Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - February 19, 2010

Airport worries East Palo Alto residents, but pilots defend track record

Plane crash was first to involve a structure in at least three decades

by Jocelyn Dong, Sue Dremann and Martin Sanchez

Wednesday's crash of a Cessna 310R in East Palo Alto has renewed concerns about the dangers of a municipal airport located close to a densely populated neighborhood.

For the Palo Alto Airport, the fatal incident comes at a time when the future of the 75-year-old municipal facility is under consideration.

The City Council Finance Committee is scheduled on March 2 to discuss the new business plan for the airport. Santa Clara County currently operates the airport under a 50-year-lease with Palo Alto that is scheduled to expire in 2017.

County officials have indicated in recent years that they would not renew the lease once it expires. The Palo Alto City Council and city residents have been debating over the past two years whether the city should try to take over airport operations before the lease expires. At the same time, some have called for a portion of airport land to house a new composting facility a proposal that has met resistance from local aviators.

After Wednesday's crash, some area residents said they wouldn't mind seeing the airport gone.

"They should do away with the Palo Alto Airport. We know accidents happen. They need to fly over another neighborhood," said Pamela Housten, who works for Eppie's Preschool in the 1200 block of Beech Street. She escaped from the school, which is located in a home, after it was struck by a sheared-off plane wing and caught fire.

Albertstine Pride has lived in the neighborhood since 1959. The aircraft fuselage plowed into her driveway Wednesday.

She and her daughter have talked about the planes from Palo Alto Airport many times.

"They fly too low for comfort," she said. "But I live with it."

"This is a rude awakening."

Benita Brown, another longtime resident of the Gardens neighborhood, heard two loud "booms" when the plane crashed. From her window, she saw an explosion.

Airplanes from Palo Alto Airport "used to scare me. When we added onto the house (by building the second story), you could hear the putt-putt of the plane and look out the window, and see the people in it."

But she said that "planes seem to fly higher than they used to."

Ralph Britton, co-chair of the Palo Alto Airport Association, defended the municipal airport.

"The airport's safety record is really quite good," he said. "This is certainly the first time that a plane (from the Palo Alto Airport) has crashed into a structure."

"I'm sure that there will be political repercussions from this," Britton said. "For years, some people have been against the airport, and I'm sure they will try to take advantage of this."

Standard procedures call for all planes to turn to the right a mile out from the airport, so they fly over the bay. The Cessna was to the left, off the flight path, he noted.

But about half of the planes that fly out of Palo Alto Airport do not follow this rule and fly straight towards the Dumbarton Bridge after taking off, according to an experienced local pilot who asked to remain anonymous.

Still, the area of East Palo Alto that this alternate route passes over is well north of the crash site and should not factor into questions about Wednesday's crash, the pilot said.

Another aviator, Richard Alexander, also supported the facility's track record.

"The airport's been there 60 years or so, and no one's ever hit the power lines," said Alexander, who has flown out of the airport hundreds of times.

Within the past seven or eight years, a homemade plane tipped into the Palo Alto duck pond and the pilot drowned, Britton recalled.

Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, said this is the first time a plane has crashed into a residential neighborhood in his 29 years with the district.

There have been other crashes, he said, into San Francisquito Creek, the bay and the marshes.

"This is one of the more significant crashes," Schapelhouman said.

Comments

Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 23, 2010 at 9:37 am

These small planes are dangerous and in many cases, just for recreational purposes. As a person who lives underneath the flights from this airport, I'd feel safer if they stopped flying above us. It seems an unnecessary risk to all for the pleasure of a few. It would be a reasonable change to restrict such activities to locations where there are no people below. When a tiny Cessna lands on a freeway because something goes wrong, people are so pleased if nobody dies. But the pilot was indulging in an activity that put others at risk just for his own convenience or fun and then chose a road where many people must go to save himself. This just seems wrong.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 23, 2010 at 10:22 am

I am not a pilot, but I was involved at one time in military aviation. In my training, a lot of emphasis was placed on the difficulty of flying by instruments. I heard many horror stories.

