Thursday, April 05, 2012

California: Flying in basin is lesson in air safety


There’s TV’s “Jackass” risk. And there’s the kind of risk where you know exactly what you’re doing – but still fly smack over one of the busiest airports in the world.

Commercial aerial photographer Fred Emmert and pilot Ron Smeets scan the skies as our single-engine Cessna nears Corona Municipal Airport.

Smeets, a laconic terrestrial who transforms into a computerized radar system when airborne, explains what it's like to fly in one of the world's most crowded airspaces.

With his voice crackling in my headset to blanket the drone of the Skylane's 230-horsepower engine, Smeets allows, "It's like playing three-dimensional chess."

A second later, the banter stops.

We're not playing anymore.
• • •
After flying out of John Wayne Airport for a series of photo shoots, Emmert and Smeets prepare to land in Corona to refuel.

Shooting photos from the air means banking this way and that, changing altitude and re-circling. It also means staying sharp while minds like mine turn fuzzy after riding an air-borne rollercoaster for two hours.

As we approach the airport, my headset crackles – something about a small plane in the area.

Emmert, an Air Force veteran and certified flight instructor, and Smeets scan vertically and horizontally. Emmert spots the craft and reports its position using the numbers on a clock for reference.

I look right, left, twist to peer out the rear window. But it's not until Emmert points out the plane that I finally see the craft as it passes below and to the right.

Trying to spot a plane looking down is far different from looking up at a plane's silhouette against sky; the light-colored craft is camouflaged among trees and buildings.

As we near the airport, Emmert casually mentions that Corona has no control tower.

He doesn't mention that four years ago two small planes collided here and five people died.

• • •
We near the single runway at Corona, broadcasting our landing on a special radio frequency. But as we get close – eyeball close – someone is squeezing in a take-off.

With cool composure, Emmert and Smeets work as a team. Emmert studies the sky. Smeets zeroes in on the runway.

As if he's offering a cup of coffee, Smeets asks the pilot on the ground, "How about you speed up and I slow down?"

While the other plane lifts off, our tires touch tarmac.

"That was ugly," Smeets states matter-of-factly. "The ugliest I've seen."

As I get out of the plane, I'm shaky with nausea. Perhaps Smeets mistakes my paleness for something else. As we refuel, he explains that our landing was more a matter of manners than a serious safety issue.
I wave away any concerns. With two certified flight instructors in the cockpit, I'm safer in the skies than driving the freeways.

We hop back in the Cessna and head for downtown Los Angeles – and LAX.
• • •
With the sun climbing toward high noon and the Los Angeles basin heating up, the air around the Hollywood sign is whiskey brown.

Still, the view is magnificent. The Santa Monica Mountains rise just ahead. The San Gabriel Mountains stretch behind, their snowy peaks glistening. I can pick out LAX and the sparkling Pacific.

Following freeways, I also can pick out Cerritos, just over the Orange County line.

In 1986, there was a midair collision 7,000 feet above a residential neighborhood. Eighty-two people died, including 15 on the ground.

Still, it's difficult to believe this is considered crowded airspace. I see nothing but empty air. But I don't have a trained eye – nor do I know about the invisible web of air lanes over Southern California.

As we fly level with the Hollywood sign, Emmert explains he's been flying this area for 40 years and can practically see the various air traffic corridors that separate commercial and general aviation planes.

Before I have a chance to ask about the Cerritos tragedy, Emmert brings it up. It's a lesson in how failing to manage risk can lead to a disaster – as well as what the Federal Aviation Administration and pilots have done to help prevent fatalities.

As Emmert talks, Smeets contacts the TCA, or Terminal Control Area for clearance to fly over LAX.
It may sound crazy, but flying over LAX is as safe as flying around the busy international airport – so long as pilots don't drift below or above sanctioned airspace.
 • • •

I was an editor at the Long Beach Press Telegram when the planes collided over Cerritos. Investigators ruled that the pilot of a Piper plane intruded into commercial airspace and struck an Aeromexico jet's vertical stabilizer.

That tragedy in Cerritos changed aviation not just in Southern California but nationwide. Pilots became more aware. For example, Emmert switched from flying and shooting photos solo back then to four eyes in the cockpit – a sensible decision as we fly over LAX, big jets landing and taking off thousands of feet below.

A second change involved combing two TCAs – one for commercial, one for general aviation – into a single TCA.

According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the third and perhaps most significant change was that the FAA ordered all airline carriers to carry traffic alert and collision avoidance systems.

Finally, and perhaps equally important, the FAA said light aircraft in or near dense flying areas must carry transponders that report three-dimensional positions.

The pilots association says such transponders enhance Air Traffic Controllers "ability to track intruders and enforce the entry requirements."

• • •

After we return to John Wayne, Smeets leaves for a flight lesson and Emmert and I grab some salad and cheese bread.

What was his closest call?

The pilot pauses, "It was 15 years ago. We were out of Corona over the Green River golf course at 1,700 feet.

"The (other) pilot had a red shirt and blue eyes."

Emmert tells the story so flatly, I can't tell if he's kidding about the blue eyes.

But I know he's not joking when I ask when he'll give up what he calls "not working."
"When I can't climb in an airplane, that's when I quit."

A life without managed risk, is a life without adventure.

PART ONE: Flying photographer doesn't 'work' for a living

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