Marines reprimand two fighter pilots for flight mistakes, amid MCAS Miramar neighbor noise complaints
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: January 28, 2018
The military disciplined two pilots for failing to follow the correct flight plans following a pair of October incidents near Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Officials say no residents were put in danger by the aviators’ mistakes but some neighbors say military leaders don’t always listen to their noise and safety concerns.
Noise complaints near the base have plummeted in recent years but several residents think the Corps needs to do more to shore up years of problems.
A pair of military aviators were disciplined for violating Marine Corps Air Station Miramar’s flight regulations during two separate October incidents, and several neighbors say the base hasn’t done enough to police pilots.
Lt. Col. Bryant Budde, Miramar’s director of operations, said that investigators found “no unsafe issues” with the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet strike flights on Oct. 18 and 20 but the pilots were reprimanded after failing to follow all Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controller commands and straying into areas usually off limits because of base noise rules.
When a University City neighbor submitted noise complaints on both flights, Budde — the base supervisor in charge of a wide range of Miramar functions, including airfield operations, weather forecasting and aviation safety investigations — pulled what aviators call the “radar tapes” to track them.
In the first case, the unnamed aviator misheard commands from the tower. Instead of taking off and turning right, he kept going over University City, Budde found. In the second event, the pilot went to the wrong altitude and flew over nearby residences.
Budde ruled that they also “didn’t copy well enough to the flight track over the ground,” which means that they failed to follow their intended departure path.
Citing federal privacy laws, Miramar officials declined to identify either the pilots or their squadrons but said one aviator was based there and another traveled there for training.
“We want to police it up and fix the problem and educate the pilots because we want to be good neighbors,” Budde said.
Neighbors told The San Diego Union-Tribune that they were glad the military took action but the Marines aren’t always so transparent when probing complaints that residents contend are equally valid.
“It’s an attitudinal problem,” Ron Belanger, a retired Navy aviator, said during an interview.
He pointed to the Dec. 8, 2008, crash of a sputtering Hornet in University City that killed two women and two children after the pilot ejected safely.
Military investigators blamed the incident on an engine malfunction that was complicated by a string of pilot errors and shoddy ground maintenance.
The Corps disciplined 14 personnel, including the pilot and his commanders, but Belanger said Miramar’s brass grew defensive after the tragedy, clamming up when they should have leveled with the public about failures that caused the crash.
Belanger estimates that he’s filed dozens of complaints after incidents like the ones in October, but he’s never received a response. And he’s not alone.
“I’m a leader in the community liaison group but I don’t always feel like I get answers to my questions,” said Diane Ahern, vice president of the University City Community Association who often meets with Miramar officials to address neighborhood noise and safety grievances.
Ahern and Belanger said the stakes are high at Miramar because of well-publicized problems with Marine Corps aviation.
On Aug. 11, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert B. Neller ordered all squadrons to ground flights for mandatory safety training. Six days earlier, three Marines died when their MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft crashed in Australia’s Shoalwater Bay during routine training.
That followed the July 10 crash in Mississippi of a Hercules KC-130T aircraft crewed by the “Yankees” of New York-based Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 45. Fifteen Marines and a sailor died.
Since 2002, the Corps has suffered 153 aviation “Class A” mishaps — serious accidents that kill or permanently disable a service member or cause at least $2 million in damage.
“The Marines need to make safety a bigger part of their planning and not take shortcuts with safety ever,” Belanger said.
To Belanger and Ahern, the safety margin is lower over Miramar because of the sheer volume of aircraft in the sky.
The federal sheepdog herding planes across the region — Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control — is the busiest air tracking facility on the globe, serving Los Angeles International, John Wayne, San Diego International, Bob Hope, Ontario International and Long Beach airports, plus smaller fields and military installations.
Near Miramar, San Diego International Airport boasts the busiest runway in North America but there are seven other fields within 23 miles of the base, which is why a 2010 Marine Corps report called the sky traffic here “congested.”
To mitigate the risk to residents, military and FAA leaders created approach and take off corridors for Miramar that largely overfly unpopulated areas.
