Can This Airport Be Saved?

The fight over one of the nation’s busiest single-runway general aviation airports

A classic Stearman flying above Santa Monica Airport. (George Kounis)
Air & Space Magazine

On a hot afternoon in August 1945, the voice of Donald Douglas boomed over loudspeakers in the cavernous assembly buildings of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation at California’s Santa Monica Airport. All up and down the queues of C-47 Gooney Birds and A-26 Invaders, rivet guns and impact wrenches fell silent as Douglas informed the first shift that World War II was over. Japan had surrendered. “We all put down our tools and streamed out onto Ocean Park Boulevard, laughing and singing and hugging each other,” one employee recalled in a book on the manufacturer. Like many Douglas workers who lived in neighborhoods surrounding the airport, she hurried home and later celebrated through the night at the Santa Monica pier with most of the city. That was then.

This is now. On an early afternoon in February, ocean mist throws the view from the Santa Monica Airport observation deck into soft focus. Martin Rubin gestures out across the runway and hangars. “It’s outrageous that this city touts itself to be such an environmentally friendly place,” he says, “yet they won’t even touch this catastrophe.” Rubin, founder of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution (CRAAP), is the chief organizer of anti-airport activism in Santa Monica and west Los Angeles, an area comprising numerous neighborhood groups coalesced around long-simmering grievances against the 90-year-old facility. When I ask if his goal is to shut down Santa Monica Airport, Rubin doesn’t hesitate. “It didn’t start out that way,” he says flatly. “But it is now.”

A barley field once occupied what became Santa Monica Airport, and while nobody’s sure when the first airplane set down here, by 1917 biplanes were using the field as an informal landing strip. Donald Douglas arrived in Santa Monica in 1921 and began test flying his first military airplanes, built in an abandoned silent movie studio on nearby Wilshire Boulevard. In 1923, the strip was officially named Clover Field (in honor of World War I pilot and local native Greayer “Grubby” Clover). Howard Hughes learned to fly here. Amelia Earhart tied down here. The first round-the-world flight originated here, and Bill Lear, father of the Learjet, built his first manufacturing facility here. Now more than 200 acres on a bluff overlooking the city and the blue Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica Airport (SMO) is among America’s busiest single-runway general aviation airports and a crucial rest stop for the busy skies of greater Los Angeles. Yet next year, decisions at the local and federal levels may drastically curtail operations at the historic facility, or close it down completely.

To build the DC-3, which transformed the aircraft and air travel industries overnight, workers flocked here by the thousands. In the dire 1930s economy, Douglas Aircraft provided steady jobs. “The DC-3 really saved Santa Monica from the Depression,” says historian and author Paula Scott. The factory soon became the focus of Santa Monica’s local economy and culture. “Douglas was what the whole town was doing,” Scott says.

In neighborhoods that have grown up around Santa Monica Airport (above), residents object to the operations there. But pilots who fly in and out--in everything from class Stearmans to bizjets--say the airport is good for the city. (City of Santa Monica)
In the airport’s history is a Douglas factory that produced civilian DC-3s and military B-18 bombers, among other aircraft. (Douglas Aircraft Company)
So important was the factory in World War II that it was camouflaged as a town to deter Japanese attacks. (Douglas Aircraft Company)
In one way, the airport suppressed development in Santa Monica: Buildings surrounding it are height-restricted. (David Peters©2014)
Virginia Ernst lives right below the approach path. Jets like the Cessna Citation and Bombardier Challenger, which she can identify by sound alone, fly as low as 87 feet above her house. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
Joe Justice, who owns the biggest flight school at the airport, fears for the future of general aviation in the United States. (Chad Slattery)
From an observation deck at a Sanat Monica Airport restaurant, pilots and other aviation fans can watch the airplanes gather nearby. (David Peters)
Chief anti-airport activist Martin Rubin (white shirt) attends a city council meeting about the impact of the airport on neighborhoods. He says the jets’ noise and smell of burning fuel are reasons enough for Santa Monicans to close the airport. (Chad Slattery)
Bob Trimborn, the former airport director, walked a tight line between anti-airport activists and the FAA. (Chad Slattery)
Bill Worden, who runs an advocacy organization to keep the airport open, talks to visitors beside a P-51. (David Peters©2014)
In 1940 Santa Monica was home to DC-3s, here awaiting delivery to the airlines. (Douglas Aircraft Company)
Today a DC-3 and statue of Donald Douglas stand outside an aviation museum near the airport. (Chad Slattery)

During World War II, Douglas mass-produced the A-20 and A-26 light bombers and the C-47 military variant of the DC-3. As many as 40,000 workers built airplanes in three shifts around the clock. As C-47s rolled off the line, 1,800-horsepower radial engines rattled the neighborhood day and night. Oily exhaust mingled with ocean fog in nearby streets. When America flew to war in machines built at Santa Monica, no one complained about airport noise or pollution.

