Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 | More than three decades before Monday’s deadly jet crash, an SAIC engineer declared that flights in and out of the Miramar military airport posed an “extreme” danger to residents west of the runway and the future site of University City High School.
A report made public in 1979 warned of a “substantial threat of a catastrophic accident” and estimated that there was a 1-in-390 chance that a plane would hit the then-planned high school during any given year.
A Navy commander scoffed at the odds of an accident at the time, saying they stood at “once in every 15,000 years,” and the report was disowned by the defense contractor whose employee issued it. School officials went forward with plans to build the high school, and today it educates 1,800 students.
The boundary of its sports fields fall just hundreds of feet from the site of this week’s deadly military jet accident. On Monday, an F-18 fighter plane crashed into University City homes, killing four people and destroying two homes. The pilot ejected from the plane and survived. According to news reports, the fighter jet lost both engines and was unable to land at the airport.
According to news reports from the 1970s, an unsuccessful City Council candidate and University City resident named Jack Recht asked La Jolla-based Scientific Applications Inc. to compile the report, which was done free of charge. It was completed in 1976 and released publicly in February 1979. (The company later changed its name to Science Applications International Corporation, or SAIC.)
The report, written by SAIC assistant vice president Jerry T. Kopacek, discredited Navy reports that claimed the risk to homes in University City was minimal. The military airport currently known as Marine Corps Air Station Miramar was run by the Navy until 1997.
According to the report, the odds were one in 6,200 each year that a plane would crash into a University City High School building. Kopacek told The San Diego Union that the same odds would apply for any area of the same size in a region that encompasses parts of La Jolla, Clairemont and University City.
The Navy responded to the report in a letter, the Union reported, saying no one had been killed or seriously injured by aircrafts “since NAS Miramar became a master jet air station in 1952.”
However, many planes based at the military airport did crash over the years, both on land and in the ocean. According to the Union, in 1980 an F-14 fighter plane exploded in the air before slamming into a hillside near Santana High School in Santee; the two pilots ejected.
Navy Commander Allen Boothe told the Evening Tribune that “there is about as much risk of being killed by a plane crashing into that area as there is of a person dying in a skiing accident. The probability for such an accident is once every 15,000 years.”
Kopacek disagreed, telling the Union that “there have been plenty of close calls. There’s thousands of people living in the potential crash zone.”
SAIC disowned the report on the day its existence was reported, saying it was not approved by the company. Kopacek told the Union that he shouldn’t have used SAIC stationery, and said “my boss is really mad at me, let me tell you.”
He also told the Union that the study was just a “quick answer” and said the study’s “confidence level” — the story didn’t explain what that was — was less than 10 percent. The study estimates “could be off by a factor of five,” he said.
Kopacek’s comments appeared in a Feb. 10, 1979, story that also reported that the FBI and the Navy had investigated SAIC’s government contracts.
Kopacek could not be located Tuesday. Recht, the City Council candidate, died in 1997.
University City High opened in 1981. The homes in the vicinity of the crash site were built in 1973.
Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.