For safety and efficiency, we have design standards. Thus, we do not allow school playgrounds to overlap into highways, and we require freeway onramps to be constructed within specs such as gradient, lane curvature, pavement width and quality, signage and markings, etc.
Aviation is no different. In fact, design standards at airports are even more critical, due to higher speeds and larger fuel quantities. A case in point is the last major fatal accident at Santa Monica, on September 29, 2013.
(yellow marks show aircraft position during the crash sequence; large numbers show the groundspeed decreasing from 83 knots to 51 knots at impact; smaller numbers show net distance from runway threshold)
Four died when a Cessna 525 jet, while landing on Runway 21, swerved to the right and collided with a hangar near the west end of the airport. The accident investigation by NTSB failed to establish exactly what happened, though analysis of personal electronic devices did indicate a large dog was allowed to ride unrestrained in the jet’s cabin (could a dog cause this much loss-of-control?). So, all we know is that a local businessman who would fly almost every week between his homes in Santa Monica, CA and Sun Valley, ID, lost control during an otherwise normal landing.
This brings us back to the concept of safety design standards. If you or I are driving down a rural arterial – say, a regular old 2-lane paved highway, and right at the 55mph speed limit – we might suddenly swerve if a tire blows. Design standards exist to ensure we have a ‘clear zone’ so that our ‘errant vehicle’ can be brought to a stop without hitting a fire hydrant, a railroad trestle, a restaurant, or other object that could increase the odds of fatalities and/or serious injuries. By design, we want our ‘errant vehicle’, be it a car or an airplane, to have room to slow down and stop, with nobody getting hurt. With more room, there would not have been four fatalities on 9/29/2013; it would have instead been ‘a close call’, and likely would have triggered a decision by some of the lucky survivors to fly less. The Cessna 525 accident at Santa Monica turned out badly because the jet collided with a hangar built relatively close to the runway. After the accident cleanup, satellite images indicate that the hangar (as well as connected hangar structures, damaged by the fire) was rebuilt. It is not clear whether these structures should have been rebuilt, just as it is not clear if they were allowed to be too close to the Santa Monica runway prior to the accident. But, looking at other U.S. airports, there is evidence that a serious safety design oversight is being perpetuated at Santa Monica.
For example, consider Cobb County, GA [KRYY]. This airport, north of Atlanta near Kennesaw, also has a single runway and a ‘C-II’ Airport Reference Code (the same ARC needed for E135’s to fly scheduled charter service, as JetSuiteX proposes in early 2017).
(portion of the KRYY Airport Layout Plan. Red ellipses added, to identify the 400ft ROFAs, parallel to the north and south of the runway centerline. Not that the current hangars are much further than 400ft distant from the runway.)
But, within the May 2016 KRYY Airport Layout Plan (ALP), it is declared that FAA requires an 800ft wide ‘Object Free Area’ (OFA), thus 400ft either side of the runway centerline. Note, too, that on the ALP, the airport authority declares they are conformant with the OFA distance requirement, a point that is reinforced by online satellite images.
The satellite image further illustrates yet another stark contrast with Santa Monica: look at all the wide open space, not just to enable a safe conclusion to an errant flight, but also to minimize noise and pollutant impacts on airport neighbors (it appears there are no residences close to KRYY; just a rock quarry, office parks, and highways).
So, what’s going on here? Why is FAA allowing and funding airport expansion near Atlanta with safety design standards that appear to be routinely ignored in Santa Monica?
A Few Simple Questions
Here are four questions that both FAA and the City of Santa Monica need to answer, prior to allowing JetSuiteX to begin scheduled 30-passenger charter flights out of Santa Monica:
- prior to the accident, what was the distance between the south edge of the destroyed hangar and the runway centerline? Was this distance in compliance with FAA’s design standards for this particular runway?
- after the accident, did FAA and City confer as to the wisdom of rebuilding these hangars? Did this reconstruction require FAA to issue a specific exemption from runway setback requirements, so the new structures could continue to penetrate the runway safety areas and obstruction free areas?
- given the absence of functional Runway Protection Zones (RPZs) at Santa Monica, was either FAA or City proposed banning jets to mitigate risks? In particular, with roughly 270 residences standing inside the standard RPZ boundaries, where is there ANY FORM of ‘protection’ being achieved?
- regarding JetSuiteX, a recent news story includes this line: “We’ll begin operating whether we get permission or not,” Wilcox said. “We can use the existing facilities at the airport.” Has either FAA or the City confirmed this cowboy assertion? Has either FAA or City (hopefully BOTH!) taken immediate action to inform Mr. Wilcox of his errant views and the reality that safety dictates he will NOT operate until both the City and the FAA are assured his scheduled charter flights can meet basic safety standards?