Bargain Base Mint

After a year of wrangling, arguing and posturing, county officials finally settled on a two-day El Toro "flight demonstration," which the county's El Toro program manager said will have "no scientific value"—but will cost county taxpayers $1.3 million nevertheless. On June 4 and 5, 54 commercial aircraft will arrive and depart at El Toro in an attempt to provide residents with proof that El Toro International Airport will be noiseless, dirt-free and cure cancer. Given the fact that the county's proposed airport will handle 15 times that many flights, the test is a bit like comparing a tuba to a war.

For these reasons and others, two county supervisors and a dozen members of the public criticized the demonstration at the supes' May 18 show vote. Of course, with three supervisors ready to approve damn near anything, mere facts didn't matter.

If they listened, the board majority heard (and obviously ignored) something interesting: according to county risk manager Sharon Lightholder, the county's $100 million insurance policy for the demonstrations cost only $4,785. That's quite a bargain. In fact, it's such a bargain that some airport opponents immediately speculated the county might not have disclosed to the insurer everything they know about the demonstration's potential risk. Lightholder insisted, "The county completely disclosed what the test flights would be about."

Unpersuaded, Third District Supervisor Todd Spitzer probed. He asked Lightholder what the county told the insurance company. Lightholder said her office gave them "a complete program description."

Then Spitzer asked if the county disclosed a 1996 FAA report saying the straight-out north takeoffs the county proposes for Runway 34 were "unlikely" due to interference from LAX inbound traffic. No, Lightholder admitted, but she added that company officials "read the local newspapers" and "are extremely in tune with what we are doing."

Spitzer then asked if the county told the company that no commercial-sized aircraft has attempted a northern departure since 1965, when an U.S. Air Force 707 crashed into Loma Ridge. No again, said Lightholder, but she added that she told the company the demonstration would be done "in accordance with FAA procedures."

The county is fond of saying the flight tracks for both the demonstration and the proposed airport are "much the same as those used by the Marines." Unlike the Marines, however, the county intends to fly immense, lumbering commercial jets straight out over Loma Ridge and the other terrain surrounding El Toro—something the Marines never attempted. When departing to the north, the Marines always turned left before reaching the ridge—except once: the 1965 crash occurred because the pilot failed to turn left in time.


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