Miramar’s fixed-wing aircraft mostly rely on the “Sea Wolf” corridor to the Pacific Ocean to take off or the north-south “Julian” corridor over the Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve. Called “LAKEE2” by pilots, it flies over Julian and the park but at altitudes above 7,000 feet.
A “Ground Control Approach Box” that follows the largely unpopulated northern contours of the base has jets flying between 3,000 and 5,000 feet above the ground. There’s also a training oval pilots use within Miramar’s gates. The routes cater to “Touch and Go” hops by aviators practicing landings and takeoffs or pilots simulating carrier operations.
Usually commercial jetliners travel a north-south coastal route between 6,800 to 10,000 feet. Smaller planes from Montgomery Field south of Miramar fly around 3,200 to 6,800 feet over the shore or below 1,800 feet when over I-15, according to FAA and military reports.
That means Miramar’s fighters must thread between Montgomery Field’s civilian small planes flying between 1,800 to 3,200 feet while staying far below most commercial jets.
Belanger said that Marine planes often travel too fast from the base, giving them little time to avoid Montgomery’s small and slow aircraft. Ahern added that neighbors know when Miramar’s jets stray outside the Sea Wolf and Julian corridors because residents hear them.
“Noise is a symptom,” she said. “I don’t hear the aircraft and I don’t see the aircraft if they follow one of the two departure routes. They’re out of sight, out of mind.”
A military jet hitting its afterburners 50 feet above the runway would generate a roar of about 130 decibels — painful for exposed ears — but base officials estimate far lower volumes for residents outside Miramar’s gates.
The 2010 impact study determined that the Marines’ new F-35B Joint Strike Fighters flying over a section of Mira Mesa put out 65 to 66 decibels of noise — less than the roar of a vacuum cleaner — and the area near Copley Park might encounter jets at 58 to 63 decibels, similar to a restaurant’s background sounds.
Budde said that FAA controllers will report serious safety violations to the agency’s Seattle office, which then forwards substantiated cases to Marine headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The October incidents didn’t trigger such reports, and Budde said he can’t recall any others filed over the past year.
The National Transportation Safety Board Aviation Accident and Incident Data System records five serious events at Miramar dating back to 1995. All were accidents — the most recent the fatal crash of “Sky Rocker” stunt pilot Sean deRosier during the base’s 2004 airshow — and none involved military aircraft.
“We do not have authority over military operations,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said by email. “If we get a report that a military pilot may have violated a federal aviation regulation, we would investigate and send our findings to the appropriate military agency for follow-up.”
In 2003, Miramar recorded 360 noise complaints from neighbors and this year the base is on pace to notch about 200, but those numbers are a little deceptive, Marines say.
In December of 2016, for example, Miramar received 49 noise complaints — including 38 from one person. Last month, the base got 17 complaints, and all but four were from the same unnamed person.
Few complaints are substantiated, according to Budde.
“We take these complaints very seriously and we’re constantly trying to balance a million things here, but safety is our top priority,” he said.
Budde said that many of the grievances he receives are driven by “an incorrect assumption of airspace usage.”
He pointed to an FAA speed limit on commercial planes — about 287 miles per hour for planes below 10,000 feet — a rule Budde says doesn’t apply to some military aircraft because they were never designed to operate that slowly.
He said that a pilots trying to follow the FAA rule would make their planes perform like someone “driving a car on an icy road,” creating unsafe conditions.
To abate jet noise, most of Miramar’s planes use runways 24R and 24L. But in Santa Ana winds, the base shifts to runways 6L and 6R. That changes flight patterns and can spark new sound and safety complaints from neighbors but pilots have no other choice of tarmacs, Budde said.
FAA flight controllers also redirect Marine pilots over residential areas like University City if congestion or other concerns emerge, something neighbors don’t realize when filing complaints, Miramar officials added.
“We do our best every day to be good neighbors and limit the number of flights that overfly populated areas, but they are not necessarily violations, or unsafe if they occur?,” base spokeswoman Lt. Casey M. Littesy said by email.
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