No turbulence for airport campus

Two months after the fiery plane crash at the Santa Monica Municipal Airport, the community at the nearby Airport Arts Campus of Santa Monica College is undeterred.

The fatal accident occurred Sunday, Sept. 29, when a Cessna Citation jet landed at the airport and veered off the runway before plowing into airport hangars, erupting into flames and killing all four onboard.

"The recent airplane tragedy affected everyone who regularly visits or uses the airport, whether as a student, teacher, park-goer or someone who works in the facilities at the airport," said Bill Lancaster, assistant chair of the design technology department at SMC.

Students attending classes at the satellite campus on the edge of the airport borders should not be overly concerned about the airport's proximity, Lancaster said.

"Personally, I do not worry or concern myself about planes crashing into the campus," he said. "We are not directly under the flight path of the airplanes, and I think the likelihood of that happening is quite small."

Classes in Lancaster's design technology department were relocated to the Airport Arts Campus in April, and will remain there until construction at the Academy of Entertainment and Technology is set to complete in the summer of 2015.

"Like many accidents that occur, I think of it as an unfortunate event, but one not likely to repeat itself," he said. "Because the work we do continues, it is best to treat this tragedy as an isolated event."

The cause of the incident is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which can take up to a year, according to the NTSB.

The NTSB released a preliminary accident report on Oct. 24 confirming that the airplane's approach and landing were both normal and that there was no debris on the runway.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, whose congressional district includes Santa Monica, sent a letter to the NTSB on Oct. 2 expressing concern that the government shutdown, which began two days after the crash, could have impeded a timely investigation and compromised safety for Santa Monica residents.

In an NTSB response, Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman agreed that "safety was compromised by stopping this investigation."

Waxman sent another letter in reply, reiterating the importance of a proper investigation because of specific safety issues the airport presents.

"The airport is located just feet from many homes, and as I noted in my previous letter, the Santa Monica Airport Commission Chairman believes that if the plane had not struck the hangar, it might have gone over an embankment and crashed into nearby residences," Waxman wrote.

But Greg Brown, SMC's director of facilities and planning, maintains that the neighboring campus is safe.

"The college facilities are located a significant distance from the runway with other buildings between us and the runway," he said.

Some of these buildings Brown referred to include airport hangars that line both sides of the runway. During the accident, the twin-engine jet crashed into hangars on the opposite side of the Airport Arts Campus location on Airport Avenue.

The plane crash reignited a long-standing debate among airport neighbors and Santa Monica community members about the existence of the airport, as activists have continued their fight to turn the airport into a park.

"There is a small park there now and well-used soccer fields," Lancaster said. "With the right planning, the large space of the airport could be a terrific park and a great asset to Santa Monica."

Brown said that no matter what happens to the space, SMC can benefit from it.

"The college will be able to work with any of the potential future uses of the airport," Brown said.

Despite the recent crash, Brown said that the temporary transition of AET students to the airport-adjacent satellite campus has been a smooth one, with ample parking and classroom space available.

"I don’t mind working and teaching at the airport," Lancaster said. "It is a very different environment and somewhat unusual place to teach."

In addition to housing additional design technology courses, the Airport Arts Campus remains home to courses originally held there, including those in energy efficiency and ceramics.

Mewei Ren, a second-year SMC student, has been taking classes in the solar technology program at the Airport Arts Campus for the past two semesters.

Ren did not express concern about attending classes near the crash site, but he did mention that he feels it is an odd place for a campus.

"It's weird for me, just because we're not learning anything that has to do with the airplane," he said.

Ren noted that the noise from the nearby airport can be disruptive during classes.

"A lot of the times, if we keep the door open, or even not, it's very loud, so the instructor might have to pause and then pick back up the lecture," he said.

Lancaster also acknowledged that airplanes frequently landing and taking off during classes can be distracting, but said that they are able to work around it.

"We have generally grown used to it," Lancaster said. "If I am lecturing, I usually pause for a moment, or sometimes I’ll repeat what I just said. But very rarely is it a long disruption, and does not impact the flow of the class, nor does it happen that often during one class session."