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The Eternal Airport Search
Study, study and more study…

[J. F. Kelly, Jr.] 11/30/05

I was browsing through the June 12, 1957 issue of The San Diego Union the other day when a headline caught my eye. (Yes, I do recycle my newspapers. I just happen to collect noteworthy editions.) The headline read, “U.S. Panel Rejects Montgomery Field for City’s Airport”. The accompanying story cited the Navy’s opposition to Montgomery because of its proximity to Miramar.

The panel, known as the President’s Air Coordinating Committee, recommended that the city and the Department of the Navy “immediately, jointly and exhaustively explore the possibilities of joint or other use of all existing and planned airport installations in the San Diego area for the purpose of accommodating civil aircraft which are not provided for adequately at Lindberg Field”.

J.F. Kelly, Jr.

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California. [go to Kelly index]

That was nearly half a century ago. I recall the year well because the Navy first moved me to San Diego in 1957. In the 49 years since, Lindberg has undergone many renovations but still remains a one-runway airport, serving the nation’s seventh largest city. With regard to locating a satisfactory site for a larger, multi-runway airport, precisely nothing has been achieved. This in spite of many millions of dollars spent on dozens of studies, boards and committees.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority might take issue with that statement because a whole lot of energy has been expended on studies, statements, speeches and status reports but it’s generated mostly heat and very little light. The bottom line is that we are no closer to a solution than we were over half a century ago when the Navy Department offered Miramar to the city for one dollar, an offer rejected because Miramar was considered by the city’s wizards to be too remote a location for an airport.

There is a reason why all these studies have failed to produce anything useful. Quite simply, the planners, commissioners and committee members who studied this problem to death, keep coming up with the same conclusion. The Navy Department should solve this problem for the city by donating one of its convenient facilities or agreeing to joint usage. Trouble is, none of the three candidates they covet, Miramar, North Island or Pendleton, is now available nor will be in the foreseeable future.

Moreover, joint usage has been repeatedly ruled out because of the danger to commercial aircraft posed by warplanes carrying dangerous weapons and because of security issues. The danger of operating warplanes equipped with live ordnance, engaged in training missions, in close proximity to commercial aircraft should be obvious even to politicians and journalists. The fact that North Island is one of only two homeports on the west coast able to accommodate nuclear carriers should rule out that site for any commercial use. Finally, Camp Pendleton, the only Marine and amphibious training facility of its kind on the west coast, is already too small for regimental size exercises because of encroachment and environmental restrictions on its use.

Some will argue that joint use has worked elsewhere and the Navy Department is just being mean and stingy. Actually, joint use is feasible without undue risk only when the aircraft types are compatible, e.g. military logistical aircraft and commercial airliners, or when limited, part time, alternative use by each user is intended. But still these options remain “on the table” and “further study” is urged. Why? What part of “dangerous” is so difficult to understand? The mindset here appears to be that since the military is subject to civilian control, someone should just overrule DoD and direct joint usage or the deactivation of one of their facilities. This assumes, of course, that the federal government and all those taxpayers living outside the county have the remotest interest in funding or solving San Diego’s airport problem. The feds have budget problems of their own as you may have noticed.

So here we are, 49 years later, and San Diego’s finest daily newspaper is still singing the same editorial refrain. A recent editorial urged careful study of joint use at Miramar and North Island. A headline in the same newspaper reads, “Airport panel has 2 bases in its sights”. There’s progress for you.

Here’s a thought. San Diego sits at the southwest corner of the contiguous United States with a 90-degree landward window. It is not a transportation hub and probably never will be. It is a destination because of its ideal climate. Climate is also why the Navy and Marines are here. Ideal operating weather, amphibious beaches, ranges, a harbor and other facilities combined to make San Diego the world’s largest Navy-Marines base complex. That’s good for the area since the military is the county’s number industry by far, accounting for more than one dollar of every five spent in the area.

There are international airports in Los Angeles, Orange County and Phoenix that provide easy international connections for San Diego’s world travelers. We may not ever need a multi-runway international airport, at least within the county, but if we do, it isn’t going to be at Miramar, North Island or Pendleton. City planners would serve the taxpayers well by getting used to that reality and by resolving not to spend another half century of studying the problem only to come up with the same tiresome conclusions. CRO

copyright 2005 J. F. Kelly, Jr.



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