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Fatal crash renews debate over future of historic California airport

By Steve Gorman and Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The fatal crash-landing of a small business jet at Santa Monica airport has reignited a debate over safety at the historic Los Angeles-area aviation hub, which local politicians and homeowners have fought for years to scale back or close.

Critics of the 86-year-old facility, where various Hollywood celebrities and show business executives keep their private planes, have pointed to the wreck as a wake-up call to hazards they say the airport poses to densely populated adjacent communities.

A twin-engine Citation Cessna 525A jet touching down at the airport after a flight from Idaho on Sunday veered off the right side of the runway, slammed into a nearby hangar and burst into flames.

All four people aboard the plane, including a wealthy construction executive, Mark Benjamin, and his son were killed. The hangar, part-owned by a onetime Oscar-winning filmmaker, was destroyed. No one on the ground was hurt.

Critics note that the crash occurred about 150 feet from the nearest homes bordering the airport. The airport's unusual proximity to residential property stems from a housing boom that coincided with the site's development during and after World War Two, when the Douglas Aircraft Co. expanded factory operations.

"The jet that just crashed could just have easily crashed and slid straight down the runway and across 23rd Street right into houses," said John Fairweather, local resident and founder of the group Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic.

David Goddard, chairman of the Santa Monica Airport Commission, which advises the city on airport policy, said he hoped Sunday's accident would spur municipal officials to press ahead with moves to curtail flights.

Airport backers say the cause of Sunday's crash has yet to be determined and accuse the critics of unfairly seizing on the mishap to advance their cause.

"The accident that occurred was disastrous to the people on the plane, of course, and our hearts go out to them," said Bill Dunn, vice president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. "Goddard is dancing on the graves of those that perished in the accident for his own political agenda."

California Representative Henry Waxman, whose district includes Santa Monica, joined the fray by calling on the National Transportation Safety Board to expand the scope of its crash investigation to examine overall safety at the airport.

LARGER, FASTER JETS

Santa Monica homeowners and municipal officials have battled for decades to curb flight activity or close the airport, facing opposition from the Federal Aviation Administration, plane owners, pilots and businesses connected with the facility.

The contingent of well-heeled aircraft owners said to have kept planes there include Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

In addition to neighborhood objections to noise and air pollution, city officials have complained the airport's single 5,000-foot runway is too short to safely accommodate some of the larger, faster jets allowed to take off and land there.

Both sides agree that the plane that crashed was within the runway's design capacity. But Fairweather said he worried about larger jets, moving with greater momentum and loaded with more fuel, crashing into homes on takeoff or landing.

Had the Cessna missed the hangar, it could have jumped an embankment into houses just behind a block wall, Goddard said. Citing unofficial accounts of the crash, he also said that had the plane not veered sharply to the right it might have careened off the end of the runway and into houses across the street.

Prior to Sunday's accident, at least 38 planes coming or going from the Santa Monica airport have crashed since 1982, with 10 resulting in fatalities, according to federal records.

Data compiled by Fairweather's group shows four incidents involving planes flying to or from the airport occurred in Santa Monica residential neighborhoods, including when a student-piloted plane crashed into a house in 2011.

The airport posted nearly 7,300 total takeoffs and landings by prop planes, jets and helicopters in August, the latest month for which such numbers were available.

The Santa Monica City Council adopted a resolution in 1981 seeking to close the airport when legally possible, triggering an FAA lawsuit. The parties later settled the dispute in a deal obligating the city to keep the airport open through 2015.

In 2008, the council sought to essentially bar heavier, faster jets like Gulfstreams from the airport, citing FAA rules that generally restrict such planes to longer runways. The FAA blocked the move.

Following Sunday's crash, Santa Monica officials said they were proceeding with plans to impose new flight restrictions or close the airport after the settlement deal expires.

The FAA insists the city must keep the facility open in perpetuity, under a 1948 transfer of airport property back to the city after World War Two.

"The FAA is fully committed to preserving the federal investment and keeping this airport open and operating," FAA spokeswoman Kristie Greco said.

(Reporting by Dana Feldman and Steve Gorman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Cynthia Osterman)

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