A Tale of Two Airports, or How Aviation Makes a Difference, Part IV

This is the fourth installment of a series introduced in the June and August HN newsletter describing the very different attitudes toward local airports that exist in Bloomington, IL, and Santa Monica, CA. Today we continue a recap of the history of Santa Monica Municipal Airport.

Douglas DC-3, DC-4, DC-6, and DC-7

Sitting on the ramp at SMO are, from top, the DC-3, DC-4, DC-6, and DC-7. Photo courtesy of www.smgov.net/departments/airport/history

Last time (29 September) we discussed the “Instrument of Transfer dated August 10, 1948” whereby the Federal Government surrendered most of Santa Monica Municipal Airport (SMO) property back to the City of Santa Monica.

The language of the transfer was fairly clear that the property was required to be operated and maintained as an airport, but subsequent grant agreements seem to cast some doubt on this and that provision remains a central point of contention between airport supporters and the City.

In the 1950s, Douglas Aircraft, which during the war had employed as many as 44,000 workers manufacturing bombers and other warplanes, shifted gears and returned to building passenger aircraft, namely the DC-6 and DC-7 (see photo above).

By 1958 the even-larger DC-8 was in development and due to its size required a longer runway. Douglas asked the City to lengthen the runway, but residents objected and the City declined, marking the beginning of strife between the airport and the City.

While keeping some activities going such as R & D and assembly of components, eventually, after 50 years and more than 10,000 aircraft built, Douglas closed its operation at SMO and moved it to Long Beach.

During the 1960s, civilian jets began operating at SMO. These early jets were very loud compared to present-day fan jets, and the noise impact on surrounding neighborhoods was significant.

In an ill-advised marketing campaign, FBO Western Commander began night-time service to Las Vegas flying prospective buyers of the Jet Commander, one of the loudest jets at the time.

Airport neighbors became incensed at the noise and disruption from the night flights, and in 1967 a large group of neighbors sued the City, claiming jet operations damaged property values and created a nuisance. The case reached the California Supreme Court and although the plaintiffs did not prevail, the court did rule that the City could be sued for airport impacts on noise, property values, nuisance, and other reasons.

To shield itself from liability, the City considered banning jets and even closing the airport, but settled on a curfew of jet operations. After violating the curfew and being prosecuted, an offending pilot challenged the validity of the curfew. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the City – the curfew was a valid exercise of the City’s authority, as defined by state law, to regulate airport usage.

As an historical aside, by the late 60s the postwar growth in General Aviation was at its peak nationwide. Total operations (takeoffs and landings) at SMO reached an all-time high of 356,000 per year, equating to 975 per day or 40 takeoffs and 40 landings per hour every 12 hours.

In the 1970s the City created the Airport Neighbors Forum, a group of neighborhood representatives and other interested parties formed to develop proposals for noise mitigation. Based on its recommendations, the City adopted a number of stringent rules including total bans on jets and helicopter training, a night curfew, a noise limit, and other restrictions.

A group of airport operators and businesses – the Santa Monica Airport Association – challenged the ordinances, but a Federal District Court upheld all but the jet ban. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the ruling, stating that federal law “…does not preempt the City as airport proprietor from adopting ordinances intended to limit its liability and protect the City’s human environment.”

An economic impact analysis by the City in 1980 concluded that more revenue could be generated if the airport was closed and the property converted to commercial use. The City then notified those airport tenants on month-to-month leases that their leases would be terminated after a year.

In response, an airport business operator sued the City, the case was tried in both State and Federal court, and the City eventually prevailed.

In June 1981 the City Council adopted Resolution #6296 declaring its intention to close the airport when legally able to do so.

Another lawsuit was filed by the Santa Monica Airport Association and the FAA, challenging the intent to close. Both sides subsequently agreed to dismiss the suit, provided the City adopt a new Airport Master Plan and Noise Mitigation Project.

The City adopted a new Master Plan in 1983. The plan was approved by the FAA, created two new FBOs on the north side away from residential areas on the south side, and also released a large amount of airport land on the south side for non-aviation purposes.

In 1984 the FAA and the City resolved their dispute through adoption of the landmark Santa Monica Airport Agreement. This agreement obligates the City to operate the airport through 2015, but also recognizes the City’s authority to mitigate aircraft impacts through a variety of measures including the existing noise limit of 100 dB, curfew and pattern flying restrictions, and a ban on helicopter training.

The 1984 Agreement also limited the number of aircraft tie-downs, relocated more aviation facilities to the north side, and removed some land from aviation use.

By the late 1980s, airport operations dropped to their lowest levels since the early 50s. Airport improvements included a runway overlay, new perimeter road, sound walls, and a noise monitoring system.

Among a number of developments during the 1990s, the City in 1994 accepted the most recent Federal grant for airport improvements which included runway lights and signage, restriping, ramp repairs, and a blast wall to deflect emissions.

The 90s also saw several back-and-forth complaints and lawsuits by both pro- and anti-airport groups.

When we continue next time we’ll describe those actions and others that bring us to the present day.

Mike Straka, PhD
HN Staff Writer & Technical Support
Vice Chairman, Colorado Aviation Business Association