Palm Springs International Airport

Sunday, June 26, 2005
Air safety concern grows at Palm Springs International Airport
From control tower to runway, concern about operation grows
By Pat Maio
The Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun

Palm Springs International Airport has immediate needs to increase runway and flight safety as it undergoes rapid growth, according to pilots, flight instructors, air traffic controllers and government officials interviewed by The Desert Sun. They praise the millions of dollars the federal government has spent to upgrade security and radar to reduce “false target alarms” from nearby windmills. But they say more needs to be done.

There have been no major commercial airline crashes at the airport – and no one is saying that the thousands of tourists and Coachella Valley residents who use the airport are in any extreme danger.

But a review of Federal Aviation Administration documents shows that, while the airport has increased its safety rating since 1999, it still has a way to go. The nearly double-digit growth in number of passengers and the aging equipment have raised concerns about maintaining safe operation.

Dozens of interviews with local aviation professionals show they have the following concerns about the airport:

An air-traffic control tower at the “end of its life cycle” that probably won’t be replaced for at least five years. Air traffic controllers say they can’t see the whole airfield from the tower.

A somewhat confusing runway set-up that pilots say needs more frequent painting and more wind socks so they can make sure they’re not taxiing into the path of other planes and can more readily gauge the notorious “surface winds” at the airport.

Radar needs to help air traffic controllers monitor planes – both as part of the incredibly busy Southern California air corridor and through the Banning Pass that goes through mountainous terrain.

A growing general aviation, or “private plane,” usage that makes all the needs more urgent for smooth and safe air traffic flow.

The air traffic control tower issue is of particular concern.

In a recent letter to U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, R-Palm Springs, that was signed by Palm Springs Mayor Ron Oden and Airport Commission Chairman Michael L. Lovett, local officials wrote: “The facility is at the end of its life cycle and has not kept pace with the growth of the airport that it supports.”

Citing FAA documents, they wrote that the facility has “outlived its ability to safely accommodate personnel in carrying out their mission.”

These concerns come at a time when passenger traffic at Palm Springs International Airport is at an all-time high, with a total of 1.36 million passengers using the airport in 2004 – a 9.62 percent increase over 2003 and more than twice the national average passenger growth rate of 4 percent.

That’s a high number that makes tourism officials and the valley’s $1 billion-a-year tourism industry very happy. And it’s expected to grow by another 6.6 percent this year.

But a review by The Desert Sun of hundreds of pages of records filed with the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board shows another high number that is more unsettling. From 1997 to 2003, the Palm Springs airport posted one of the highest annual rates of plane runway incursions – or serious near misses on the ground – per 100,000 of any airport in California.

In 1999 alone, it was the third-highest in the nation in these serious collision hazards that happen when planes encroach on each other’s runways – posting 3.85 incursions per 100,000 operations. Only airports in Fargo, N.D., and Springfield, Ill., posted more in the country. By 2003, its incursion rate had dropped to 1.05 per 100,000, a level some might consider is still too high, considering what’s at stake.

Tower

John Phillips, an air traffic controller in Palm Springs, is one of those who sees trouble brewing on the horizon. Phillips and his union – the National Air Traffic Controllers Association – think the tower from which they guide planes in and out of the Coachella Valley is a dinosaur lumbering toward extinction.

The 100-foot-tall tower sits in a gulch, making it difficult to see all areas of the airfield. Some blind spots are so difficult to see that air traffic controllers use binoculars to make sure small planes hold at painted lines as big commercial jets land, Phillips said.

“It’s terribly inadequate,” he said.

The difference in elevation between the ends of the 10,000-foot commercial jet runway, for instance – which runs from the corner of Vista Chino and Farrell Road in the northwest to the corner of Gene Autry Trail and Ramon Road on the southwest – slowly slopes from 474 feet above sea level in the northwest to 395 feet at the other end. The 79-foot difference in elevation means that one end of the runway drops off the visible horizon.

Seeing the runway’s ends also isn’t so easy with dark-coated plastic shades pulled to keep the scorching desert sun’s rays out of the cabin area, where controllers watch computer screens from 7a.m. to 11 p.m. The tower shuts down for eight hours every night.

“You can’t remake the terrain, so there are compromises,” observed Todd Curtis, an air safety expert in Seattle.

The 40-year-old Palm Springs tower has a spiral steel staircase rising six stories, aging computer equipment from the 1980s and glass windows on the top cabin level that would rattle out of their moorings and fall on the radar tracking trailer below in an earthquake of high enough magnitude.

