By Nick Green, Daily Breeze
The U.S. Coast Guard, a fixture at Los Angeles International Airport since 1962, will move its Air Station Los Angeles to Ventura County by mid-2016.
The move means a loss of about 100 local jobs as the 18 pilots and 85 ground crew members relocate to the Oxnard air base with the four distinctive, bright orange MH-65 Dolphin short-range rescue helicopters.
But it also means a decrease in noise for South Bay residents who must endure an intense, 14-day annual Coast Guard training program. Coast Guard helicopters, because of their size, weight and proximity to the ground, are among the loudest aircraft in local skies.
Residents were reminded of that this week as the clattering choppers took to the skies for what could be the Coast Guard’s second to last training exercise locally.
“We’re going to Naval Base Ventura County — we will be leaving L.A. County,” said Lt. Cmdr. Ben. J Maule, the Air Station’s operations officer. “Los Angeles World Airports wants that property and we lease that property from LAWA and our lease expires in 2016.”
Right now, Zamperini Field is the closest local airport to LAX where helicopter flights are permitted — they are not at Hawthorne or Compton airports, for instance. Once the air station moves north, however, that will no longer be the case, bringing a dramatic reduction — or even elimination — in the number of Coast Guard operations at the airport often heard by nearby residents in Lomita and Torrance.
For now, however, nothing has changed.
This year local Coast Guard officials contacted the Daily Breeze in advance in an effort to alert residents who may be affected by the increased number of flights that can include as many as 20 take-offs and landings in a single 90-minute series of mandated training sessions.
That means as many as four flights a day — two apiece in the mornings from 9-11:30 a.m. and afternoons from 1-4 p.m. through next Friday — will occur, although most will not be at Zamperini Field. The exact number depends on weather at other air fields and other operational requirements that include keeping a helicopter centrally located to respond to emergencies if necessary.
Maule said the Coast Guard is acutely aware of noise issues in such a densely populated area around Zamperini Field and routinely takes measures to change flight patterns or altitudes in an effort to reduce them as much as possible.
But the annual training — an intense, stressful time for air crews to prove their readiness — doesn’t always allow such concerns to be taken into account.
“It is certainly a balance between maintaining proficiency and being at the height of our ability to respond to search and rescues and other urgent cases offshore and impacting the local residents,” Maule said. “We are training for the worst-possible scenario. We are training for something to malfunction in the aircraft while we are flying it in a critical phase of flight.”
He personally is aware of all noise complaints and responds as appropriate.
Crews attempt to spread out the noise effects. Various airports are used for shorter periods of time rather than subjecting residents in one spot to prolonged noise from repeated take-offs and landings, for instance, he said.
Maule estimates that over the course of a year, fewer than 1 percent of Coast Guard flights use Zamperini Field.
Still, there are times it is unavoidable.
During the 18 months Maule has been assigned to Air Station Los Angeles, two medical emergencies forced the Coast Guard to use Zamperini Field. One — a medical evacuation — was late at night and the Coast Guard duly received a complaint.
“It’s tough,” he said. “As a helicopter pilot I feel like I’m always walking this fine line. I certainly appreciate the concerns that a lot of residents bring and I will tell you we do make a conscious effort and we have changed the way we operate to limit the impact, but we can’t eliminate (it).”