San Diego 'The rotor head of a helicopter doesn't know what kind of mission it's on," says Jeff Frederick. "It just goes 'round and around at 4000 revolutions per minute, and when metal fatigue reaches a certain point it breaks. When that happens, a helicopter goes down."
Frederick doesn't want to be sitting in his Rancho Bernardo house when that happens to a Super Stallion, the largest helicopter in the world. The Marines plan to use the subdivision in which he lives, next to I-15, as part of an overflight highway for 115 heavy-lift helicopters they'll be bringing to Miramar over the next year.
So Frederick is fighting the Marines. But don't anyone accuse him of being unpatriotic. We're standing in his den, surrounded by walls of plaques and citations from two decades flying fighters for the Navy, including five tours dodging missiles over Hanoi. He was voted Fighter Pilot of the Year for the East Coast in 1978,
Flying Navy jets and carrying a commercial helicopter license makes Frederick well qualified to talk about Miramar and the Marines' plan to mix jet fighters, heavy transport planes, and 115 heavy-lift helicopters at the same base -- something they've never done on this scale before.
"I'm not a part of MARCH [Move Against Relocating Choppers Here]," he hastens to point out. "I just answer their technical questions when they ask me."
There are two issues, as Frederick sees it: apart from the collision dangers of mixing choppers and jets at the same facility, he worries about helicopters and "bug-smashers" -- private planes -- using the same unregulated airspace; and he sees a sword of Damocles hanging over people living beneath the proposed new helicopter routes. One of the Marines' main north-south flyways follows the I-15; 600,000 to 700,000 people live below, from Scripps Ranch north to Escondido.
"The one thing I was always taught about flying helicopters," says Frederick, "you never, ever fly over anything populated unless you absolutely have to. You always pick your routes so that you have a place to put the thing down, or even crash it if you have to, but not on somebody's house."
He walks us out to the living room. His hilltop Rancho Bernardo home looks northward up Interstate 15. "See that?" he asks. "The most densely populated piece of the county." A sea of pink-tile roofs stretches up either side of the freeway until they disappear into the blue hills and mists of Escondido. "This is where they want to fly their helicopters. This has been my personal reason for joining the fight against the helicopters. I have no real objection to them being at Miramar. I have a real objection to the routes of flight that they have chosen in and out of there."
He points to empty lands to the East. "Why can't they put their routes over there?" he asks. Because, the Marines told him, flying east would add too many miles to trips between Miramar and Pendleton. So he points in the other direction. Across I-15 to the west. From his hilltop aerie, you can see how empty the countryside between I-15 and I-5 is. Why can't the Marines use that?
Influence from San Diego's powerful development lobby, Frederick believes. "That's owned by the Ralphs family. Ten years from now they want to build something called 'Four-S Ranch' up there -- houses that are yet to be built and yet to be sold. If you've got helicopters going right over the top of them, would you go in there and intentionally buy one, right under the flight path? But what you can do is put your helicopter flight path directly over houses that already have people living in them. And then there is nothing they can do about it."
Further west, he says, is another viable, sparsely populated route for the choppers. "But of course that happens to be where Rancho Santa Fe is. People there can get on the telephone and be talking to the President in 30 seconds, and I think the Marines didn't even want to try it. But from a safety standpoint, with one house per three or five acres up there, that is by far the safest way to go."
When he brought up these suggestions with the Marines, he got two words in reply: "not negotiable."
In his 20 years' flying time, Frederick has been lucky. But he knows how quickly things can go wrong, especially when you're flying low near your aircraft carrier airfield.
"The nice thing about a helicopter, if you just have an engine failure, or you accidentally run out of gas, you can auto-rotate -- just put the nose down, and the forward glide speed will keep the rotor spinning.
"That's the nice thing about helicopters. The bad thing about helicopters is they've got a lot of dynamic components under very, very high stress. You take a rotor blade that's 50 feet long and swing it around at 4000 rpms. The outward stress, the dynamic force on that is almost unimaginable. We always said in the Huey, if you lost a rotor blade, you'd never know it, because you'd get instantaneous 100 Gs [forces of gravity] sideways that would break your neck. It would rip the transmission right out of the aircraft.
"So if a piece falls off one of those things, it can be pretty disastrous. They'll shake themselves to pieces in a millisecond. It depends on what your failure is."
The smaller of the two workhorses the Marines propose to bring down, the CH46, the Marines' Vietnam-era Sea Knight twin-rotor workhorse helicopter, particularly concerns Frederick. "The '46 is on about its third service-life extension," he says. "It's a very aging aircraft."
It's not just choppers. "If you have an engine failure in your jet, you're probably not going to be able to dead-stick it [glide] in anywhere. It's not like with the old prop planes."
That risk is exactly why the Navy decades ago created the so-called APZs -- Accident Potential Zones -- around Miramar. These are corridors beneath jet fighter flight approach and departure routes in which the building of homes, hotels, hospitals, schools, churches -- anything that will draw a concentration of people -- has long been prohibited.