Any deadly plane crash is tragic, but the lives, injuries and property damage incurred in Monday's crash in Santee call attention to the number of buildings and homes surrounding smaller airports in San Diego County.
Hundreds of thousands of San Diegans live, work or play near runways -- a reality pilots above and people below didn't have to face until relatively recently.
Lynn Azua loves playing with her grandson at a playground not too far from Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport. She's lived near it for more than 25 years and says the planes flying overheard never really phased her family.
"It hasn’t really impacted too much,” Azua said. “I mean, the kids love watching the planes and the helicopters come in. Sometimes we eat over at the airfield. But I've never been concerned about safety."
Monday's horrifying crash into the suburban community of Santee underscores what can happen on the ground when things go wrong in the air.
“When it hits this close to home, count your blessings," a neighbor close to Monday's crash site said.
The pilot and a UPS driver died in the crash. A senior couple is still recovering from serious burns after a dramatic rescue from their burning home, while a newlywed couple lost their home next door entirely to the flames.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said the son of the injured couple. “It’s a war zone, it’s not even a house.”
Even when pilots pull off emergency landings like the one that shut down traffic on Interstate 5 near Del Mar in August, it highlights how close these airports are to hubs of people on the ground.
Schools, homes and offices surround Montgomery-Gibbs Executive Airport, but that wasn’t the case when it and others were first planned.
Photos: Smaller Airports in San Diego County Were Designed Before Suburban Sprawl
Montgomery-Gibbs back in 1977 definitely was not the industrial park center it's become today.
And the Gillespie Field runway in 1950 was surrounded by a couple of farms and not much else.
Even Brown Field in Otay Mesa in the 80s didn't have all the suburban development that it does today.
Ramona in 1956 just shows a few farms nestled near the mountains, and an aerial of Carlsbad in 1960 shows it was substantially less developed than what pilots flying into McClellan-Palomar would see today.
“It’s horrifying to think that something out of nowhere can just suddenly, instantly, horrifically change these people’s lives”
San Diego pilot instructor Christopher Sluka says he can understand the concern about highly developed areas near airports, but doesn’t think airport locations need to change.
“People come to Montgomery because they want to get close to San Diego,” Sluka said. “There are other airports on the outskirts, but we live in a society where we accept a certain amount of risk for the benefits, and we have a thriving society, a lot due to aviation. I do think it’s a very vital part of our economy.”
While crashes like the one in Santee are terrifying and tragic, Sluka believes the flying community learns from them. He hopes that one day crashes like it will exist only in old photos.
“Decades ago planes were far less safe than they are today," Sluka said. “And hopefully, we constantly study these things and we make them better. And we reap the benefits of having a society with this kind of advanced type of transportation.
Just this past spring, the San Diego City Council approved $16 million in renovations and upgrades at Montgomery-Gibbs.