Cerritos. Mention the town’s name to any pilot who has flown around Southern California for more than a few years and you get a nod of instant recognition. On Aug. 31, 1986, an Aeromexico DC-9 inbound to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) collided with a Piper Archer taking off from Zamperini Field in nearby Torrance. The wreckage fell onto Cerritos in southeast Los Angeles County, killing all 67 aboard both aircraft and 15 people on the ground.
Pat Carey was banner towing in a Citabria that morning and overflew the impact site. The DC-9 smashed into 18 houses. Carey, moonlighting from his weekday job with the Army, had seen his share of gore flying combat helicopters in Vietnam, where he collected the Bronze Star and 38 air medals and was shot down, but “this was one of the worst things I had ever seen,” he said.
The accident at Cerritos was the catalyst prompting a review of VFR corridors in L.A.’s already crowded airspace. Carey, who during the course of his military career commanded airfields, was asked to join a special working group, funded initially by area governments, dedicated to safer redesign of the local airspace. This became the nexus for what is now known as the Southern California Airspace Users Working Group (Scauwg), an organization that Carey now chairs and is supported by the FAA. At the time it was a novel approach, empowering stakeholders to take an active role in airspace design. It was so novel, in fact, that then FAA Administrator Allan McArtor attended an early Scauwg meeting. Carey recalls that McArtor, a former Air Force Thunderbird, had a warning for them: “Guys, if you don’t get a handle on designing the airspace in the L.A. basin, some Congressman or Senator who doesn’t know the [expletive] end of an airplane is going to tell you how to fly in your airspace.”
“Back then, I never thought that was going to happen,” Carey said. Then, in the aftermath of 9/11, Congress mandated its infamous, but uncharted and anything but temporary, TFR over Disneyland in Anaheim. And now, a few members of California’s congressional delegation, led by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Los Angeles), have authored a recently enacted federal budget bill with provisions that will compel the FAA to create special mandatory helicopter routes and altitudes in the L.A. basin unless there is a substantial reduction in helicopter noise there by the end of this year. In a press release issued earlier this year, Schiff dismissed ongoing voluntary efforts under way between stakeholders and the FAA to reduce helicopter noise in the basin. “While I appreciate the engagement that the FAA has had with stakeholders in Los Angeles, its progress in bringing about relief to residents has been painfully and unacceptably slow,” Schiff said, adding that he is skeptical of these efforts and that it is therefore “likely regulation will be required.”
Initially, Scauwg’s mandate was to develop VFR corridors through L.A.’s busy Class B airspace, but over the years its role has expanded to marking designated practice areas, adding purpose- and location-specific frequencies for VFR fixed-wing and helicopter traffic, developing helicopter routes, VFR altitudes, procedures and transitions and adding a designated helicopter controller position and scope in the LAX tower. It developed a hybrid VFR terminal area chart (TAC) and helicopter chart combination the FAA is currently considering. It devised charts that used all 14 colors from the ICAO charts, rather than the standard five used by the FAA, to make L.A. charts easier to read for domestic and foreign users. “For years we have done wonderful things,” Carey said of Scauwg. “Things that we have designed are now on charts nationwide, including practice areas. We do between five and 50 updates of this chart [TAC] every six months. And the FAA western regional office supports us. We have the best TAC chart in the United States.”
Technical Challenges of L.A. Airspace
Perhaps no one understands Southern California airspace better than Carey: not only has he flown all varieties of aircraft through it since 1963 and continues to do so daily, through Scauwg he has helped design a good bit of it. And he has a message for Schiff and others who want to mandate helicopter routes and bump helicopter cruising altitudes up to 2,000 feet over most of the L.A. basin: “It’s not going to happen.”
Over the course of the next two hours, Carey takes me on a detailed chart tour of the L.A. basin and lays out the technical challenges related to forced helicopter routing. It’s an abridged version of the Scauwg airspace briefing he regularly delivers to L.A. pilot groups. He has scaled them back from his peak in 2012, when he made 11 presentations to 540 pilots over the course of two months, but his tutorial remains popular. Carey focuses on three main points: terrain, airspace and routing, with a side-helping of local aviation politics.
The terrain problem is obvious: The basin is ringed by terrain obstacles on all sides that rise to 10,064 feet. In addition, it’s irregular and erratic. “There are airplanes up here in the San Gabriel mountains and around Big Bear that have never been found. And every year someone plants himself on this little hillside at 1,500 feet coming from the Inland Empire to the South Bay,” Carey said, pointing to the Chino Hills.
