Indy almost fell on my backyard. And it’s no laughing matter.
For the past three years I’ve lived across the street from Penmar Golf Course, where Harrison Ford’s beautiful WWII training airplane came to rest yesterday, near the 8th hole’s lovely tee. The scene yesterday was chaotic, even if the landing was not. My neighbors report mostly a silent descent (the engine had failed), interrupted by the sound of the plane clipping some branches and skidding to its final spot, where it remained last night, lit by emergency lights, like a morbid display in a war museum, a few feet from the street.
The course—and my house—sits just west of Santa Monica Airport, a general aviation facility in service since the 1920s. Back then, the landing strip was surrounded by a whole lot of nothing. Flying in and out of Santa Monica must have been not only a gorgeous flying experience (the shoreline is less than a couple miles away) but also a safe one.
Unfortunately, the west side of Los Angeles soon grew around the airport. Mar Vista and Sunset Park, a couple of bustling residential neighborhoods, surrounded it. The area is now home to around 50,000 people who try to coexist with the more than 160,000 landings and takeoffs SMO handles every year. It’s also home to private jets owned by celebrities like Harrison Ford, who has, himself, donated tens of thousands of dollars to lobby against the closure of the runways he missed last night.
It’s not always easy.
Those unfortunate enough to live near the eastern side of the runway, where most of the landings occur, have to endure the terrifying approach of private jets that regularly use the airport. Those of us who chose to live on the other side have a slightly more pleasant experience, watching all kinds of airplanes gain altitude after takeoff. They sometimes follow an unnervingly wobbly pattern toward the ocean.
Still, every once in a while, a jet approaches the airport from the west. And that’s an entirely different ballgame. My kids and I have often felt like those tourists in the Caribbean who can almost touch the belly of an immense jetliner as it makes its perilous descent. My three boys jump up and down with excitement, probably mistaking the situation for a scene in their beloved Planes.
But Dad here knows that a roaring Gulfstream is no Dusty Crophopper.
All of this is fun, until it isn’t.
Fact is, our brand of urban aerial excitement can—and has—turned deadly before in the area surrounding Santa Monica Airport. According to NTSB records, 42 crashes have happened in or around the airport since 1982. And although six of those incidents occurred inside the facility’s perimeter, two airplanes have struck homes, one as recently as 2011.
Less than two years ago, a twin-engine Cessna went off the runway a few seconds after clearing the residential area just east of the airport. Four people were killed in the fiery crash.
Although we might not admit it, and no matter how much we like to downplay it, living near SMO is indeed a gamble. If a small Piper falls from the sky, damage could be significant. If a Cessna CJ3 jet does, the consequences would be far worse.
Harrison Ford owns one of those. Its elegant green fuselage frequently descends upon the Santa Monica runway, where the actor houses his airplanes.
Ford has long been an active opponent of residents who wish to close the airport due to safety and pollution concerns. Just last year, he donated $25,000 to support “Measure D,” which, in theory, would have put the future of the airport in voters’ hands. In practice, it was mostly a dilatory procedure to protect the facility and its tenants. “D” was defeated in November to the delight of the majority of local residents, many of which still have “No More Jets” signs planted on their front lawns.
It will be interesting to see what Ford says once he recovers from his injuries. Yesterday, he made a miraculous emergency landing, on what is—believe me—a small strip of grass. It was impressive. But not everyone has his flying credentials or his luck. Ford must know that he was only a hundred feet away from a devastating tragedy.