Aviation Final Approach

What happens when a speeding Boeing 737 meets one of the shortest runways in the nation? Welcome aboard Southwest Airlines Flight 1455

Inside the Southwest waiting area at McCarran, Kevin and Debbie finally heard that their plane, Flight 1455, was still on the ground at LAX because of heavy storms. During the preceding hour, a disembodied voice on the P.A. had droned out the delay—10 more minutes, 10 more minutes, 10 more minutes. Now they find out the plane was still in El Segundo. Early arrival, it turned out, was not the secret. But Kevin was happy telling stories to a neighbor, with Debbie off somewhere else, and there was an elderly gentleman to keep an eye on when the flight did arrive, and everyone seemed pretty okay about the delay.

It was 5:00 when the McCoys finally boarded the 737-300. The plane was packed. Guy across from Kevin couldn’t stop smiling at his luck, a standby passenger who had beat the odds at the gate. The Boeing 737 has proved to be the aviation manufacturer’s most popular plane thanks in no small part to Southwest, which has made the model its signature aircraft, with 194 of them in service. The 737 is ideal for Southwest’s route structure, described as short-haul, high-frequency, point-to-point: The carrier’s average flight is 700 miles; as many as 40 flights a day can exchange between two cities (there are 12 between Burbank and Las Vegas); and unlike other airlines its size, Southwest has no hub. Thus, if a plane is two hours late on arrival, as Flight 1455 was going to be, it stays two hours late on all remaining arrivals unless the pilot and crew find a way to make up for lost time. Flight 1455 still had two more stops that Sunday night.

A 737-300 can hold 137 passengers, and with two pilots and three flight attendants aboard, there were 142 people on the mocha-colored plane as it idled on the Vegas tarmac. The McCoys sat one row behind the cockpit, facing a man Kevin’s age and a student out for the NASCAR races that weekend. As the jet took off to the west, Debbie was deep into an elbow-to-elbow confab with the woman beside her, and good-natured Kevin offered to buy the group a round of drinks with his frequent-flier beverage tickets. Over the intercom, the pilot warned of high winds and a possible rough landing in Burbank.

At Burbank Fire Department headquarters, battalion chief Tracy Pansini had been on duty 34 hours when 1455 finally departed McCarran. He was in covering for another battalion chief out sick, but it had been a quiet Sunday, raining most of the day, and Pansini was deep in paperwork, his thoughts far from Burbank Airport. Fire department headquarters sits less than four minutes from Runway 8, and on occasion Pansini had led BFD response to crash sites—three souls lost when a single-engine aircraft impacted another plane at the airport; a private plane that plowed through Runway 8’s blast fence in a Technicolor burst of fuel that had the responding yellow crash rigs laying down a hell of a lot of foam to dam the runoff. Even Burbank’s former mayor owned a house that had withstood a prop plane flying through its roof. What with the noise, the threatened terminal expansion and the increased passenger traffic, the occasional crashes were like strange manna to the airport’s malcontents.

Outside Pansini’s window the storm finally broke, and for the first time that day the sun dropped into view over the Santa Susanas.

The Chevron Station, even Hollywood Way, was unusually quiet for the five o’clock hour. From the glass booth, Carlos watched a few Prime Time shuttle drivers kill time—drinking Chevron coffee from Styrofoam, smoking cigarettes, their banter a melodious traffic of foreign dialect. Five hours until he could shut off the red, white and blue sign with nothing to do but sort the energy bars, listen for a reverse thruster or wait until some idiot strolled in with a dumbfounded look and a question about how to operate one of the station’s four pumps.

In an anonymous landscape of cinder-block structures, the Chevron station at Runway 8 is truly a hardtack piece of misery. Awash in a back eddy of jet blast, covered in the mottled grit and dust that is a by-product of 70 years of airport operation, the station’s only signs of life besides Carlos Martinez this day were three sickly palms that “wave” in the combustion breeze. When the city approved construction of the station in 1959, the airport had devolved into a sleepy prospect called the Lockheed Air Terminal, owned and operated by the aircraft manufacturer. It had been 12 years since the commercial airliners fled for LAX. Incoming traffic was mainly prop planes, and for whatever reason, the coupling of a fueling station to the end of a runway didn’t raise any eyebrows at the time.

Today, with the increased traffic Southwest has brought into Burbank Airport, the Hollywood Way Chevron has been compared to the placement of a preschool at the end of a riflery range—a catastrophe waiting to happen. There are precedents. An F-86 fighter failing takeoff from the Sacramento Executive Airport in 1972 augered into a Farrell’s Ice Cream parlor that sat at the runway’s terminus, killing 22 people in the explosion.

Unfortunately, no current FAA restrictions would stop the building of an ice cream stand, or a gas station—or a munitions dump, for that matter—at the end of a runway. (This year in Sacramento, there is a push by the city council to house the city’s 300 fire and police department employees on the site of the former Farrell’s.) FAA restrictions concern only the heights of structures built near runways. City governments like Burbank’s have the final say over runway-adjacent construction, and, as in the case of the Hollywood Way Chevron, they also usually have legal immunity in the wake of disasters if they occur.

In the glass booth, Carlos looked up at the sound of a particularly loud reverse thruster. On Runway 8, an arriving Southwest 737 was shrieking through the evening air toward him, barreling down on the blast fence, growing in metallic stature. At the last moment it finally began its turn, arcing in taxi mode leftward and into a shuddered stop at the terminal’s gate.

They had just passed over Magic Mountain when Kevin noticed something was off in their approach. Flying in and out of Burbank on a weekly basis on business, he knew the air route by heart: across the desert floor over Valencia, then into the sky above Simi Valley, where planes turned south, and then again to the east for final approach to Runway 8. But 1455 was turning already, far before Simi, just after having passed Six Flags. A jet may begin its turning maneuvers into Burbank early if the airport’s tower, juggling the sequencing of approaching aircraft, instructs it to do so. However, the same maneuver initiated by a plane that is running late could also make up a few lost minutes.

At his window seat, Kevin shifted his body left into the bank of the turn, the unfamiliar landscape unreeling below him. “I don’t know why we’re making this approach,” he said out loud.

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