At Santa Monica, It’s About Safety

VAN NUYS, CA – During a recent general aviation issues conference hosted here in April, a conversation with Robert D. Trimborn, C.M., airport manager at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, turned to his city’s ongoing dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration. Santa Monica wants to limit the heavy bizjet activity at its airport — it says it’s living on the safety edge with a 5,000-foot runway that abuts residential areas on either end. FAA’s reaction is this is an airport trying to buck the system, the aviation system. So far, FAA has won in court. Trimborn’s assertion: One G-4 overshooting his runway will result in death and destruction, and potentially the political fallout of his airport being shut down. He says FAA needs to reconsider how it evaluates airports as the technology of aircraft advances.

Santa Monica Municipal was the original home of Douglas Aircraft, and housing around the airport was encouraged for the manufacturer’s workforce. When the jet age began, Douglas moved to Long Beach — but the nearby housing remained, and with it an ongoing tussle with FAA over use of the airport. On May 16, a preliminary injunction was issued in support of FAA that prevents the city from implementing a ban on Class C&D business jets.

Trimborn, 56, now finds himself at the center of this historical tug of war with FAA. A certified flight instructor who has been flying since age 14, he was hired as airport manager at Santa Monica in 1996. He previously served in airport management at Hawthorne (CA) Municipal and Reno-Stead (NV) airports.

Following the Van Nuys meeting, Trimborn spoke with AIRPORT BUSINESS about the challenges facing his airport. Here are edited excerpts of that discussion ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: When we discussed this in Van Nuys, it was expressed that what’s going on at Santa Monica is a story that’s already been written. Your reaction?

Trimborn: The story is an unfolding story; the last chapters of the book have not been written yet. We’re going through a more intense time, trying to resolve the safety area issues and to create the safest possible operating environment for all aircraft users of the airport.
The FAA has basically left the city with no recourse other than to eliminate the aircraft that are the most incompatible with the airport, as a part of the aircraft performance program. Those are aircraft that require runway safety areas, per FAA design guidelines for airports.

We have no safety areas.

AB: Is the current impasse simply a result of aircraft technology passing by the capability of the airport?

Trimborn: It’s trying to resolve that fundamental change in the fleet mix and trying to stay lock-step within FAA guidelines for safety areas for an airport. Therein lies the rub.

If you were to build this airport in a green field somewhere, the FAA would require that I have 1,000-foot safety areas at either end of the runway or they wouldn’t give us federal funding. Now we have an airport that was built many years ago that is highly encroached because of the type of operation we had historically, which was the home of Douglas Aircraft Company that employed upwards of 40,000 during World War II. Land use planning wasn’t even on the horizon for airports, but winning a war effort was. That dynamic of having homes within 300 feet of an active runway with a 40-foot grade separation has left us with the dynamic we have today.

AB: FAA maintains that it has offered to alleviate the problem by installing an engineered materials arresting system (EMAS).

Trimborn: The EMAS proposals have been varied. There is a standard EMAS system that will stop a critical aircraft going 70 knots; then there is a non-standard system that will stop the critical aircraft in the EMAS bed going at 40 knots at the end of the runway. The first system they offered us was 135 feet within a very small safety area on the west end of the runway; there was no EMAS system for the east end.
Then they decided to go with a 250-foot EMAS bed at the west end of the runway, which came close to meeting the 70-knot design standard, within a 300-foot safety area, [and a] 600-foot declared distance safety area at the east end. FAA was to present the concept of EMAS and declared distance safety area to the public. The night of that meeting, FAA pulled back from that proposal and said we’re back to where we started — 135 feet of EMAS on the west end and no safety at the east end, with maybe a declared distance.

Kirk Shaffer, the associate administrator for airports, steps into the fray; tours the airport; and he realizes that there is a safety issue concern here, and he comes back with another proposal. That proposal was 145 feet of EMAS at either end of the runway, with a 15-foot lead-in. According to him that pretty much met the 40-knot non-standard safety area. But the other caveat was that they were built on top of platforms that extended from the runway. That created 90-degree dropoffs; small aircraft, which would not be affected by EMAS, would roll over and find themselves at the edge of a precipice. I could not support that concept; to me, you were creating a safety issue for 95 percent of the aircraft using the airport for five percent or so of the C&D aircraft. Plus it didn’t really meet the 70-knot standard.

AB: And that’s when the city decided to step in?

Trimborn: Because we couldn’t get the appropriate EMAS system that FAA standards require for the fleet mix, the city council felt the quickest way to make the airport safe was to eliminate the higher performance C&D aircraft from the airport, and then told us to continue to work with FAA to try and resolve the safety area imbalance.

AB: Is there potential for a solution using EMAS?

Trimborn: I think there is a solution if the FAA would just recognize their safety standards and apply them to this airport for the fleet of aircraft using it. That’s the bottom line: we’re trying to make the airport as safe as is practical.

An appropriately sized EMAS system that met the fleet mix requirements for this airport is something I would recommend to the city council for approval. It would have to meet the 70-knot standard.
You could build the EMAS on the existing runway platform; if you pushed out the EMAS to the edges, you’d end up with a 4500-foot runway with 300-foot safety areas at either end.

AB: Is part of your challenge the perception that Santa Monica is seen as having a history of being a problem airport?

Trimborn: I think that there’s a perception in some quarters that this is just another one of those Santa Monica things. But there’s a big difference between aircraft noise and preserving lives and property. It’s safety; it’s just that simple. The stakes are so high. It’s an issue that I can’t ignore, and that’s why I’m not backing down. The stakes are too high.