A peoples environmental impact report on El Toro International Airport


5. Political runways. The county says it will tear up the current runways (because they're not dense enough to handle the pounding of modern commercial air traffic) but will reconstruct them in exactly the same way the Marines did more than 50 years ago—an archaic plus-sign layout with runways spaced less than 1,000 feet apart. The FAA would prefer to see all the runways run parallel—for reasons of safety as well as efficiency. But never mind airline safety: parallel runways are politically dangerous. Run them north-south, and you pound North County cities with noise; run them east-west, and you have planes flying over wealthy Newport Beach. And we can't have that. Hence the plus sign.

6. No simultaneous operations. Because the county insists on reusing the Marines' plus-sign layout, it'll be impossible for airport-traffic control to conduct simultaneous landings or takeoffs on either set of parallel runways. To do that, the runways would have to be at least 3,000 feet apart. That restriction will slow operations considerably.

7. Eastern departures. Making matters worse is the fact that the county wants nearly 70 percent of all aircraft to take off to the east on Runways 8L and 8R. That means they will have to take off uphill into rapidly rising terrain with a nearly constant tailwind—the worst combination of factors affecting any of El Toro's runways. And it shows in the county's own aircraft-performance analyses. Published in mid-1998 by the aviation firm Jeppesen Sanderson, which draws up all the airport charts that fill every pilot's flight bag, the analyses show that all aircraft departing on Runways 8L and 8R will suffer a nearly 10-ton "weight penalty." That means they will only be able to take off if they're carrying 20,000 pounds less of fuel, passengers or cargo than their maximum takeoff weight. Interestingly, the analyses also show that none of the other runways at El Toro—which point toward population centers south, north and west—will inflict similar weight penalties on aircraft.

8. Steep climbs. On top of that, the county wants all departing aircraft from every runway to begin an immediate climb at a rate of 420 feet per nautical mile just to avoid the surrounding hills and ridges. While the county has been quick to point out that such a climb is well within the flight capabilities of all of today's commercial airliners, this climb differs sharply from the 1,000-foot-per-nautical-mile climb carried out by aircraft leaving John Wayne Airport. That climb, while much steeper, is an artificial noise-mitigation measure; should the aircraft find itself unable to continue climbing, it can safely drop to a much lower altitude. But at El Toro, the planes either make the climb or they hit the ground.

9. Engine-out procedures. So here's a plane, loaded with fuel, passengers and baggage, hurtling down the runway at maximum power when, suddenly, an engine goes. Now the pilot is at two-thirds or even half power—and quickly running out of asphalt. Can the plane stop before it slams into the hill at the end of El Toro's Runway 8? Or should the pilot muscle the plane into takeoff and try to set it down again somewhere? Difficult questions—made worse by the fact that the pilot has perhaps one second to decide.

The situation is rare—a pilot may fly for 30 years and never encounter it—but it happens enough that every pilot must consider the possibility before every takeoff. As a result, every airport has special engine-out procedures. Because of El Toro's surrounding hills, the Jeppesen-developed special procedures require a stricken aircraft departing to the east to make a 15-degree banked climbing turn 100 degrees to the right. Pilots launching damaged planes to the north would have to make a similar climbing turn but would have to crank the aircraft 130 degrees to the left.

These procedures are difficult enough for aircraft flying at maximum power, and they allow absolutely no margin for error. They also exemplify the extent to which county officials are willing to go to cram an airport into El Toro.


One of the earliest gems of pro-airport propaganda came from Marine Brigadier General Art Bloomer (retired), currently executive director of the North County cities supporting the county's airport proposal. "Converting El Toro to an operational civilian airport is essentially a turnkey operation," Bloomer wrote in a 1993 LA Times editorial. That assurance reappeared countless times in pro-airport mailers. To voters who had no idea what the county's plan would entail, the statement made an airport at El Toro seem sensible and cheap.

10. Demolition. The ASMP makes it clear the county's plan is neither sensible nor cheap. Just about everything the Marines ever built at El Toro has to go: the air-traffic control tower, hangars, Quonset huts, buildings, streets and fuel tanks. All four runways are goners, too, with new concrete laid for each of the two north-south and two east-west runways in phases over the next 20 years. El Toro boss Gary Simon has called it "the largest demolition project in Orange County history."

11. Earth moving. This will be followed by the biggest earthmoving job in county history. The goal is to flatten the runway gradients, currently running between 0.62 percent for the north-south runways and 1.55 percent for the east-west runways. In 1998, the county's Facility Requirements technical report came out, saying engineers would have to cut 4.4 million cubic yards of dirt from the base's northeastern and southeastern quadrants and fill 10.3 million cubic yards of dirt in the northwestern and southwestern quadrants.

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