Thermal airport: Option for military?

PALM SPRINGS – As city officials seek ways to curb military jet noise at Palm Springs International Airport, a rural airport 30 miles stands ready to welcome them.

At least one business at the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport in Thermal has reached out to the city of Palm Springs earlier this year to pass the word that if the military was looking for another place to land, the Thermal airport was an option.

Penny Nelson, general manager for Tradition Aviation, an independent fixed-based operation that provides fuel at the Thermal airport, told The Desert Sun that offer still stands.

“We would be honored,” Nelson said, whose business would benefit from the military refueling stops at the airport.

The Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport is operated by Riverside County. County officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

On Wednesday, the Palm Springs City Council recommended the appointment of Chris Mills and newly elected Paul Lewin to an ad-hoc council subcommittee to collaborate with the Palm Springs airport commission’s noise committee.

The two city leaders, once formally appointed Dec. 7, would be charged with reaching out to military and federal leaders and brainstorming ways to deal with the growing number of complaints about noise from military aircraft.

City officials, however, declined to say whether those options would be suggesting to the military that their pilots use the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport.

“We plan to embrace all concerns and seek solutions,” said Assistant City Manager Tom Wilson. “The subcommittee will be exploring everything.”

The city has stressed that it has no authority to limit military flights and can only ask that pilots keep their takeoffs and landings as quiet as possible.

“The military makes their own decision on what airports to utilize but we’d certainly encourage them to consider that if they haven’t already,” said airport executive director Tom Nolan of the use of Thermal’s airport.

The Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport was built as a military base in 1944 and currently has an 8,500-foot runway, long enough to accommodate most types of military aircraft. The longest runway at Palm Springs is 10,000 feet.

The Thermal airport also has no noise restrictions and is primarily surrounded by farms and fields.

Every November, the Jacqueline Cochran Air Show features myriad military aircraft, including cargo planes and fighter jets.

“We have the fuel capacity, the ground service equipment and more hangarage than they have in Palm Springs,” Nelson said. “Plus, there’s nothing here they can bother.”

Nelson emphasized the Thermal airport is not seeking to take away the military fueling business that is apparently drawing many of the pilots to Palm Springs, but is simply trying to offer an option.

Larry Mills, who lives in Four Seasons, a gated 55-and-older community in Palm Springs, said he recorded nine instances when jets flew over his neighborhood Wednesday morning in a span of two hours.

“It’s starting to feel like we’re living next to a military base . we see more fighter jets than commercial airplanes in the area now,” Mills said. “What is it going to take to get this to stop? For a fighter jet to crash in our community?”

Mills’ concerns are shared by a resident movement spearheaded by Scott Connelly, Bill Cook, Joanne Herdt and Rick Prunell.

The group began circulating a petition last week that calls for the reduction of military operations out of the local airport.

“Regular air traffic is fine, but the military jets are beyond annoying,” said William R. Adams, who owns two homes in Cathedral City. “I bought both places knowing the commercial airport noise existed. I didn’t buy in a war zone.”

There is a contingent of valley residents, however, who don’t mind the noise.

Bruce Tilden, who lives off of Calle Tafalla in Cathedral City, is a World War II veteran who said the least the desert can do for the country’s soldiers is allow them some airspace.

“I appreciate them taking care of my livelihood and I don’t want them to stop,” said Tilden.

“I hear the jets and they are very loud, but the noise isn’t going to kill me. I appreciate them protecting us.”

Kathy Jones, who lives in La Quinta but works in Coachella near the approach to the Thermal airport, said she’d welcome the jets.

“We have aircraft flying over us all day landing and taking off,” Jones said, “and it doesn’t bother us.”