Airport boosters are spending the final days before the March 7 election screaming over a television ad paid for by the South County cities allied against the county's proposed El Toro International Airport. The reason for their venom: the anti-airport ad shows graphic footage from a June 25, 1965, crash of a military transport plane that hit Loma Ridge immediately after departing El Toro, killing all 84 servicemen aboard.
"I'm angry that your tax dollars are paying for this insult," said retired Marine Corps General and former Irvine City Councilman Art Bloomer in a response ad paid by chief airport booster George Argyros. "I want them to start telling the truth."
Pro-airport Supervisor Cynthia Coad was no less hyperbolic during her Feb. 24 press conference. "It is inexcusable that a community organization is using a tragic accident and the deaths of U.S. servicemen, which occurred 35 years ago, to further their political agenda," said Coad, whose statement included the words "disgust," "exploited" and "outraged." "An ad like this is destructive public policy."
It's easy to explain their fury: the ad is extremely effective. It shows clearly the dangers of flying out of El Toro because of the runway's proximity to foothills 1,000 feet and higher.
But the righteous outrage from those who would hurl more than 800 planes in and out of El Toro every day misses a number of points. First off, the ad doesn't desecrate anyone's memory—in fact, it attempts to show how the county's airport plan completely ignores the lessons from the crash; the accident didn't even appear in the county's 1996 Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR). At the time, officials said they'd never heard of the crash. This is hard to believe, since The Orange County Register did a full-page spread on it in 1995—a full year before the DEIR was completed.
More important, the outcry ignores the simple fact that the plane in question crashed while attempting to fly north off Runway 34—exactly the route county planners say they want similar aircraft to fly. Before the big crash, Marines leaving Runway 34 always made an immediate left turn to avoid the 1,500-foot Loma Ridge that lies just four miles north of the base. The transport aircraft in the 1965 crash didn't do that. Instead, that plane—operating in near-blind conditions just before 2 a.m.—flew straight into the ridge.
Why Air Force Captain William F. Cordell, the aircraft's pilot, did that remains a mystery: the portion of the official Marine Corps accident report detailing causality is redacted (a standard procedure in military crash reports). But local commercial pilots studying the crash surmise that Cordell was about 30 seconds late in banking left—half the time it takes to reheat a cup of coffee in the microwave.
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The clear lesson from the crash is to avoid flying anywhere near Loma Ridge. That's what the Marines concluded when, following the 1965 crash, they imposed a ban on almost all transport flights from Runway 34.
But inside the County Hall of Administration, facts are stupid and history is irrelevant. County airport planners want the biggest and heaviest commercial airliners to depart north out of El Toro on nearly the same flight track Cordell took. They want aircraft to fly straight over Loma Ridge, a route that leaves little, if any, margin for error.
That's the danger highlighted in the South County TV spot. El Toro boosters frequently talk about the "dangerous" noise-abatement departure from John Wayne Airport. Sure, flying nearly straight up is risky, but aircraft that can't make it have the option of dropping to a much lower altitude. At El Toro, an aircraft that can't make the steep departure required to rise above Loma Ridge will crash.
Think about that the next time someone mentions the "outrageous" anti-airport TV ad.