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Noise, Noise, Noise

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.

Once again, it angled westward, a maneuver county officials said last summer wasn't necessary. On the one hand, veering west—the Marines' preferred departure—would steer planes away from the nearby rising terrain and avoid any interaction with LAX traffic. On the other, veering west means pounding with noise Irvine's not-yet-completed Northwood community as well as parts of central Orange County.

After the test, county officials would say the northern departures went exactly as planned. For the many Northwood residents who heard the overflights, that statement would cut like a cold knife. Or maybe a buzz saw.

By 9:30 p.m., I was tired. And frustrated at constantly having to fumble through the county's myriad demonstration schedules. And sick of spending my Friday night sitting in the cold evening air in the parking lot of the biggest Mormon church I'd ever seen in my life, just to catch a fleeting glimpse of an arriving 757 or A320.

The test was dragging into its sixth hour. Even at this hour, aircraft were landing and taking off at times that didn't appear on any of the four schedules the county had distributed in the previous several days. The "latest" schedule—an obviously thrown-together document I pulled off the county's Web site that day, which showed the county's lone 747 landing at 4:05 p.m. and again 10 minutes later—was completely useless. Usually, the only way to observe a fly-over was to head somewhere near the flight path and wait. And wait. And wait.

Apart from its maddening inaccuracies, the schedule suffered from three fundamental omissions. First, there were no test flights scheduled for Friday work hours, so none of the thousands of people who work in the Irvine Spectrum directly off the base could hear how the airport affected their work environment. Second, there were no test flights early Saturday morning, despite the fact that most cargo flights and many international flights occur between midnight and 5 a.m. Finally, there were no test flights Sunday morning, when South County residents were in bed, having breakfast or attending church.

I sat in the vast Mormon church parking lot on Aliso Creek Road in Aliso Viejo to hear how the airport would affect some of the county's most pious residents. The church looked out over the vast undeveloped land that makes up the county's vaunted "no-home zone" that supposedly protects even the closest residents from mind-numbing jet roar.

After listening to the coyotes howl for a while under the cold, cloudless sky, I finally saw a plane fly over at 9:50 p.m. Its running lights were so bright the whole plane looked like a giant white ball. After 50 seconds of sharp jet-engine whine, the church parking lot became quiet again. Hearing that every few minutes—even once every 20 minutes—can't be good for communing with God.

Another plane flew over at 10:25—amazingly, right on schedule, according to the latest revised schedule. Heartened that the county had finally gotten its act together, I eagerly awaited the scheduled 10:35 and 10:40 arrivals. I waited vainly until 11, and then left.

On Friday, just three planes out of 13 departed on Runway 7 to the east—hardly a realistic test for a runway slated to handle 70 percent of all takeoffs. County officials later said bad winds had forced the planes onto the longer runway headed north. But that was just more evidence that Runway 7—which forces aircraft to take off uphill into rising terrain with tailwinds—was useless in anything other than perfect conditions. And that suggests that most flights will take off over the densely populated cities to the north.

Saturday afternoon was warm and cloudless. At 2:30 p.m., I drove into the lot at the Fairbanks Corporate Park near the James Musick jail. The big white corporate offices bordering the Runway 7 crash zone offered a perfect vantage point to watch aircraft departing to the east.

The latest schedule (which I thought the county was finally adhering to) showed a departure at 2:40. Ten minutes wasn't a bad wait, so I waited.

For the next half-hour, the only flight I saw was a hawk, slowly circling above the mustard plants in the crash zone. At 3 p.m., an MD-90 took off. The aircraft screamed overhead, eventually vanishing into the smoggy haze blanketing Coto de Caza and the hills beyond. The ascent had been slower than I expected, with the engine audibly straining in its race to hurtle the diminutive MD-90 (loaded 19,000 pounds lighter than the aircraft's maximum takeoff weight) up and over the looming ridgeline.

 

I looked at my several official schedules. Either the MD-90 was 20 minutes late or the county had gone back to its original schedule. If a 757-200 took off at 3:15, then the county had finally returned to its earlier plan.

The departure was actually 3:20, but that was close enough. This time, the aircraft was 48,000 pounds less than its maximum takeoff weight. Still the engines argued as the plane headed for the hills. Still the plane lumbered slowly into the haze.

All departing aircraft in the county's demonstration were underloaded, some by just 5,000 pounds and others more substantially. The 747-400 used Friday departed 105,000 pounds less than its maximum weight—it carried a mere 30,000 pounds of payload substitute. The county explained the weights were "typical" of the proposed airport. In any case, an aircraft 40,000 pounds underweight is a lot quieter than a maxed-out plane.

The tests went on until 8 p.m., but I was done by 3:30. I'd seen how the county could contrive special circumstances to show El Toro functioning. How it will do with 800 more operations per day is something no one will know until it happens.


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