Oxnard Airport- Safety (Tree) Issues in the Spotlight

Columnist, Star photographer get bird’s-eye view of a tree flap
By Colleen Cason, ccason@VenturaCountyStar.com October 15, 2006

Owners of sycamores and Cesnas are experiencing turbulence in the air space above Oxnard these days.

Editor’s Note: Airport tree issues seem to be proliferating and it is time to deal with trees becoming safety issues around airports. Out of the blue last June, a handful of property owners in the city’s Henry T. Oxnard Historic District received letters advising them an “obstruction” on their land was violating California law. If they failed to remove said obstruction, they would be subject to fine or imprisonment.

You and I know these felony obstructions by the common name of palm, pine and sycamore.

Normally, the government does not take a tape measure to trees on private property, but this neighborhood is in the flight path of the Oxnard Airport.

The relationship between residents of this century-old area of beautiful craftsman-style bungalows and pilots at the Fifth Street airport has been bumpy before. Certain residents have been wishing the airport away for years. In July 2000, a panel charged with crafting a mission statement for the facility voted to cease and desist all aviation operations there by 2005.

And now this tree issue has reared its leafy head.

You don’t have to be Luther Burbank to realize you can’t top off a palm tree ? unless you enjoy the sight of a six-story utility pole in your front yard. Like French royalty, pines don’t take well to having their crowns lopped off.

And these are not just any trees. Some of these stately specimens were saplings not too long after the Wright Brothers got airborne at Kitty Hawk.

But to me, it is also a no-brainer that oversized trees cannot be allowed to threaten the safety of the pilots or the people on the ground.

So who has the high ground?

To better understand the issue, I wanted to see it from the sky.

Commercial pilot Anthony Tasca agreed to take Star photographer Eric Parsons and me over the disputed trees in a single-engine plane.

In the interest of full disclosure, Tasca has made his views well known on this subject. On Sept. 20, he entered feedback on http://www.VenturaCountyStar.com stating he wants the trees gone sooner rather than later.

As we lifted off from Oxnard Airport on a clear midmorning, I was surprised at how much air traffic there is above Ventura County. It’s not exactly Highway 101 up there, but a pilot has a lot on his plate.

I also was surprised that we were over Camarillo Airport when Tasca had to prepare for his approach to Oxnard.

Even from that distance, you can pick out the older part of Oxnard because of the trees. They are tall. Several exceed the height of the steeple at Santa Clara Church.

As we entered the air space above the historic district, I had expected this meeting of aircraft and trees to be more dramatic. I guess I thought the top boughs would all but brush the fuselage.

But the four-seater was never anywhere near the treetops. And that is the idea really. The FAA wants to make sure the two never meet.

On a clear day ? like the one we flew on ? you can pretty much see forever. And in order to land, pilots must have a visual on the airport.

But the airport ? less than a mile from the coast ? is fog prone. According to the National Weather Service, the marine layer comes in at 500 feet or below on an average of eight days a month during the winter.

Because of the tallest trees, the FAA recently raised the altitude at which pilots must approach the airport from 290 feet to 344 feet, according to Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman. Called a minimum altitude, it is the height at which pilots must be able to see the runway to land when they’re flying under instrument flight rule conditions, which are, in effect, during bad weather such as rain or fog, he explained.

“If a pilot can’t see the runway when he’s 344 feet up, he must abort his landing and come around again for another try,” he added.

With the marine layer, even a few feet can make the difference between being in the clouds and having a clear visual on the runway.

For Tasca and other commercial pilots, these few feet can mean lost revenue. If he cannot land at Oxnard, he must go elsewhere, expending extra fuel.

For now, the controversy is on the back burner. Airport officials announced they are going to study the issue for the next two years and see if maybe the trees can be spared.

I have to say I received so much conflicting information while reporting this story, I would hope all sides would use the delay to get the facts straight and make sure they are not flying blind. Until then, the fate of the trees is up in the air.

For more information go the Ventura County Star Web Site.

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