Pilots were actuely aware of the need to continually study and practice their instrument flying skills and to develop the mental discipline to rely on their instruments -- to be ready for the unfortunate day when they might have to use them. I wonder if the average civil aviator is that prepared?


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 23, 2010 at 11:11 am

These are both extraordinarily spot-on comments. I fear, however, the general aviation hobbyists just "wait it out" each time there is a tragedy or close call and then they continue on their way.


Posted by Rob, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 23, 2010 at 2:47 pm

The Observation and Anonymous comment above seem to be those of ignorant, close-minded folks who can't think beyond their own eyebrows. Suggesting that one should not fly for recreational purposes would lead one to conclude that none of us should drive our vehicles to see a movie, to see the a Giants or 49ers game, to play golf, go bowling, go skiing, play tennis etc. because this is the use of our cars for recreational purposes. Or, how about the person who buys the sports car or off-road vehicle, no matter how expensive or inexpensive – are they not buying such vehicles to a great extent to indulge a "recreational" or fun need? Probably so, so let's ban them as well! Better yet: let's take all vehicles off the road as they cause accidents that cause bodily injury or property damage! How absurd to state that one should not pilot an airplane if only to "scratch" a recreational itch or have fun. Reductio ad absurdum.

The Palo Alto airport is used for commercial purposes as well as recreational ones. It employs folks, brings in needed property tax revenue and fees and directly and indirectly brings business to the community. Location-wise, the airport is located at the edge of the Bay, and normal (i.e., published or control-tower-cleared) takeoff and landing procedures take pilots over unpopulated parts of the area, if not the bay, for parts of flight that are at dangerously low altitude – a far cry from the San Jose International Airport, for instance. Pilots who fly out of the Palo Alto airport are well aware of altitude and noise abatement procedures, and realize that their flying privileges could be revoked should they wantonly violate these procedures even once. So it is the rare pilot who takes a cavalier, arrogant or negligent attitude about their aviating responsibility with respect to adjacent communities.

Make no mistake, I believe that the accident was tragic, and my heartfelt condolences go out to the families of the people who lost their lives and, as well, to those folks whose property was damaged in the accident.

But, face it. General aviation is not going away for many good reasons. Also, the Fixed Based Operators who have businesses at the Palo Alto airport take a very pro-active approach to flying safety, not only in the extensive training provided student pilots but in providing on-going FAA-sponsored safety training seminars for all pilots.

So, to take a "chicken little" attitude towards flying and the Palo Alto airport, and to blame a community of folks for "indulging" in the vocation or avocation of flying, is really wrong. Airport authorities and operators as well as pilots don't "wait it out" as one might think, but do engage in dialogue to evolve/improve airport procedures, to the extent possible, and will continue safety training and awareness seminars.

And, yes, I am an instrument rated pilot who flies out of the Palo Alto airport and supports keeping the airport active and where it is.


Posted by Whine, whine, whine, a resident of Stanford
on Feb 23, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Well said, Rob. The NIMBYists are coming out of the woodwork here in Palo Alto over this one. I am sure soon they will call for not only the closing of Palo Alto airport, but also Moffat Field and SFO.


Posted by Joe, a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm

The idea that the safety of general aviation can somehow be equated to the danger driving ones children to school or a family outing is more than delusional, it's also irresponsible. While it's difficult to make a direct comparison in accident statistics between the two, general aviation is 20 times as dangerous per hour than driving. (Driving rates include incidents with pedestrians and motorcycles which are roughly 25 more dangerous than cars. Automobile accidents tend to involve collisions with more than one automobile on the street, general aviation plows a single fuel filled plane into an economically disadvantaged neighborhood at the end of runway.)

I don't think anyone challenges the qualification of Tesla's Mr Doug Bourn. He certainly looked, on paper, like a man who was qualified to fly. Unfortunately, even if Mr Bourn had no medical or mechanical problem, it was grossly irresponsible and incredibly negligent for Mr Bourn to take off under the weather conditions of last Wednesday. We don't need a year-long investigation from the government to tell us that. The poor judgement of Mr Bourn is obvious to anyone who looked out of the window that day. Scores of commercial flights were canceled last Wednesday morning at the time Mr Bourn took off. The San Jose Mercury said only one plane left the Palo Alto airport between the time it opened at 7AM and 8AM. That plane was flown by Mr Doug Bourn.

