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Flights at 'Closed' Santa Monica Airport Prompt City Apology and Explanation
By Niki Cervantes
December 21, 2017 -- Airplanes flying in and out of temporarily-shuttered Santa Monica Airport on Wednesday caused uproar from stunned neighbors, sent a key official scurrying out to find the truth and ended with an apology and an explanation pinning the surprise flights on the FAA.
“Yikes,” one neighbor wrote in a chain email after watching air traffic over SMO, although all aircraft operations were banned while the City finishes shortening the runway. It is set to re-open on Christmas Eve day.
“Have never seen a jet so low,” said resident Michael Brodsky, writing as he watched the second flight that evening pass to the west.
A blizzard of reports about the surprising flights prompted a quick look on the airport’s observation deck by a top City official to confirm the activity, which was being conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test the new, shortened approach.
The FAA was "running flight checks to certify and approve the new approach equipment" that was moved for the shortened 3,500-foot runway scheduled to reopen Saturday at 7 a.m., said Suja Lowenthal, senior advisor to City Manager Rick Cole on airport matters.
“This is something that I definitely would have communicated sooner, but as you can imagine the staff at the airport has been working diligently round the clock to complete the runway shortening project and I missed learning of the scheduled tests,” she said in a community letter.
“I heard it as you heard it and then I went out and joined staff and observed the remainder of the flight checks from the observation deck,” Lowenthal said.
The testing was repeated in the evening as well to certify the equipment for night time approaches, she said.
Aside from being shocked to see the airplanes, several neighbors complained about how low the planes were flying.
Joe Schmitz, a City airport commissioner, said that he too was “as irritated as any of you by the low approaches and I wish we had a ‘heads up’ from the FAA via City staff.”
But, he said in an email response, “In the larger picture: 1) these necessary calibration and certification flights protect both aircrews and residents, and 2) are, in fact, one essential step in the Consent Decree SMO runway shortening.”
The runway shortening required “various sets of runway lights. . . be relocated, set-up, and calibrated so that aircraft see the proscribed 'pictures' as they approach SMO from different directions.
"Not only are the respective lighting performances specified by FAA regulation, correct runway lighting has hugely important safety consequences,” he said.
“Almost certainly, the FAA day and night flights necessarily had to be at a low altitude in order to have the proper geometry and distance to validate all aspects of the runway light performance,” the commissioner said.
But baffled neighbors below worried the flights -- which they said were low and loud -- could presage life for them until SMO is shuttered permanently to aviation at the end of 2028.
“It is imperative that City officials get to the bottom of why the tower is directing jets in these patterns today,” said one resident in Wednesday’s email pile-up prompted by the flights.
“Is it because we’ve shortened the runway and this is what we get to though 2028?”
Wednesday’s commotion comes after SMO was shut to aviation during overnight hours, and crews started work to shorten the runway -- a strategy to reduce the number of large jets using the airport.
To allow around-the-clock work, SMO banned all aviation activity day and night ("Santa Monica Airport Starts Ten-Day Closure to Aircraft for Runway Shortening," December 15, 2017).
Reducing the airport’s sole runway by about 40 percent from its nearly 5,000 feet was part of the consent decree the City reached with the FAA late last January ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).
It is an interim measure until SMO’s full closure to aviation.
The City Council says it wants to use the airport’s 227 acres to create a “Great Park” for the Westside.
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