Eva Avalos shudders every time a plane passes over her house as it prepares to land at Whiteman Airport, just a stone’s throw away, and doesn’t want to remember what happened shortly before noon on Nov. 12.
At 11:44 a.m., a Civil Air Patrol single-engine plane crashed right outside her door along the 10600 block of Sutter Avenue in Pacoima, impacting two vehicles whose burned-out frames are still parked there.
“I couldn’t get out,” remembered Avalos, who was with her 10-year-old grandson, Ethan Lopez, in the house. They rushed to the backyard, where neighbors lifted a chain link fence so they could escape.
All she could see were the flames that shot up into the air, singeing half of a tree in the front yard of her home. A piece of plastic from the plane still lingers at the base of the tree.
“I’m traumatized,” Eva Avalos said of the whole experience.
The Los Angeles Fire Department said in a statement it “extinguished the flames engulfing at least two vehicles and the wreckage after (the) small aircraft went down in a residential area.”
The pilot, who died and has not been identified, was the sole occupant of the aircraft. A few candles and some flowers are placed outside Avalos’ home, next to the electrical pole and wire that came down along with the plane which was built in 2015 and was owned by the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit organization that assists the federal government with emergency services and disaster relief.
Radio conversations indicate the pilot reported the loss of engine power and tried to land, but got tangled up in power lines and didn’t make it to the runway.
Margarita Lopez Avalos rushed back home to check on her mother and son after the crash, fearing the worst upon hearing about the accident.
She says her son can’t sleep and is shaken by the experience. And her mom and son “are going to have to see a therapist.”
After 18 years of living with the constant sound of planes preparing to land nearby, Margarita Avalos is now “paranoid” about another tragedy happening.
“I just hear the planes and my hands start to sweat,” she said. “I just hope they close it.”
Calls To Close The Airport
Margarita Avalos is not the only person wanting to shut down Whiteman Airport. Los Angeles City Councilmember Monica Rodriguez is also calling for the closure of the facility.
“This community has sustained injury by Whiteman Airport’s operation for decades. Today’s accident is a reminder of the public safety threat that Whiteman Airport has long posed to the community of Pacoima; a community that derives no value from its operation, but is subject to all the negative impacts,” Rodriguez said in a released statement after the crash.
“As the County evaluates efforts to invest resources with greater equity, I am calling for the closure and redevelopment of the Whiteman Airport to bring much needed housing, jobs, and economic opportunities to the region,” the statement said.
However, some residents who spoke with theSan Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol were not pleased with the fast response by Rodriguez to quickly lean toward affordable housing to replace the airport
“Pacoima is already so crowded; we have big problems with COVID-19, we need more health care facilities, green space, better schools — we don’t want more apartments being built,” said one longtime resident who asked not to be identified. His same concern was echoed by another; “we have too many people here already, we’re on top of each other.”
Benefits To The Community
Owned by Los Angeles county, the airport was established in 1946 by Marvin E. Whiteman, Sr., and houses over 600 aircraft, including private airplanes and media helicopters. The public facility spans 187 acres of land and operates 24-hours a day, seven days a week.
The airport directly supports approximately 246 jobs and creates roughly 412 jobs, with associated labor income of nearly $19 million annually, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. The facility also generates an estimated $54.5 million in economic benefits to the surrounding community, the county said.
James Miller, airport manager, told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that the calls to close Whiteman by Rodriguez are coming because the council member “perhaps isn’t aware of what’s going on in the airport that benefits the local community.”
He said a lot of workers in the San Fernando Valley head to restaurants near the airport at lunchtime.“They [also] buy gas in the community. And when we need services” — citing a need to repair air conditioning or a fence — “we go into the local community.”
The airport also offers several youth programs and provides tours for local elementary schools.
Glendale Community College does its flight training at the airport. The Civil Air Patrol, a volunteer group associated with the US Air Force searches for lost aircraft, missing hikers and also takes aerial photographs during forest fires, has a leadership youth program there as well.
“(Rodriguez) has probably been in the community and she’s heard some of the voices of the people in the community, but having responsibility for such a big area, knowing every activity in the community is a difficult thing,” Miller said.
He added he would be meeting with the Los Angeles County Aviation Commission to try to reach out to the council member.
Accidents “Extremely Rare”
Miller said the airport registers nearly 90,000 takeoffs and landings a year.
“An accident like this one is extremely rare,” he said, adding that “aviation is safer than driving a car.”
Still, Miller understands that a plane crash in the middle of a street “shakes us.” He also said the planes generally fly over streets, not the houses, when they’re preparing to land.
In this case, it was engine failure that prevented the pilot from reaching the runway.
“Accidents are scary when they happen, but we work very hard to keep pilots safe and the community safe. But there are things that happen and we have no control over them.”
A report by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works from 2011 indicates there were a total of 80 accidents at Whiteman Airport since 1970, 26 of which occurred off the airport.
Among other recent accidents at Whiteman was the crash and burning of a Cessna 150L on Sept. 3, 2018 that caused the death of a 60-year-old man and injured a 12-year-old passenger.
Another airport crash — this one without fatalities or injuries — occurred on Feb. 22, 2016.
Those incidents, — including this latest accident — may be isolated but that doesn’t necessarily calm nerves along Sutter Avenue.
“I’m thankful he (the pilot) tried to land, but it cost him his life,” Margarita Avalos said. “He saved so many people trying to land, but a lot of people are still traumatized.”