Saturday's Daily Post had the headline something to the effect of "Tesla's Doug Bourn Defended". Inside, the story interviewed several pilots at the Palo Alto airport. The gist of the story was that pilots felt that they were more than capable of self-policing and weighing the dangers of general aviation flying by themselves. To me, this indicates that there's a very high potential of this kind of accident happening again. In an age when the rest of the public must arrive at a commercial airport several hours early for security checks out of an abundance of caution, the idea that a single individual can fly his airplane into a dense urban environment with near zero visibility is truly frightening.

The story of the crash of Mr Halluin's plane crash is an excellent case in point. Not a few days after Mr Bourn's fatal accident, Mr. Halluin (a man who apparently got his license at age 60 and was well aware of the Mr Bourn's accident) flies against the advice of his sons into the mountains. The San Jose Mercury story said that Ms Perchonock apparently survived the impact of the crash, but was burned alive in the ensuing explosion. What would have happened had Mr Bourn been flying for another minute and crashed his twin engine plane into one of Palo Alto's schools or hospitals? Would there be any question about closing the Palo Alto airport immediately? Do we need to wait for this horrific event to happen?

Airport supporters like to tout the economic benefits of the facility. But the financial damage done by last Wednesday's power outage no doubt dwarfs any benefit the airport has provided in decades it's been active or any benefit it could provide until 2017. Economic benefit was the same argument around keeping the Romic toxic waste handling facility active in East Palo Alto, too. Like the Romic toxic waste facility, the Palo Alto airport is too dangerous to maintain in a crowded urban environment.

The name calling ridiculous arguments put forth by airport supporters further server to make keeping the Palo Alto airport untenable. Airport supports are clearly not willing to step and take responsibility for the dangers involved in keeping the facility open. As long a pilots like Mr Bourn and others in general aviation see themselves as operating outside reasonable common sense and responsibility, there is no question that the Palo Alto airport should be closed.


Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Feb 23, 2010 at 7:49 pm

Thank you Rob. You just won an activist who will work against the airport. Until you made it personal, I wasn't going to bother. Hope you can find a less populated place to fly.


Posted by Alan, a resident of Midtown
on Feb 24, 2010 at 8:06 am

In the 80 year +/- history of the airport, have there been any airplane accidents which killed or injured nearby residents or damaged their property other than the recent one involving Bourne? I haven't read of any so, without more knowledge, I think the overall safety argument is not that strong.

To me, it seems that the real and immediate problem is allowing non-emergency use of a small airport near residential areas in instrument flying conditions. Controlling that useage shouldn't take years of debate.

The larger issue is whether or not local government funds should be used to maintain the facility. There are arguments on both sides which should be aired. This will take time. And it should, because if the airport is shut down, it will probably be gone forever, like the Palo Alto harbor (a debate which also involved charges of elitism).






Posted by CessnaTwinPilot, a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2010 at 4:17 pm

The headline of this article says it itself - one crash involving a structure in three decades. How many car crashes occurred in the last 30 years? I will tell you - enough to cause more than 2 million deaths. How many fatal accidents occurred in that period of time involving traffic at PAO? You don't flinch at car accidents, but, because it's a "rich person" flying an airplane, you suddenly jump up in arms. Those folks flying their aircraft likely contribute more to society, and to the local, state, and national economies than you do.


Posted by CessnaTwinPilot, a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2010 at 6:26 pm

"To me, it seems that the real and immediate problem is allowing non-emergency use of a small airport near residential areas in instrument flying conditions. Controlling that useage shouldn't take years of debate." - why don't you take some time to learn what is involved in instrument flying instead of spouting your ignorance. IFR flying is very safe when the proper procedures are followed. The airport is equipped for instrument approaches and meets the FAA requirements for instrument approaches and departures. It is obligated to be open to all kinds of traffic and when the weather conditions are at or above the instrument approach/departure minima all instrument rated pilots have the right to use it. You on the ground do not control the use of the airport, which is the FAA's function. How many instrument landings and departures occur at PAO safely, with only one accident on departure? You said it yourself, "how many accidents occurred in 80+ years with damage or injuries on the ground"? You are right about one thing, the anti-airport safety argument is bogus.


