San Jose

'We Cannot Have a Major Incident': Santa Clara Mayor Wants Answers on Stadium Lights Distracting Pilots

In a new report arguing against an LA Rams stadium in Inglewood, former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge cites NBC Bay Area’s Investigation into the lights at Levi’s Stadium

In the midst of a fiery dispute between Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor and the San Francisco 49ers over the management of Levi’s Stadium, NBC Bay Area has uncovered yet another incident where the arena’s lights and bright scoreboard prompted safety concerns by pilots on board a commercial airliner landing at San Jose Mineta International Airport.

Those incidents are piling up. It’s the 43rd complaint documented by the Investigative Unit since 2014 in which pilots complain about being blinded or confused by the high-intensity lights and building-sized scoreboard at Levi’s Stadium. The latest complaint, in the days leading up to Super Bowl 50, was only recently made publicly available.

After NBC Bay Area shared these latest findings with her, Mayor Lisa Gillmor says she’s going to address her concerns with the 49ers, in addition to other questions about whether the organization used public money for the stadium’s operations.

“Now that you’ve given me this information, we’re going to follow through to make sure if there’s any recalibration that needs to take places, that it takes place,” Gillmor said. “We cannot have a major incident happen at Levi’s Stadium.”

Gillmor isn’t the only one worried about the potential safety hazard. Former US Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge cited NBC Bay Area’s reporting in a white paper he recently published in the summer of 2016, arguing against the construction of a stadium for the LA Rams in Inglewood, located less than three miles from the runways of Los Angeles International Airport.

In an interview with NBC Bay Area, Ridge said the FAA and security officials should take into account the problems created by Levi’s Stadium’s proximity to SJC.

“One would think that those public expressions of concern, some of which have been reported, would be included in the calculation today at the FAA as to whether the Inglewood site is appropriate.”

Ridge, who now runs the risk management firm Ridge Global, was contracted in 2014 by a group trying to build a rival stadium near the Staples Center. But Ridge says that contract doesn’t invalidate the concerns he’s raising. Ridge points out the FAA itself also recommended the stadium be built elsewhere, and said NBC Bay Area’s reporting further reinforced his position.

“This subsequent information regarding San Jose operational and security concerns and an inadequate response by the FAA is deeply troubling as the Inglewood stadium is closer to proximity to LAX than Levi’s Stadium is to SJC,” Ridge wrote in the report. “Should such gaps contribute to a major air disaster near Levi’s Stadium or at the Inglewood/LAX site, it can be expected that a host of U.S. Government agencies will quickly convene to investigate, to offer detailed post-incident reports, and to assign blame.”

The FAA has declined multiple interview requests since last year by NBC Bay Area to discuss these issues, but the agency provided a new statement concerning the Inglewood project and Ridge’s concerns.

“We are still working with the developer to address our concerns with the Inglewood stadium project,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor in an emailed statement. “When the FAA begins evaluating proposed structures, we solicit input from various agencies, including the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security. Both agencies had the opportunity to comment on the proposed Inglewood stadium. Neither agency objected to the proposal.”

Yet the FAA says it does not have the authority to review the lights and scoreboard within either stadium, according to a previous statement on the matter. However, the FAA did conduct a flight test over Levi’s Stadium after the first barrage of complaints in 2014. But internal emails obtained by NBC Bay Area show some within the agency believed the 49ers cheated on that safety test by dimming the scoreboard as the FAA flew over. 

The 49ers denied the allegation, issuing this statement:

“We are not aware of any FAA flight tests that took place in 2014. The only dimming of our videoboards we have done was in early 2014 at the request of the FAA in conjunction with our initial testing and calibration.”

But Ridge believes the FAA should have pressed the team on that issue. He questioned whether there was any follow-up by the FAA and blasted the agency for what he called lax oversight.

“If there is potential for pilots to be blinded or confused by lighting on approach to a major airport, is that truly not within FAA’s authority to review?” Ridge stated in his report. “This is akin to saying that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reviews standards for automobile construction but is not authorized to consider headlamps on a vehicle. If not in the FAA’s authority to review, then why was the test conducted? And if FAA personnel suspect the test was manipulated, what action was taken?”

The 49ers have declined multiple interview requests dating back to 2015, and it’s unclear what, if anything, the organization has done to address the light and scoreboard issues. The organization agreed to stop testing the scoreboard during certain times of day while the stadium was under construction, according to the FAA, but has not informed NBC Bay Area of any changes since then, despite ongoing pilot complaints.

“We respect the authority of the FAA in regards to lighting levels and any other operations matters concerning public safety and the stadium,” said Roger Hacker, a 49er’s spokesperson in an e-mail to NBC Bay Area. “We have great faith in their many years of expertise in the field and communicate regularly so that we remain in compliance with their protocols and policies. Public safety is of the utmost importance to the 49ers and Levi’s Stadium.”

The latest complaint filed with NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) obtained by NBC Bay Area mirrors a similar complaint from 2014, when a pilot confused lights at the stadium for the runway indicator lights at SJC.

“On approach to Runway 30L, we noted at about 25 NM from the runway that we had the VASI [runway lights] in sight,” the anonymous report states. “Unfortunately, as we continued the approach, we realized the lights we saw were the scoreboard for Levi’s Stadium which lines up with Runway 30.”

In addition to the 43 documented complaints from pilots, the Investigative Unit is aware of a half-dozen safety reports from the FAA’s own air traffic controllers concerning the stadium. The FAA denied a request to view those reports made under the Freedom of Information Act, but NBC Bay Area is appealing the denial.

Mike McCarron, an NBC Bay Area aviation consultant and a former Navy pilot and safety official with San Francisco International Airport, said he’s troubled by the pilot complaints.

“It’s a dangerous thing,” McCarron said. “It’s like getting a flashbulb in your face coming out of a dark room.”

McCarron is particularly concerned with pilots losing their night vision as they attempt to land with bright lights in their face.

“It’s a huge problem,” McCarron said. “When pilots are flying at night, you need at least 20 or 30 minutes to have your eyes sensitize to the darkness. That way you can pick up the subtle lights of the runway, the landing patterns on the runway by the lighting configurations, and determine them from exterior lights and the city lights out there.”

The 49ers have not shown evidence these problems have been mitigated, but Gillmor said Santa Clara residents should expect more accountability from the organization moving forward.

“We absolutely have to improve things,” Gillmor said. “And I’m lucky after this last election to be able to continue to lead a charge to make sure that the 49ers are accountable to the citizens of Santa Clara. We allowed them to come in and build the stadium here in our city. We want to make sure the city’s protected and that we are getting all the things that we were promised.”

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