benjamin, and his son were killed,
and the hangar, part-owned by a onetime Oscar-winning filmmaker,
was destroyed. No one on the ground was hurt.
But critics complain that the crash occurred about 150 feet
from the nearest homes that border the airport, where homes
border the facility - Los Angeles County's oldest operating
airport - on three sides in unusually close proximity.
"The jet that just crashed could just have easily crashed
and slid straight down the runway and across 23rd Street right
into houses," said John Fairweather, local resident and founder
of the group Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic.
David Goddard, chairman of the Santa Monica Airport
Commission, which advises the city on airport policy, said he
hoped Sunday's accident would spur municipal officials to press
ahead with moves to curtail flights there.
Meanwhile, airport backers say the cause of Sunday's crash
has yet to be determined and accuse the critics of unfairly
seizing on the crash to advance their cause.
"The accident that occurred was disastrous to the people on
the plane, of course, and our hearts go out to them," said Bill
Dunn, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots
Association. "Goddard is dancing on the graves of those that
perished in the accident for his own political agenda."
California Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district includes
Santa Monica, joined the fray by calling on the National
Transportation Safety Board to expand the scope of its crash
investigation to examine overall safety at the airport.
LARGER, FASTER JETS
Santa Monica homeowners and municipal officials have battled
for decades to curb flight activity or close the airport, facing
opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration, plane
owners, pilots and businesses connected with the facility.
In addition to neighborhood objections to noise and air
pollution, city officials have long complained the airport's
single 5,000-foot runway is too short to safely accommodate some
of the larger, faster jets allowed to take off and land there.
Both sides agree that the plane that crashed was within the
runway's design capacity. But Fairweather said he worried about
larger jets, moving with greater momentum and loaded with more
fuel, crashing into homes on takeoff or landing.
Had the Cessna missed the hangar, it could have jumped an
embankment into houses just behind a block wall, Goddard said.
Citing unofficial accounts of the crash, he also said that had
the plane not veered sharply to the right it might have careened
off the end of the runway and into houses across the street.
Federal records show that prior to Sunday's accident, at
least 38 planes coming or going from the Santa Monica airport
have crashed since 1982, with 10 resulting in fatalities.
Data compiled by Fairweather's group shows four incidents
involving planes flying to or from the airport occurred in Santa
Monica residential neighborhoods, including when a
student-piloted plane crashed into a house in 2011.
Goddard said the airport has averaged between 1,100 and
1,300 total takeoffs and landings per month in recent months.
The Santa Monica City Council adopted a resolution in 1981
seeking to close the airport when legally possible, triggering
an FAA lawsuit. The parties later settled the dispute in a deal
obligating the city to keep the airport open through 2015.
In 2008, the council sought to essentially bar heavier,
faster jets like Gulfstreams from the airport, citing FAA rules
that generally restrict such planes to longer runways. The FAA
blocked the move.
Following Sunday's crash, Santa Monica officials said they
were proceeding with plans to impose new flight restrictions or
close the airport after the settlement deal expires. The FAA
insists the city must keep the airport open in perpetuity.
(Reporting by Dana Feldman and Steve Gorman; Writing by Steve
Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)