By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Photo by Myles Robinson"[B]e sensitive to property owners."—County advisory faxed to reporters covering the noise-monitoring during the El Toro flight demonstration
Throughout most of the year, Laguna Hills residents enjoy the cool breeze that blows almost constantly from the coast. A screen of pine trees along Lake Forest Boulevard muffles nearby traffic so that even in the middle of the day, the loudest sound is often a chirping bird.
But one neighborhood—small beige homes hidden among thick shrubs and bright-green garden paths—is just two miles south of the planned El Toro International Airport's Runway 34, the county's proposed arrival runway. That's what made it a great place to observe the county's "El Toro Flight Demonstration"—a two-day, $1.3 million spectacle that, far from "reassuring" local residents about El Toro, explicitly displayed the proposed airport's likely disastrous effects.
The first commercial plane to land during the test was a Boeing 747-400, the largest and loudest airliner in the world. It flew over Lake Forest Boulevard at 4 p.m.—exactly 10 hours behind schedule. The plane flew so low I could count the tires on its outstretched landing gear. Its high-pitched metallic scream lasted a full 40 seconds—from well before the plane became visible until it disappeared from view over the El Toro Y.
Had that plane landed at 6 a.m. as originally scheduled, it would have shattered sleep for thousands of residents unfortunate enough to live between the base and the Laguna coast.
County officials said low cloud cover and poor visibility made the early-morning landing impossible. Their reason: since the Marines long ago ripped out the base's Instrument Landing System (ILS), the demonstration pilots had to guide their planes to the base visually. But flying visually gave the test an artificial simplicity. Aircraft lined up like pearls on a necklace in order to land, and the planes roared directly over few homes. Once the county's airport—and its ILS—becomes operational, planes will arrive at Runway 34 from many directions, forming a wedge of almost solid noise over Dana Point, Aliso Viejo, and Lagunas Niguel, Hills, Woods and Beach.
The 6 a.m. scrub was the first indication that the county's already-flawed test was in trouble. The test's greatest flaw emerged months ago, when county officials decided no South County residence—including the Laguna Hills homes a mere two miles from the end of Runway 34—would require any acoustic retrofitting. Its calculations showed no one lived in a zone that receives 65 decibels of noise averaged over a 24-hour period.
The noise from the 747-400 that flew over Laguna Hills hovered around 90 decibels. Had it been fully loaded, it would have been louder. Had it flown over at 6 a.m., when there's virtually no background noise, it would have seemed even louder. Imagine trying to sleep while resting your head against a ringing telephone.
"This should calm the fears of many residents who are concerned about potential noise from aircraft," stated a county demonstration summary released shortly before the tests. "Given the extreme level of concern in the community, the county believes it is important to provide residents with a practical demonstration of planned flights."
Shortly before 6 p.m., a van pulled up at the corner of Sand Canyon Road and Irvine Boulevard, a part of the county that has been unchanged in decades. It's also a few hundred yards from the departure end of Runway 34. Out stepped a dark-haired man in a dark suit.
"Excuse me," he called, "are you one of the activists monitoring the tests?"
"No," I replied. "I'm a reporter."
The man's face fell. "Oh. So am I."
It was Ron Olsen from KTLA, Channel 5. As his cameraman set up a tripod, Olsen told me how the county had thoroughly restricted access at the base to a single designated area and how he wanted one last shot of a departing plane. I told him he was in the right spot, that an aircraft had just taken off at 5:30 and another—the 747-400 I saw land over Laguna Hills—should depart at any time.
Olsen looked over his schedule. "But that was supposed to be . . ."
"5:45, I know," I said, cutting him off. "The schedule's in chaos. The plane I saw take off earlier wasn't even supposed to depart on this runway—it was supposed to take off to the east. I have no idea what's going on over there."
I thought about mentioning how the plane veered farther west than the county's proposed flight tracks allowed. But I didn't. I also neglected mentioning how the county wants seven out of every 10 takeoffs heading east off Runway 7, but the tests demonstrated the reverse. Commercial pilots unions have said for years that Runway 7 was the worst of all of El Toro's runways. In the tests, at least, the pilots seemed to be getting their way.
Olsen asked me if I knew how many annual operations the county planned for El Toro. I told him the plan broke down to about one operation every two minutes. Olsen looked stunned.
After a few more questions, Olsen put away his notebook and looked at his watch. 6:15 p.m. Tired of waiting, the two wished me luck and left. An unscheduled plane took off two minutes later.