NBC Bay Area reported last night that somehow, the City of Santa Clara hasn’t completed planning for how to make football games work in concert with operations and Mineta San Jose International Airport. The FAA has made a Determination of No Hazard for the stadium, based on building height and sufficient clearances, even though some light standards will be slightly higher than FAA mandates. However, this only works when the weather is good, and the two runways at SJC are used for takeoffs to the north and landings from the south. When the weather gets bad or fog comes in, the airport flips the script and the landing approach comes in directly over the 49ers’ stadium site. If you flew in and out of SJC during the stormy recent November and December, you probably got a good glimpse of this. I did over Thanksgiving.
When bad weather forces this change, jets landing at SJC tend to loop around the West Valley (Cupertino/Mountain View) before making a 180 turn to land on 30L or 30R, the two commercial runways at the airport. During good weather, planes taking off to the north usually make a sharp easterly turn before heading east or south. Assuming that those planes are in good mechanical condition, takeoffs don’t operate that close to the stadium site. Even flights going directly north to Portland or Seattle tend to go east and loop around until they get to the right altitude before going north. It’s when planes in low altitude fly into SJC from the north that the stadium’s location becomes an issue.
Is this a big deal? Sure it is. San Jose and Mineta Airport are used to this to an extent, as the regular approach to SJC has jets constantly flying almost directly over HP Pavilion and directly over several tallish buildings in downtown. That’s what happens when the airport is built in the middle of the city. It’s convenient, but it brings its own set of issues. Comparatively, the approaches to SFO and OAK are over water, though SFO-bound planes coming from the east often turn north close to the Santa Clara stadium site. Even the Diridon ballpark site came under scrutiny because it’s close to the approach, especially the general aviation runway (non-commercial).
None of these buildings provide the kind and scale of target as the Santa Clara stadium, which on gamedays will regularly hold 70,000 including workers. This will be amped up even higher for an upcoming Super Bowl, when the number of people in the immediate area could approach 100,000.
The early rains we had this season are somewhat unusual for the Bay Area, since we’re used to getting our heaviest rain from late January through March. It just goes to show that on a seasonal and monthly basis, it can be difficult to tell what will happen. The El Niño/La Niña phenomenon can be a contributor. Months out from Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, no one was predicted the sleet and freezing rain conditions that beset the Metroplex. While early February could be great weather (mid 50’s, sunny) for Super Bowl XLIX or one of those NBC-flexed Sunday Night games, chances are high that bad weather will force a change to air traffic control. I don’t doubt that a practical plan will be developed to deal with that situation, but it’s a lot of juggling and adds an aspect of uncertainty that isn’t present at other NFL stadium sites, let alone Super Bowl sites. Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, that everyone’s on their P’s and Q’s when games are played during the rain or fog. A lot more than division standings or a trophy will be at stake.