Posted by petercarp, a resident of Atherton
on Feb 25, 2010 at 6:41 pm

petercarp is a registered user.

CessnaTwinPilot states:"IFR flying is very safe when the proper procedures are followed."

That is true BUT it is also true that the flight in question did NOT follow the proper procedure - which is a right turn to 060 within one mile of runway. Why it did not follow the proper IFR departure procedure remains to be determined.

The issue is how to protect the nearby residents when deviations from proper procedure occur.

The airport exists solely as long as it has public support and last week's crash has threatened that support because the current procedures did NOT protect the public.

I hope that the PAAA Guidelines regarding low altitude operations on the west side of the runway are converted into a mandatory restrictions prohibiting all such operations by the airport operator.

I am an IFR rated private pilot with years of experience flying from the Palo Alto airport.


Posted by Hmmm, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 26, 2010 at 9:46 am

I think both Joe and Peter Carp show some thought-provoking arguments on both sides and I appreciate their input.

I also read the same article as Joe about Bourn's competence. A large part of what angers me about this horrific incident is that it smacks of technology uber alles. Just as it's deeply upsetting when I see the arrogance of criminals' choices in my community, it's just as distrubing when the arrogance of technologists gets the best of them and others who weren't part of the lousy decision-making which caused a problem. Arrogance is part of the problem. Bourn clearly loved to fly and ride motorcycles, both dangerous activities.

I think the pilots would be less defensive if their passion was more defensible. It's not, to many of us. I also wonder what the passengers were thinking, getting on a small plane in the fog.


Posted by Anon, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 27, 2010 at 11:40 am

"CessnaTwinPilot": My advice to you is to let others do the talking. Unfortunately, you are making the case for closing the airport with your attitude. If I thought that you reflected the views of all pilots, I would vote to close the airport immediately!

As for others: I believe that there is a way to make the airport a better neighbor and keep it operating. A growing number of pilots realize that it will take compromise to keep this type of general aviation airport up and running. Unfortunately, we now have a perfect example of what EPA residents have been worried about. Thank goodness the plane did not crash into a gym full of people at Eastside Prep, for example, or kill any of the kids at daycare, or, ...


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Feb 27, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I think the time has come to act. I have submitted the following request:

Carl Honaker
Director of Airports
Santa Clara County

This is a request that the County of Santa Clara, as the operator of the Palo Alto Airport, take the necessary steps to prohibit low altitude pattern operations on the west side of runway 13/31 and to prohibit IFR departures from runway 31 whenever those departures could be safely made from runway 13.

Please let me know if you require additional information or a different form/format in order to act on this request.


Peter Carpenter

For purposes of background this request is being made by someone who
- is an IFR rated private pilot who flew for many years out of KPAO, but who no longer flies
- was a member of the PAO Joint Community Relations Committee for 18 years and Chair for 8? years
- was a Palo Alto Planning Commissioner for 4 1/2 years
- was an elected Director of the Menlo Park Fire Protection District for 8 1/2 years


Posted by Deep Throat, a resident of another community
on Feb 27, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Do the directions of departures (runway 31 vs. runway 13) depend on the prevailing wind direction. Is that why departures are on runway 31?


Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton
on Feb 27, 2010 at 1:11 pm

The wind direction and strength determine the best direction to land and take off. It is highly preferable to land and takeoff into the wind. At the Palo Alto airport the prevailing winds are usually from the North making runway 31, which has a magnetic heading of 310, the most common for takeoffs and landings. When the wind shifts to the south, as usually happens when a low pressure weather system approaches the Bay area, runway 13, which has a magnetic heading of 130, is preferred. In no wind situation, like most of the time when there is fog, either runway can be used.


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