Then there’s the airspace. Inside the basin, “we have 22 tower-controlled airports, four Class C [airspace areas] and the busiest Class D in the country,” Carey said. “Everything in and out of the basin is controlled by LAX tower’s SIDs and Stars. At night, the traffic to each inbound LAX runway arrives every three minutes and can be stacked up all the way out to Twenty-Nine Palms” (110 nm away).
Name the type of airspace, the basin has it all and in close proximity: 10 types of special-use airspace, from prohibited areas to parachute jump areas and air-space Classes A through G. Throughout the basin, Scauwg has identified 10 “hot spots” where the amalgamation of terrain, traffic and routing can lead to problems.
Carey showed how dissecting the airspace over LAX provides a small example of the challenge of any new airspace design. Transition routes over the airport range from the coastal route over the west end at 150 feet and the Sepulveda transition on the east at 1,500, the two most often used by helicopters, and then other routes, transitions and missed approaches at 500-foot intervals all the way to 6,500 feet. LAX operates on 10 different frequencies. Last year there were 50,000 transitions over the top of LAX.
Rather than moving helicopter traffic higher into this morass throughout the basin, the FAA actually wants to lower the floor of the Class B for VFR traffic down to 2,000 feet from 2,500 to improve separation in and near Class B airspace, Carey said. “Southern California (Socal) Tracon wants to bring the airspace down to 2,000 feet because if they are not careful the airline traffic into LAX will come out of the bottom of the base of the Class D when it’s turning base to final. Socal would like to have the floor of the Class B lowered. Schiff’s proposal would have [the effect of VFR] helicopter and fixed-wing traffic flying at the same altitude,” Carey said. “It’s not going to work.” Carey said this has the potential for another Cerritos, writ small.
To have helicopters operating at 2,000 feet throughout the basin, “you’d have to raise the airspace for everyone. The airliners would need to be kept farther out and higher and they would burn more fuel. The airlines will never go for that.” For the helicopter noise issue, “there is no technical solution other than voluntary compliance,” Carey said.
Voluntary Noise Abatement
For now, the voluntary efforts will continue. At this year’s Heli-Expo, the FAA Faast team and the Professional Helicopters Pilots Association distributed a brochure that lays out the area’s helicopter noise complaint hot spots and recommended noise-abatement procedures. Not surprisingly, the largest problem areas are the two airports that host most of the basin’s helicopter activity: Van Nuys Airport and Torrance Airport.
An estimated 57 helicopters are based at Van Nuys, not counting transients dropping in for maintenance. Six mandatory helicopter routes have been used there for years, and most of the time they work well for noise abatement, said airport director Jess Romo. Overall there is good compliance with the routes, he said, noting that last year the airport hosted 31,000 helicopter operations. “There were 1,700 deviations from established routes, or about 5.5 percent of the total, and of those 427 were non-approved deviations, about 1.5 percent of total operations.”
Nevertheless, Van Nuys fielded 18,300 noise complaints last year and about 5,500 of them were related to helicopters, often coming in clumps during the firefighting season, or from vocal residents Romo characterized as “one or two people who complain 100 times a month.”
“Since we have homes out here in the valley, we have had issues with helicopter noise,” Romo said. The airport does “continuous” citizen outreach, maintains a 24/7 noise hotline and “investigates every single [noise] complaint that comes in,” he said. “We try to make sure we are the best stewards possible, especially with the community.”
The situation at Torrance (TOA) differs. While Robinson Helicopter adheres to voluntary routes and limited hours of operation for testing and training, other helicopter pilots using the airport are not bound by such guidelines. Attempts to establish published helicopter routes there were blocked by a group of based fixed-wing pilots who claimed they would disrupt left downwind legs. “The fixed-wing pilot group at Torrance didn’t like it, threw a monkey wrench into it, and the whole thing got shelved. It didn’t go anywhere,” lamented Carey, who said the fixed-wing community would benefit from published helicopter routes by allowing “the airplane guy to know where the helicopter guy is.” The helicopter guy already knows where the airplane guy is because there are strict noise-abatement procedures in and out of Torrance. “Helicopter routes are published on the new TAC chart for Van Nuys, Santa Monica and Long Beach but not Torrance.”
Torrance remains a hotbed of activity for anti-noise activists and not all meetings between them and area pilots have maintained civility. Carey related one where “they had to call the police it got so out of hand.”
Carey said Torrance’s failure to adopt helicopter routes continues to motivate the activists. “It only takes one helicopter flying over Richard Root’s [founder of Citizens for Quiet Helicopters, a Torrance activist group] house at 200 feet.”
Romo said Rep. Schiff’s push for FAA-mandated routes and altitudes “has definitely mobilized a certain sector of the community that has wanted to discuss it as a concern. They want to see how far they can take the issue in terms of hard curfews for helicopter operations.”