Singing to the Chorus

El Toro Airport Watch No. 96

The county will say anything to get their airport at El Toro. On Feb. 24, retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Tom Wall gave an "informal presentation" on the El Toro planning process at the Newport Beach Central Library. To the 40 or so locals-mostly airport junkies and bluehairs-Wall spun the airport "facts" the county's way. But that was expected: last month, the county Board of Supervisors hired Wall at $36,000 to do exactly that.

Wall didn't attempt to thicken the county's smoke-about airports as cosmopolitan gateways to the dazzling global economy or airports as employers of the poor. Instead, the dark-suited, crew-cut-clean Marine dazzled the all-booster crowd with the official line: the El Toro planning process is a well-oiled machine, rolling effortlessly toward completion.

Take the hottest airport issue right now-whether the county can start flying commercial cargo into the base this summer. "The demand for this region will be 8.9 million tons of cargo per year in 2020," said Wall, who proceeded to define the "cargo" as heavy machinery "built in the maquiladora region of Mexico that currently has to be trucked into LAX and Ontario."

Wall didn't mention that it's doubtful such flights will begin immediately after the Marines' withdrawal. Nor did he mention the persistent criticism from aviation experts and commercial pilots that El Toro's runways are unsuitable for commercial flights.

"There's no reason in the world [El Toro] can't be transformed into an international airport," he said, ignoring the ample counterevidence. "Because it is in fact an international airport today."

There's a huge gulf between flying military-transport planes and commercial 757s, but that wasn't on Wall's radar screen. Of course, Wall has never flown commercially.

Wall veered precariously close to the surface when asked by an audience member about the merits of a July 2 letter from the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). That letter declared that regular tailwinds and surrounding terrain made El Toro a risky venture. Wall deftly skirted the issue by saying, "ALPA hasn't taken an official position on the airport." Wall then described El Toro's flight tracks as "completely safe and workable" and declared that "wind direction is not even an issue when talking about today's commercial airliners." On the issue of pilots demanding to use runways other than those selected for them by the county, Wall intimated that pilots who do that risk their careers.

"Never, never, never," said Earl McKenzie, a Mission Viejo resident who flew commercially for more than 30 years and once debated Wall on OCN. "The captain by law is the ultimate authority over the airplane. I can only speak for United, Delta and American [the companies McKenzie flew for], but they do not question the captain's judgment. ALPA would never allow that."

Wall closed by discouraging attendees from "sending money to either side because the groups will have no impact." For South County, whose litigation Wall said could delay El Toro's opening "for five years," that's exactly the point.

 
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