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Santa Monica Airport Tower Plays 'Critical' Role in Fire Fighting Efforts, Aviation Group Says


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December 7, 2017 -- The air traffic control tower at Santa Monica Airport (SMO) has been playing a "critical" role in fighting the “Skirball” fire that continued to burn Friday in the Sepulveda Pass area of Los Angeles, according to the Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA).

More than 50 fire-related flights have been coordinated from the tower staffed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) -- which directs air traffic within a three-mile radius of the airport -- since the wildfire erupted at around 5 a.m. Wednesday, association officials said

SMAA, which is a party to a lawsuit seeking to overturn a pact between the FAA and the City to close SMO at the end of 2028, said the airport continues to provide "critical air traffic services for fighting hazards of all kinds."

Santa Monica Airport Air Traffic Control Tower
FAA Air Traffic Control Tower at Santa Monica Airport (Courtesy City of Santa Monica)

"The tower serves as a traffic cop coordinating flights in the airspace," said Dave Hopkins, vice president of SMAA.

"It provides a valuable service for helicopters dropping water on the fire," as well as for Los Angeles Police Department helicopters and newsgathering aircraft, he said.

After the pre-dawn blaze broke out, the radar in SMO's tower "looked like a hornet's nest of aircraft," said Hopkins, who monitors air traffic on, a flight tracking data company.

Control tower staff at SMO can see the fire-fighting aircraft from the window of the tower as they descend into the canyons, Hopkins said.

They also have been coordinating flights from the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Medical Center and from the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, which has a helipad on the roof, he said.

If the municipal airport shuts down under the terms of a pact the City negotiated with the FAA, air traffic around Santa Monica would have to rely on air traffic controllers based in San Diego, Hopkins said.

"They're in a bunker with no windows and only looking at a radar screen," he said.

While the airport's traffic control tower has provided support during the current emergency, the airport runway has not been needed to help fight the Skirball fire, City officials said.

"There have been no requests of the Airport for take-offs or landings related to fire suppression efforts," said Suja Lowenthal, senior advisor to the City Manager on airport affairs.

Lowenthal said FAA’s Air Traffic Control Tower will maintain its operations when the airport closes temporarily next Wednesday for work to shorten the runway that is expected to be completed by December 23.

"The closure of the Airport for the runway shortening project does not impact FAA’s operations," Lowenthal said.

SMAA officials said Thursday that the association's Disaster Airlift Response Team is prepared to help in the event of an emergency.

After the Skirball fire broke out, the association mobilized ten pilots and ten fixed-wing airplanes prepared to fly supplies that would be provided by the local Red Cross to affected areas, SMAA officials said.

Although their services have not been required, the ten planes are capable of delivering two tons of supplies during each wave of flights, Hopkins said.

SMAA Loading Swift AircraftSMAA volunteers load Swift
Aircraft with Red Cross supplies
for January test run. (Image
courtesy of SMAA)

In January, The Red Cross Los Angeles Region partnered with SMAA's response team for "a multi-airport disaster preparedness exercise," Red Cross officials said.

"More than 30 volunteers assisted on the ground and in the air, flying and distributing critical supplies into the Santa Monica area from Whiteman, Van Nuys, Brackett, Compton and Torrance airports," Red Cross officials said in a statement issued after the January 14 exercise.

Santa Monica Airport's response team can support 40 airplanes a day, agency officials said.

"This means that during an actual disaster, 80,000 pounds of essential supplies and blood can be transported daily into the City of Santa Monica to help people throughout the Los Angeles Region," Red Cross officials said..

SMAA officials note that SMO is designated as “Critical Infrastructure” by the City’s “All Hazards Mitigation Plan."

"With all the natural disasters surrounding Los Angeles, fires, hurricanes and earthquakes, local community lives will depend on SMO in any kind of disaster," the association said in a statement issued Thursday.


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