Watsonville Airport Safety Issues

As We See It: Watsonville airport safety issues can’t be averted

watsonvilleThe tragic plane crash in Watsonville on Thursday night has already renewed concerns about the proximity of the city’s airport to the local hospital, as well as residential neighborhoods.

Perhaps the only positive note that came from the crash, which killed the four people on board, was that the single-engine plane did not hit Watsonville Community Hospital.

But it came very close — hitting and bouncing off the pavement in the hospital parking lot and slamming into a medical office building that is connected to the main hospital.

Anyone who has parked at Watsonville hospital knows how close a call this was.

It will take months to determine what might have gone wrong Thursday night. Speculation about the weather — fog was moving in from the coast — or even mechanical malfunctions have been brought up. The relative inexperience of the pilot and human error will also certainly be investigated by the federal National Transportation Safety Board, which will take the lead role on determining what caused the crash.

A Santa Cruz family of four, including two children, died in the crash, according to police. Although witnesses were close by as the plane took its fatal plunge, no one on the ground or inside the building was injured.

The crash, inevitably, will renew the discussion of safety issues regarding development in the vicinity of Watsonville Municipal Airport, the only airport in Santa Cruz County. The airport is owned by the city and does not have a control tower; pilots are not required to file flight plans before taking off.

Ironically, longtime airport manager Don French had announced his retirement last week. French will leave in December; the city is hiring pilot and airport volunteer Rayvon Williams to help with the transition. Williams has told the Sentinel he’s interested in replacing French.

French had planned to stay on another year, but told the paper he changed his mind as the city prepares to redo sections of its general plan that were struck down in a lawsuit filed by the Watsonville Pilots Association.

The lawsuit was part of long-standing conflicts between the city and pilots over land-use decisions around the airport. Pilots were convinced the city planned to build housing in the flight path for planes taking off from Watsonville airport were unsafe. A local judge had agreed, the city appealed, then an appeals court in 2010 upheld the original decision — meaning the city has to reinstate runway safety zones and reduce the number of homes to be built nearby. The city also was prevented from permitting nursing homes, schools and day care centers from being built in the safety

Thursday night’s tragedy wasn’t the first recent crash of a plane from the airport. In 2006, a pilot nose-dived into the front yard of a home on Loma Prieta Avenue across the street from the airport. The pilot suffered minor injuries; no one on the ground was hurt. In 2009 the pilot of a single-engine plane was killed after he crashed into an apple orchard about a mile east of the airport while trying to make an emergency landing. The issue of municipal airports and development also became headline news in 2010 after a pilot and two passengers lost their lives when a twin-engine plane crash slammed into homes shortly after takeoff from Palo Alto’s airport. Miraculously, residents were not killed.

Watsonville Community Hospital, and the medical office building, predated the court decision; the hospital moved to its present location across the street from the airport runways in 1998 — nearly nine years after the Loma Prieta earthquake caused extensive damage to the old hospital’s structure.

Watsonville’s airport is a valuable resource, both for the city and for pilots in the region.

But the safety issues surrounding the airport cannot be ignored. This tragedy could have been even worse — and no one wants a next time.

CalPilots response via Facebook:

This terrible tragedy is confirmation of the Watsonville Airport Association’s appropriate stand against the city’s plan to dramatically increase housing development around the airport.

The Watsonville Airport Association’s lawsuit and its defense of the appeal driven by certain City of Watsonville Officials proves that these officials still fail to understand the requirement to abide by the guidelines set forth by the California Division of Aeronautics (DoA).

The state Division of Aeronautics created a guideline for “appropriate land development” around our state general aviation airports. In many cases the airport authority, the city in this case, would rather ignore safety and noise land use issues in search of higher tax revenues and the appeasement of the developers push for profits.

Failure to follow the DoA development guideline can lead to airport safety and noise issues which the guidelines are designed to avoid. Watsonville residents should insure that their elected officials know that community safety and noise issues should come before tax revenue and developer profits.

Ed Rosiak

California Pilots Association