With a cash-strapped Federal Aviation Administration and federal obligations to the war in Iraq, replacing the tower and the radar trailer are no longer an immediate priority, interviewed FAA officials said.

But airport officials continue to try and are enlisting help in Washington. Richard Walsh, aviation director of the airport, while proud of the increased safety at the airport in the last few years, recently paid a visit to top-ranking FAA officials in the Western-Pacific Region in Los Angeles to make a case for a tower replacement and a locally based regional radar system known as TRACON. It will keep the airport safe, he argues.

“We want congressional involvement,” Walsh said. “Jerry Lewis is now sitting on the Appropriations Committee and he might be able to find a shortcut” to move it up on the priorities list.

U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, a Republican from Redlands, chairs the powerful House committee.

And Bono has proved her mettle on local aviation projects in the past. A few years ago, Bono secured a vital radar at the airport that solved many problems with commercial jets seeing “false targets” on radar as they flew over the wind farms to the valley’s west. But even Bono has told airport officials that it could take at least five years to get a new tower – at a minimum.

“I care about all airports and making sure they are safe,” Bono said in an interview. “We need to make travelers safe everywhere,” she said. “But everything in Congress is about budgets and priorities.”

Flight instructor Rafael Sierra, president of the Palm Springs Pilots Association, said he too sees shortcomings in the tower – not at all with the air traffic controllers themselves. Taking better care of the runway markings, he said, could also help cut down on the danger of incursions – just one small thing that could make a difference in saving lives.

Runway

Though the local airport’s record is improving, a runway near-miss, or “incursion” – as classified by the National Transportation Safety Board – is serious business. Each of such incidents is investigated and then finally classified as an incursion after it is determined that a true risk of collision occurred. These events, which are tracked by the FAA as a measure of airport safety, can range from an actual collision, such as a wing clipping a building or the event at the Los Angeles airport last month in which two commercial passenger planes came within 100 feet of each other on the runway.

Runway incursions are listed by the NTSB as among the “Top 10 Most Wanted” of transportation safety problems. The agency receives reports from an air traffic control tower or from a pilot and conducts a full investigation about whether the incident is serious enough to be an incursion and whether it involved tower or pilot error. The bar is set quite high for an actual “incursion” – some incidents that might be thought “near misses” actually don’t make the cut. These incidents almost always involve near-tragedy, with planes veering off within feet of each other.

And though Los Angeles reported four such incidents last month alone, quickly raising safety concerns, consider that in 1999, Los Angeles ranked 21st in the nation in incursions per 100,000 operations and Palm Springs ranked third.

In 1999, Palm Springs posted 3.85 incursions per 100,000 operations. In 2000, the number dropped to 1.98. It rose again to 3.07 in 2001, but is again on the decline – 1.85 per 100,000 operations in 2002 and 1.05 in 2003.

While 1.05 per 100,000 is a much lower figure, with more than 265,000 operations in 2003, that means Palm Springs airport had nearly 2.75 incursions in 2003 alone.

Compare that to the fact that from 1997 to 2003, two airports of a similar size to Palm Springs posted zero aviation incursions or mishaps – in 16 years. Still others of the same size – at Lansing, Mich.; Lubbock, Texas; Olympia, Wash.; and Sioux Falls, S.D. – reported better aviation safety track records than Palm Springs over that 16-year period.

To cut down on incursions, air traffic controllers need to be able to see the airfield, the runway paths need to be clearly and vividly marked and all pilots must be able to understand direction from the tower.

The recent high incursion rate at LAX has been blamed on a “confusing runway system.” While Palm Springs’ airport is much smaller and has its own configuration, some of the same concerns exist here – with making sure pilots don’t cross each other’s paths.

A federal program to repaint runway markings annually has helped improve safety and reduce incursions, said airport aviation director Walsh, but some local pilots says that the harsh desert elements make repainting more frequently a safer bet.

Radar

The Palm Springs TRACON – or radar tracking facility – is located in a double-wide trailer at the base of the tower. Its mission: to watch for aircraft flying in and out of a 50-mile radius of the valley in the busiest approach control corridor in the world.

FAA documents obtained by The Desert Sun show that the floor shakes when walked on, “odd smells” come from “decomposing building materials,” and the electrical system isn’t up to code.

The trailer was added to the airport about a decade ago as a temporary facility – until a permanent one could be built. A few years ago, it became so infested with rats that exterminators were called. Some report seeing rats dropping from ceiling tiles onto a candy vending machine and crawling their way into it by way of the glass-door dispenser.

