Santa Monica Fights Against SMO Crashes, FAA Makes Them Possible (Updated Tuesday at Noon)


I listened to the wup-wup-wup-wup of the helicopter’s flying overhead, I cursed inwardly and got up to double-check the front door was locked. Usually sirens and helicopters mean there’s a criminal on the loose, and better safe than sorry. The door was locked, I went back to working on “The Week in Livable Streets Events” for Streetsblog and emailing with Laura Nelson about the Hyperion Bridge redesign.

Photo: Wikimedia
The Cessna Citation 525-A, a “little” jet. Photo: Wikimedia

I was missing the major story. A twin-engine Cesnna Citation 525-A  jet plane crashed earlier in the evening at the Santa Monica Airport. The crash claimed the life of all on board, destroyed a hangar, created an out-of-control fire that spread throughout the airport, and nearly destroyed a resident’s house.

The crash is a tragedy for all involved, the pilot and crew of the airplane, the family of all those who lost their lives, the owner of the hangar, the staff of the Santa Monica Airport, and all those who live near or care about the airport. An investigation is promised.

Hopefully, the investigation will go beyond the black box and look at the larger role and crash history at the airport. Residents and the Santa Monica city government have fought against jets landing at the airport for years, in part because of the risk of a crash in an airport surrounded by dense residential development.  The list of crashes at the Santa Monica Airport before yesterday was already pretty long.

But every time the city tries to regulate the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration has taken the city to court to assure that crashes such as yesterday’s can continue to occur.

For example, in 1981 the city set noise limits for jets entering the runway at 85 decibels. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Santa Monica Airport Association took them to court and won. The city re-set the decibel level at 100, it has since been reduced to 95. The decibel level for a Cessna Citation 525-A is 92.1 on approach. This jet would have been banned under the airports 1980’s regulations that were overturned.

Update: One commenter takes exception to the claim that this regulation would apply to the Cessna Citation 525-A as the city of Santa Monica and the Airport would likely have put sensors in different areas than the FAA for the testing done in the chart I list to.  While I somehow doubt the city would choose a method that has a lower DbA than the FAA, it’s worth mentioning that we can’t be 100% certain the Cessna Citation 525-A would have been banned.

The proposal from the city from the last decade would have left the runway just over 4500 feet long, a Cessna Citation 525-A only requires 3,360 feet for takeoff. I regret this error.



Between 2000 and 2002, the City Council and city staff studied and established a plan for the airport that created a graded separation zone between the runway and the nearby residential areas. Almost every airport that allows jets to use the airport has at least this buffer. However, creating the zone would have required truncating the runway which would have made the landing of “Type C and D” aircraft impossible. The Cessna Citation 525-A is a Type C aircraft.

Update: It turns out the Cessna Citation 525-A is a “Type B” aircraft, as the law applies to  the approach category and not the ICAO Type Designator. My apologies for getting this incorrect.

The FAA issued an order overturning the city ordinance, in part because the city’s liability in crashes should be limited because it can prove that Type C and B aircrafts can safely land at the airport. The city appeals the FAA’s determination but the courts bizarrely rules that the FAA makes the final rulings on matters concerning airport safety.

On July 1, 2015 a lease agreement between the City and the federal government expires for the “Quit Claim” property that covers the western end of the airport and 2000 feet of the runway. An advocacy coalition known as Airport2Park is urging the city to close Quit Claim and turn the area to open space. The idea is popular with city residents.

However, there is a catch. Airport supporters point to a 1994 grant agreement between the federal government and city that may require the city to operate the airport as it is until 2023. The city believes the agreement requires the operation only until 2014.

If the city moves forward with Airport2Park’s plan, a lawsuit will doubtless occur. What role the FAA takes in the procedures, litigant or spectator, may go a long way to determine whether or not the lawsuit is successful or if the city can find other, less destructive, uses for the property.

With two high-profile crashes occurring in just over two years, an August 2011 crash where a plane literally landed in someone’s front lawn made national headlines as well, one has to wonder when the FAA is going to decide that enough is enough.

Damien Newton
Damien Newton
Damien is the executive director of the Southern California Streets Initiative which publishes Santa Monica Next, Streetsblog Los Angeles, Streetsblog San Francisco, Streetsblog California and Longbeachize.


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