Donald Douglas would scarcely recognize the homes he had built for his blue-collar workers. Houses once occupied by assembly line workers today draw appraisals exceeding $1 million. The neighborhoods have become gentrified; on a street where residents kept horses or chickens in back yards as late as the 1960s, an empty lot now brings $700,000.

Next door, SMO handles 165,000 landings and takeoffs annually, of which about 14,000 are business jets. Of the 262 airplanes based here, all but 40 are single-engine, propeller-driven.

“You like that smell?” Rubin asks. “That’s what got me involved.” We’re in the North Westdale neighborhood of Mar Vista, just off the east end of SMO, not far from Rubin’s home and the vegetable garden he was weeding the day he got fed up. The air is heavy with the odor of burning jet fuel. No major airport in the United States is as intimate with its neighbors as Santa Monica; as little as 250 feet separates living room Barcaloungers from Bombardier jets landing at 140 mph. “I’ve given up using my back yard,” says Virginia Ernst, a longtime resident and prominent airport critic. In Ernst’s home on Sardis Avenue, I leave my shoes at the door and sit on her sofa as she describes life under the landing path in the house she’s owned for over 50 years. “To be honest with you,” she says right off, “I hate the jets.” Ernst interacts with Federal Aviation Administration officials frequently, “and not one has ever told me this is a good situation. But the FAA’s point of view is that our homes are too close to the airport, not that the airport’s too close to our homes.”

She synchronizes a pause with the shriek of a jet passing overhead—a reflex obviously refined from years of interrupted conversations. My reflex is to duck. “They’re allowed to pass 87 feet above my roof,” she explains, as tires touch tarmac a hundred yards away with a squeal. A connoisseur of jet sounds and smells, Ernst identifies their provenance without even looking. “Challengers are quieter when they’re holding. But when they take off, you get a deep rumbling and the whole house trembles.” Gulfstream’s G4, the largest of the jets allowed at SMO, has a “high-pitched, irritating effect,” she says. “You can hear the vortex as they pass over. Limbs shake and fruit falls off my trees.”

Did these people realize there was an airport in the neighborhood when they bought their houses? The question is a legitimate challenge from the aviation community to airport neighbors everywhere complaining about noise and pollution. Around Santa Monica, at least, this is the answer: Yes. For many, however, today’s SMO is a far cry from the airport they moved next to. “A lot of our residents here moved in during the years of the jet ban,” explains Cathy Larson of the neighborhood group Friends of Sunset Park. Small jets of the 1960s, the Lears and Rockwell Jet Commanders, were notoriously noisy and grossly polluting. Santa Monica imposed curfews on jets in 1967, then banned them completely. A federal judge threw out the ban in 1981, but a downturn in general aviation kept landings and takeoffs low throughout the 1980s—as few as two jet operations per day during some years. Prospective homeowners saw, heard, and smelled a classic prop-driven general aviation facility operating next door. “A good-old-boy type of airport,” Virginia Ernst recalls. “We even added onto our house then because it was so nice here we thought we wanted to stay.”

This harmony of buzzing props and tinkling wind chimes gave way to more discordant sounds. “Powerful business aircraft groups targeted this airport,” Martin Rubin says. Without notifying the neighborhood, the city issued leases to build business-jet centers on the north side of the runway. Office complexes sprang up nearby to draw wealthy Hollywood entertainment tenants. Then came a $10 million runway makeover. By that point, Rubin says, “the increase in jets was just phenomenal.” A few years ago, annual jet operations exceeded 18,500, and neighbors were subjected to as many as 70 jet takeoffs or landings per day. Last year, they accounted for 94 percent of noise violations. “They should never have let jets back into this airport,” Rubin says. “They shouldn’t have been let in to begin with.”