This, aviation professionals conclude, is probably not the best environment for highly sensitive safety equipment at an airport that, in the course of an average week, could welcome the top 20 PGA players, a sitting vice president, the CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations, a beloved former first lady, hundreds of Marines returning from Iraq and thousands of tourists.

The airport hopes to either get its now trailer-based radar facility incorporated into the San Diego-based TRACON network that already covers 17,000 square miles from 20 miles north of Burbank to the U.S. Mexican border, or to get its own TRACON facility.

The San Diego facility could provide 24-hour, seven-days-a-week radar coverage at altitudes below 7,000 feet.

“It’d be a good idea to move TRACON down there, where we’d have 24-hour radar service,” said Albert Stolsek, the FAA’s air traffic manager at Palm Springs.

Joe Starr, the FAA’s systems support center manager at Palm Springs, agrees. “If this radar was moved to SoCal TRACON (in San Diego), they’d see the same thing the controllers see, but after 11 p.m.,” he said.

Aviation Director Walsh likes the idea of keeping a TRACON facility at Palm Springs – and incorporating it into a new tower. “This is one more thing in your tool belt to use when you talk to airlines to come fly in here.”

And, he says, the passenger growth that is double the national average is a good argument for keeping an updated TRACON facility here.

Another need, pilots say, is a radar that would track flights better through Banning Pass – as pilots fly through a path cut into mountains and radars from SoCal TRACON and Ontario International Airport pass tracking from one system to the other. “The handoff could be better,” through the pass, flight instructor Sierra observed.

General aviation

Flying a private plane is a California hobby, a California status symbol and a California way of life for some celebrities and other valley residents.

The number of private planes in the valley is high and rising.

The sad fact at Palm Springs airport, however, is that – while there haven’t been any catastrophic commercial jet crashes that have claimed lives – since 1988 there have been 13 fatalities in “general aviation” aircraft that have been investigated by the NTSB, according to records reviewed by The Desert Sun. Those fatalities do not include the recent crash still under investigation of a Cessna in the Indian Canyons that killed two prominent local businessmen.

And while this number, according to Bill Waldock, aviation safety professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, isn’t statistically significant, local experts say the individual tragedies of the deaths speak to the need for pilot education in aviation speak and in the airport’s terrain.

“We’ve noticed that, too,” Andy Dutzi, owner of the Flight School at Palm Springs LLC, said of the fatality numbers. “We see a lot of snowbirds who come in here with 1,000 hours of training, but they aren’t trained here. People are not familiar with the airport.”

Pilots who don’t know the terrain and can’t talk to the tower are far more likely to be involved in runway incursions or mishaps. In 2001, more than 75 percent of all runway incursions nationwide involved general aviation pilots, according to the FAA.

Natural environment

The things that make Palm Springs beautiful for visitors – mountains, heat, breezes – are the same things that can make the area treacherous for pilots and air travelers.

The wind conditions are said to be among the most severe in the western U.S. – and that’s why pilots say it’s important to have more wind socks along the runways.

Wind socks are the low-tech way pilots have gauged the all-important direction and strength of winds since the early days of aviation. They are brightly colored sleeves of fabric that either flap in low winds or stand out straight in stiff winds. They’re important equipment in the Coachella Valley.

“In Southern California, the weather is probably a little more turbulent here than any other airport,” said Tony Hoetker, chief pilot of Skywest airlines. “There have been times we’ve had to delay flights due to winds.”

The Coachella Valley is a “wind tunnel,” and it’s a wind tunnel surrounded by mountain peaks – the San Jacinto Mountains, the San Gorgonio Mountains and the San Bernardino Mountains.

Many of the 13 fatalities since 1988 have been in crashes either caused in part or altogether by an element of the natural terrain – sun glare, mountains, shadow or wind. Controlling all elements of the flight experience it is possible to control becomes paramount for an airport like Palm Springs International.

And on a calm day, with 100-degree heat in the valley and cool air to the west outside of the Banning Pass, winds can pick up at 40 to 50 miles per hour, making it difficult for small planes to fly out as the cold air rushes in to replace the rising warm air at night.

“You get some nasty sinkers from wind shear. It takes some real skill. I don’t relish the turbulence,” said private pilot Don Callender, an Indian Wells resident who formerly owned the Marie Callender chain of pie shops and restaurants.

With a record 1.45 million passengers expected to use the Palm Springs “resortport” this year, the safety storm clouds on the blue sky horizon are gaining more attention – locally and nationally.

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