The Year in the 24/7 Noise-Makin', Pollution-Spewin', Air-Tragedy-Waiting-to-Happen El Toro Internat

Another year of listening to county planners and supervisors tell us how an international airport at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station will employ the poor and low-skilled, make Orange County a cosmopolitan gateway to Asia, and be so quiet and safe that little bunny rabbits will hop around parks envisioned to surround the runways is over. Neither the primary election in June nor last month's general election changed the county Board of Supervisors' 3-2 split, so the airport remains alive. For those counting, the county's El Toro planning office is now 4 years old. And county taxpayers are $40 million poorer.

This isn't to say 1998 was all bad for those skeptical of the county's aeronautical intentions. After a series of public-records requests, three county reports turned up that ridiculed the county's own proclamations that an El Toro International Airport will be safe and profitable.

The first, an early draft of the Simulation Assumptions report, came out in March. It contradicted previous county statements that county officials had no plans to scrap El Toro's current runway configuration-a plus sign of two runways heading east crossing two runways heading north. According to the Simulations report, three early configurations eliminated the east-west runways entirely-potentially satisfying two commercial airline pilots unions that say eastern takeoffs require planes to take off uphill with tailwinds into rising terrain.

Had the county gone ahead with plans to scrap the eastern runways, El Toro might become a safe-and permanently small-airport. Alas, the report was a mere draft that county officials trashed in favor of plans to keep 70 percent of all takeoffs heading east, with the remainder shooting north.

In May, the long-awaited Instrument Flight Procedures Analysis came out. This report, filled with colorful topographical foldouts showing future arrival and departure tracks, was a real stunner. For two years, commercial pilots have said future El Toro pilots would have a difficult time departing over steep terrain surrounding the airport on three sides. According to the May report, they were right: pilots leaving El Toro will have to fly over the hills and ridges that lie to the north and east. This, numerous pilots told the Weekly, would be difficult enough with a fully operational airplane and nearly impossible when an engine quits on takeoff.

In July, the mammoth Jeppeson Analyses came out, although its debut lacked the media attention that normally surrounds new county reports. Maybe it was the content: the report removed all doubt about the usefulness of El Toro's infamous eastern runways. Produced by the Denver-based aviation firm Jeppeson Sanderson-which is responsible for the airport charts that fill every airline pilot's flight bag-the report is nothing more than 2-inch-thick volumes of performance tables. According to the tables, every airliner taking off to the east faces a serious weight penalty, a penalty that doesn't exist on the other three runways. For example, the report says a Boeing 757 can take off to the north with a full load on a typical 72-degree day but must drop 21,000 pounds (fuel, passengers and/or cargo) if the same plane on the same day wants to depart to the east.

To sum up: the eastern runways limit the payload (and therefore profits) of any airline that uses them. And they force pilots to fly risky departures over wooded hills that claimed a Boeing 707 in 1965. It's no wonder former Department of Transportation Inspector General Mary Schiavo said in October she'd be surprised if the Federal Aviation Administration approved the county's plans.

For Supervisors Charles Smith (1st District), Jim Silva (2nd District) and William Steiner (4th District), the revelations and reports meant nothing. On April 21, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve an El Toro International Airport "Community" handling 24 million passengers and 2.2 million tons of cargo every year. The cost for all that is unknown. Four months later, the same three supervisors approved a new airport plan, replacing the high-tech trade complexes in the original "Community" with golf courses and parks. Once again, the supervisors approved an airport without demanding to know the cost.

As for the year to come, look for the split between airport boosters and opponents to widen. The South County's non-aviation reuse proposal-known as the Millennium Plan-came out in mid-February and still polls ahead of the airport. But whether opponents can translate that popularity into actual votes for the plan in a ballot initiative is unknown.

*Thanks to Colleen Nelson of Orange for the headline.


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