(G. Arizon/SFVS) The remains of a single-engine plane on a train track near Whiteman Airport being hoisted on a winch.

The fate of Whiteman Airport, located in Pacoima, is once again called into question after a single-engine aircraft crashed in the middle of a train crossing, scaring nearby residents.

On Sunday, Jan. 9, a Cessna 172 lost power shortly after its 2 p.m. takeoff, but the pilot avoided hitting residences or businesses and instead managed to crash the plane onto a railroad crossing near Osborne Street and San Fernando Road at around 2:10 p.m. 

According to LAPD Capt. Christopher Zine, Foothill Division officers Robert Sherock, Christopher Aboyte and Damien Castro managed to extract the injured pilot — later identified as Mark Jenkins, 70 — out of the wreckage approximately five seconds before the grounded Cessna 172 was struck by a Metrolink train at 2:15 p.m.

Video footage of the rescue has been seen by almost three million people.

“Every day our officers, men and women, are out here protecting this city every single day and doing amazing work and protecting this community,” Zine said.

“….But watching it on a video when, me being a captain and knowing that my officers could have been struck by that train trying to save somebody’s life, it’s definitely emotional. They did an outstanding job and they saved that individual’s life.”

Family members later told reporters that Jenkins is a former US Air Force pilot with 50 years of flight experience, who bought the Cessna 172 aircraft 20 years ago. A fellow pilot at Whiteman Airport, following the crash, noted Jenkins’ skill in putting the plane down on the railroad tracks to avoid hitting cars, homes and pedestrians — especially when a split-decision on how and where the plane landed needed to be made. 

Remarkably, no other injuries on the ground were reported.

Whiteman Airport Manager, Alvaro Escobedo, said the investigation behind the cause of last Sunday’s crash is still ongoing.

Sunday’s crash, however, has reignited the ongoing controversy over whether Whiteman Airport — a 182-acre facility that was founded in 1946 and bought by Los Angeles County in 1970 — should still be operational.

“I have two little girls,” said resident, Carlos Ortiz on Sunday. “We see everyday the planes coming down above our house, so I don’t know when one of these days, one of those planes goes straight into my house. I hope not.”

Enrique Villa, another resident who has lived in the area his whole life, said he has grown tired of the crashes.

“I don’t know why the FAA hasn’t shut it [Whiteman Airport] down,” he remarked.

Conversely, Elisa Avalos — who is running for City Council — argues that closing the facility would be “a detriment” to the community, and replacing the airport with something like “Section 8 housing” would make Pacoima a poor community and remove many of the benefits.

“They [Whiteman] give free pilot lessons, they’re building the planes with children from the community and they offer good jobs,” Avalos said. “When someone’s missing [while] hiking, they [emergency services] come from here. When there’s a fire, they leave from here. So why would we want to close our emergency outlets? That makes no sense to me.”

Whiteman operates 24/7, is home to more than 600-based aircraft and facilitates at least 80,000 takeoffs and landings each year.  It is also home to several emergency response teams, such as disaster relief, firefighting and the Civil Air Service — an official auxiliary of the Air Force that specializes in search and rescue.

Before last Sunday’s crash, the most recent accident occurred on Nov. 12, 2020, when a single-engine plane crashed on Sutter Avenue. The crash killed the pilot, burned two cars parked on the street, and damaged the entrances of two different homes.

There have been others. In September 2018, fuel exhaustion caused a plane to hit the overhang of a building 500 feet away from the runway, killing its pilot and injuring the passenger. In February 2016, engine failure forced a pilot to land in the street, hitting a moving car and other parked vehicles.

A 2011 report by the county Department of Public Works stated that 80 accidents had occurred at the airport since 1970. According to search results on the Aviation Safety Network, there have been nine reported accidents in the area since 2004.

A demand to close the airport arose last November, led by LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez and the pro-environment organization, Pacoima Beautiful. Rodriguez would formally propose a resolution to the council on Dec. 8, 2020, to shut Whiteman down.

Online meetings and discussions have followed with a created Community Advisory Committee that includes members of county Supervisor Sheila Kuhl’s staff. They were launched last June to analyze and propose ideas about what to do with Whiteman — including whether to close it. No conclusions by the committee have yet been made public.

A petition is listed on the website change.org asking the LA Council to keep the airport open.

Whiteman’s detractors not only cite the potential devastation created by plane crashes, but also say the impact of the surrounding pollution and poor air quality on the densely populated community are reasons to cease operations.

Supporters point to a Department of Public Works report that claims the airport directly supports around 246 jobs, generates $19 million annually and brings in $54.5 million in economic benefit to the community.

There are others who feel the airport has become a political football to be kicked around.

Mark Dutton, Avalos’ campaign manager, accuses Pacoima Beautiful of spreading misinformation about the airport in an attempt to turn the community against it so that Rodriguez would be free to use the land as she wished.

“They’re talking about all sorts of … asthma and diseases and pollution coming from the airport that is completely unfounded, completely untested,” Dutton said. “None of them are qualified to measure any of this.”

Bill Berle, director of development at Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Chapter 40 in the San Fernando Valley, oversees the Young Eagles program — which gives free educational flights for children — and another recent program that teaches children and parents how to build an airplane as a pathway into the STEM field, does not see the airport being shut down due to this incident or prior ones, stating that the facility provides many valuable resources for the community.

“There’s a very small and very loud group of people that are posing as community activists, but it’s nothing but a front for real estate developers who are looking at the airport as land that they want to use for something else,” Berle said. “The people want to steal this resource from the community.”

Berle added that aircraft accidents relating to the airport are “very rare” and lamented that people would try to politicize the event when several car accidents have occurred at that very intersection in the past, as was the case last August.

 According to data from the LAPD on car accidents, for the first half of 2021 —compared to 2020 — DUI crashes had risen 20 percent and fatal hit-and-runs had risen by 25 percent.

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