Flight Test Dummies

The strangest thing Courtney Wiercioch said into the nest of TV and radio mics during the county's July 19 press conference wasn't that she was leaving the El Toro program manager's job because she just got pregnant. It wasn't even her comment expressing surprise at the media interest surrounding the long-awaited report on the county's June 4-5 El Toro flight demonstration. Rather, her strangest comment was undoubtedly that the entire $1 million flight test was “informative,” yet at the same time “unscientific.”

That, of course, is what airport opponents have said all along. Now, apparently, Wiercioch agrees. She called the data interesting but insisted it was headed to the county's wastebasket.

“There are simply not enough data points,” she said, employing a scientific-sounding phrase meaning “evidence.” The report, she said, will not be included in the county's forthcoming environmental impact report.

That fact hasn't stopped county officials from leaping to bizarre and far-reaching conclusions based on the “unscientific” test. According to a July 19 county press release, the test “demonstrate[d] that aircraft can operate safely into and out of the airfield.” That's a bold—indeed, fantastic—statement for a test that was lacking enough data points for accurate noise assessment.

But it was nothing compared with the report itself. Page One of the report lays it all out, describing the flight tests as having “provide[d] an opportunity for persons working and living in the general vicinity of El Toro to see and hear actual operations by representative types of commercial aircraft.” This was possible because the aircraft carried “representative weights” and used “runways and flight tracks in a manner consistent with the analysis that has been completed to date in the planning process for El Toro.”

Even a casual reading of the report makes clear those claims are nonsensical. The first, that the tests showed “persons working and living in the general vicinity” what El Toro would be like, is laughable and the easiest to refute. An average of 25 operations occurred during each day of the test—hardly suitable for an airport proposed to handle an average of 824 operations per day. No flights occurred in the early morning hours, and only two operations occurred during normal Friday work hours—both after 4 p.m. The county barely tested people living near El Toro, and it carefully shielded workers in the massive Irvine Co. commercial properties surrounding the base by directing planes around them.

The second claim, that the tests used “representative types of commercial aircraft” is true, but it ignores the larger issue: it's not the sound of one MD-90 or one A320 that frightens South County residents—it's the sound of whole fleets of those planes soaring over their heads.

The third claim is the most complex and, naturally, the most egregious. Throughout the test, county officials claimed they loaded all aircraft to “typical” operating weights. Of course, loading aircraft to “typical” rather than maximum loads produces quieter aircraft. For example, the heaviest 747 that flew on June 4 tipped the scale at 700,001 pounds despite the fact that that plane could have weighed 800,000 pounds. On average, the county's test planes weighed between 20,000 and 100,000 pounds less than airlines would like.

But that fact pales before the county's greater dissembling—that the test aircraft used flight tracks and runways exactly as the county planned for the fully functioning El Toro International Airport. For the past three years, county officials have insisted that 70 percent of all departures will take off to the east, with the remaining departures heading north. During the flight tests, just 36 percent of departures headed east—depriving the residents of Coto de Caza, Mission Viejo and Lake Forest of the full fury of even the county's flaccid test.

The county's explanation for the massive difference in runway usage is that the Marines had already ripped out El Toro's instrument landing and departure equipment, requiring pilots to use visual flight rules (VFR). That put operations at the mercy of the low cloud cover that hung over the base on June 4, forcing aircraft scheduled to fly east onto the longer northern runway. Of course, the county's pretest schedule (written long before June 4) anticipated just 48 percent of all departures using the eastern runway. Clearly, county officials weren't even trying to test their 70-30 plan.

But the VFR requirement—which the county insists is temporary—also altered the flight tracks county consultants have meticulously planned. In a much-promoted Instrument Flight Procedures report released in May 1998, the county outlined how aircraft departing El Toro will climb at roughly 400 feet per nautical mile to hurdle the terrain surrounding the base. That's 200 feet more than the standard departure gradient. In that report, county officials compared the climb favorably to other airports, including John Wayne Airport's politically derived gradient of 1,000 feet per nautical mile.

But according to the new flight-test report, all aircraft departing El Toro during the flight tests had to climb at a rate of 600 feet per nautical mile—again, a temporary course made necessary by the base's inability to handle instrument departures. In effect, the steeper departure climb acted as a noise-abatement procedure, lessening the already-considerable noise heard by locals and further mocking the county's insistence that it tested flight conditions “in a manner consistent with analysis that has been completed to date.”

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