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ArcaMax

After plane crashes and close calls, pressure mounts to close this LA airport

Rachel Uranga, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

"Driving an airplane above disadvantaged communities is a luxury," said Veronica Padilla-Campos, executive director of Pacoima Beautiful, a community advocacy group. "It's not the same as driving a car. That is a necessity to get to schools, to work, to everyday life."

Safety isn't her only worry. The nonprofit Pacoima Beautiful is working with researchers from USC to test for lead in soils around the airport. While most commercial airlines don't use leaded fuel and it has long been phased out of road vehicle gasoline, it still powers piston-engine aircraft and helicopters that fly in general aviation airports. The EPA has found higher concentrations of lead at or downwind of these airports and is investigating whether it is a threat to public health. Lead has been shown to hurt child development, and the Environmental Protection Agency has been evaluating its concentration levels near airports.

The airport was founded in 1946 on a farm by sportsman pilot Marvin Whiteman Sr. and bought by the county in 1970. The 184-acre airport now sits in a neighborhood packed tightly with homes, apartments, equipment yards, warehouses and factories. Avalos listens to trains barreling along the Union Pacific tracks a block away, and just beyond that, the big rigs endlessly rumbling on San Fernando Road.

Add to that urban drone: 320 takeoffs and landings daily at the airport, used not just by private pilots, but by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's and Fire departments and television news helicopters.

Whiteman's accident rate is higher than that of most of its neighbors, but on par with Chino's airport and only marginally worse than Fullerton's, with 12 accidents between 2012 and 2022. Other airports run by Los Angeles County all had fewer accidents. El Monte's had eight, La Verne's airport had 10, Compton's had six and Lancaster's had seven.

Steven Frasher, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, which operates the airport, said just because these crashes have occurred doesn't mean that the airport infrastructure is to blame.

 

"They weren't airport facility-related," he said. "Anytime there's an incident we're going to be concerned about, certainly the person impacted both on the ground and whoever was aboard the aircraft, and looking for answers as to what may have been a contributing factor. "

Avalos said nobody from the airport came to speak with her about the accident in front of her home. The plane had clipped a tree and a power pole, cutting electricity to the neighborhood, before it landed upside down on her street, setting her yard and two parked cars ablaze.

Her grandson, Ethan Vasquez Lopez, 12, still recalls the lights flickering and the boom of the crash that day. He ran out of the house to see what happened. He heard the pilot's calling for help before seeing him and the plane get engulfed in flames. He can't get the gruesome moment out of his mind.

The burnt chemical smell hung over their home for days.

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