10:00 PM PDT on Wednesday, June 4, 2008
By PAIGE AUSTIN
CORONA – A task force set up to study aviation safety in Corona following a deadly midair plane collision in January unanimously concluded Tuesday that the Corona Municipal Airport is safe. However, there is room for improvement. The nine members of the Mayor’s Task Force on Aviation Safety drafted a series of recommended improvements for the City Council to consider. Specifically, the task force recommended that the city ask the Federal Aviation Administration to study the airport’s traffic pattern and whether the airport needs an air-traffic control tower.
The group also decided on a series of outreach efforts aimed at educating pilots about Corona’s safety procedures through signs, fliers, publications, radio communication and a city-hosted aviation safety seminar.
Comprised mostly of local pilots, a majority on the task force predicted that the FAA would conclude the airport does not need an air-traffic control tower and that its landing and take-off pattern is safe.
“A lot of the stuff we are doing, we are doing to improve our public relations,” explained task force member Chuck Ferano. “As for the tower, it’s probably too small of an airport and too big of an undertaking, and I don’t think the FAA will ever build one.”
Citing the rarity of plane crashes, several members of the panel said drastic changes to airport operations would be less about improving safety and more about appeasing a panicked public.
After the January midair collision that killed two pilots, two passengers and Earl Smiddy, an employee at a car dealership where the debris fell, some in the community called for closing the airport. This year’s wreck was the city’s third midair crash in a decade, including one where the planes fell into a house and apartment below. There have been more fatal plane wrecks in Corona than in any other Inland airport community.
Task force members Eugene Montanez and Steve Nolan, who are also city councilmen, left Tuesday’s meeting before drafting the recommendations, noting that it would be awkward for them to create recommendations to themselves.
During four months of task force meetings, Nolan was often at odds with other members of the panel in arguing for changes to the airport’s traffic pattern. Nolan often struggled to explain the frustration and sense of insecurity that comes from living and working beneath an air traffic pattern where planes can and have fallen from the sky.
On Tuesday, he described the air space above Corona as a “free-for-all” where pilots fly at seemingly random altitudes, placing landing planes in the path of planes flying in from the coast through the Santa Ana Canyon along Highway 91.
“Up to this point, I have been the bad guy, the minority. How dare I talk about the traffic pattern,” Nolan said.
“I am not the minority outside this room,” Nolan added in reference to the safety concerns of the community. “I was at Earl Smiddy’s memorial. I don’t forget that” (Editor’s Note: We have all come to understand that Grandstanding Politicians only are out to help themselves).
Task force Chairman Richard O. Haley ended the meeting with assurances to the pilot community that the airport is considered an asset to the city.
“When this tragedy happened … the first response is to think the sky is falling,” he said. “The pilots from the Corona Airport are, quite frankly, very, very safe and we thank them.”