Tuesday, July 05, 2005 | Introduction by Neil Morgan

It was almost 50 years ago, at the old Evening Tribune, that I won an award for a series of urgent reports about Lindbergh Field. The San Diego City Council had recently abandoned the city’s half-interest in Miramar and its vast runways in return for the home-porting of two Navy aircraft carriers in San Diego Bay. Everyone I interviewed for that series considered it important to begin planning then for additional airport space to allow San Diego to prosper and grow. The point was often expressed that we are situated in a far corner of the nation and that the need for dependable air transport was urgent.

Since then, more than 40 consultants have been retained by a series of airport jurisdictions. Their conclusions and proposals lie in dust among the archives of the city and port. The airport matter has become the region’s most time-worn news story, always good for a headshake and a groan.

So I grow tolerant of any proposal, however alarming, that might override the blockades of the past. A number of truly ridiculous airport sitings have been broached and abandoned by the relatively new San Diego Regional Airport Authority as part of their sorting-out process. They have yet to deliver a specific recommendation. I consider this earnest proposal from three respected scientists and oceanographers to be at least no madder than siting a new San Diego airport in Jacumba.

If an offshore airport were to prove feasible, it would become the talk of the industry and the flying public everywhere, and provide San Diegans with the ultimate trademark icon that we have sought for generations.

It would be certain, I should think, to require federal funding, and, all in all, I would much prefer a floating airport to another war in Arabia.

Keep Lindbergh at its present location, move the runways offshore and connect them to the terminal by undersea high-speed rail.

We believe this option deserves to be evaluated, vis-à-vis the other options now under consideration by the San Diego Regional Airport Authority. There are three basic questions: (1) Is it attractive? (2) Is it technically feasible? (3) Is it too expensive?

Our recommendation is to transform Lindbergh into a transportation hub, including air, rail, trolley, bus and cruise ship service. These are all within a few blocks and near an existing freeway. Not many cities have the option of a centrally accessible general transportation terminal. Further, with the landing and takeoff noise and air pollution removed to an offshore site, the most significant environmental objections are eliminated.

The engineering capability to design a floating airfield has existed at least since the Armstrong Seadrome of the late 1940s. The U.S. Department of Defense has repeatedly carried out design and model tests for aircraft-capable ocean bases that were not built when strategic requirements changed. Japan has come close to building two, one at Osaka where they opted for landfill and another at Haneda for which funding did not materialize. San Francisco has considered among other options the construction of a floating structure as part of its runway extension program. San Diego has the possibility of being the first to bring this concept to reality.

Framing the cost would be one purpose of the evaluation study we advocate. However, a rough estimate is that it would be reasonable in relation to other alternatives. The required floating area would be two airstrips, including taxiways, each about 12,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide plus a central structure for aircraft loading and unloading. Extrapolating from two studies in which we have been involved leads to a rough estimate of $6 billion-plus the undersea connection and passenger and freight-handling facilities ashore and afloat.

There are indeed challenging issues: mooring in high winds, the wave “shadow” cast on the coast line and other environmental considerations. There are difficult engineering choices, such as the type of flotation structure and its connection to the access tube, etc. We do not say that the offshore option is the best solution, but we assert that it deserves evaluation by some qualified group.

Floating landing strips, as proposed here, are not the only offshore structures under consideration. Liquid natural gas, or LNG, terminals are now being designed for locations offshore from Ensenada and the Coronado Islands. Future tankers with 100-foot draft are too deep for existing harbors and will have to be berthed offshore. A rising global sea level will call for reconstructions for many of the world’s harbors. We end this letter with a challenge. In the pioneering spirit of Charles Lindbergh, would it not be wonderful if San Diego would take a leadership role in meeting these global changes?

Frieder Seible is dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego. He was a member of the San Francisco Airport Authority that looked into a possible floating extension of the existing runways.

Fred Spiess has a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently research professor emeritus of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He served as a submarine officer in World War II and designed the floating platform FLIP.

Walter Munk has been a physical oceanographer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography for 50 years. He holds the Secretary of the Navy Chair in oceanography.

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