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Endangered Little Airports

On a crisp autumnal Sunday morning, Paul Glen pulls back on the stick of his Skyboy and takes off from Zamperini Field in Torrance. Visibility is perfect so Glen thoughtfully flies the tiny sport-class plane along the coastline at a leisurely 80 mph. He then banks north towards Camarillo Airport where he plans to have breakfast at the Waypoint Cafe––a local pilot favorite.

On his way back, Glen notices a couple of hangers being cleaned out. He wonders aloud if it's anybody that he knows. The attrition that he's witnessed over the past few years reflects the state of general aviation (private and recreational) in the U.S. The number of licensed pilots has been waning for decades. And the seeming lack of interest is giving some cities a reason to close their community airports.

"Flying has become somewhat blasé to most people," says Glen, 53, who worries about the growing number of pilots that are aging out. He's been trying to get his teenage son interested in aviation. "When flying commercially, I get on the plane and it always shocks me that during takeoff and landing at least 80 percent of the people on the plane will close their windows. They don't even want to look out. It wasn't always like that."

Growing Pains

When aviation was new and wondrous, airfields dotted California. Many fields were built by returning World War I pilots that wanted to keep flying. Cheap land and temperate weather encouraged these gypsy barnstormers to settle down and open flying schools or deliver cargo, mail and passengers. The military also opened dozens of fields throughout California to train pilots.

After the Second World War, many airports were turned over to municipalities. But coexistence hasn't been easy for host cities that have grown in every direction. Residents have fought cities over airport noise and pollution. Large tracts of increasingly valuable but underused land have become tempting targets for real estate developers that have dangled big checks under the noses of cash-strapped cities.

Eight small California airports have been shuttered over the past 11 years, says Melissa McCaffrey, regional manager for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in Frederick, Maryland. "There's always going to be vested interest and folks that would like to see the airport be used in other ways, she says. Unfortunately, the rising cost of California real estate makes it unlikely that another airport will be built to replace it.

Van Nuys Airport Prop Park
Van Nuys Airport Prop Park | Photo by Dennis Nishi

Cities Want to Redevelop 

The City of Banning in Riverside County voted to close their airport last year. Nestled within the windy San Gorgonio Pass, the community of 31,026 has struggled for years to attract companies and jobs. Banning Mayor Pro Tem, Don Peterson, says there's been a 72 percent drop in traffic from 2010 to 2015. He cites a study commissioned by the city that concluded that having an airport is not fiscally beneficial to Banning. Discussions are underway with developers who want to build a logistics warehouse facility on the 154-acre site that is close to highways and a rail line.

Local pilot Frank Belegente, who had been patiently watching our interview, walks over to confront Peterson. Belegente believes the city hasn't put enough effort into improving or even promoting the aging facility and angrily gestures with his aviation radio at the rows of shuttered hangers. Peterson calmly responds by mentioning the unsuccessful deals that the city has tried to make with Morongo Casino. Belegente shakes his head, unconvinced.

Other than the city-run fuel station, Skydiving West Coast is the only company currently operating at the lonely airport. "We're doing really well. We've done 700 jumps since we opened in June," says co-owner Tanya Spencer who runs the company with her husband. Both were surprised by the city's decision to close the airport. They have no plans to move.

The fate of Banning Municipal Airport now rests with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Because the city accepted federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) grants, they are legally bound to operate the airport as an airport in perpetuity, says FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. Banning would have to make a convincing case to close the airport and pay back unamortized portions of grant money. Peterson says that the developer may cover the estimated $2.2 million obligation but the FAA petition process could still take years.

It took Santa Monica decades to wrangle a settlement. The city council actually first voted to close their airport in 1981. But whereas Banning Airport is mostly surrounded by city storage, desert scrub and scenic mountain vistas, Santa Monica Municipal Airport is flanked by homes that were built during World War II.

Santa Monica Municipal Airport was once home to a massive Douglas Aircraft Company factory. Housing was built right up to the edge of the airport to accommodate the three shifts of 44,000 employees that worked around the clock. Nobody complained about noise during wartime. When jets moved in during the 1960s, nearby residents sued the city and have continued protesting to the present day. Last year, Santa Monica and the FAA reached a settlement to close the airport by 2028 and turn the 227-acre space into a park.

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Saving Hawthorne Airport

The FAA decision to close Santa Monica was a shock to Pat Carey, owner of Beach Cities Aviation Academy. Carey had

fought against city ballot Measure A that proposed closing Hawthorne Municipal Airport in 2001. Paladin Partners, a real estate developer based in Los Angeles, wanted to build a stadium and entertainment complex.

Carey rallied the local aviation community and went door to door. He talked about the importance of having a community airport and mentioned how small airports are often used as a staging area for civil emergencies like fighting wildfires. He also proposed ways to attract more business to the underused facility.

The grassroots efforts paid off. Despite being outspent by Paladin 12 to 1, over 70 percent of Hawthorne voters chose to keep the airport. The city finally committed to improving the airport by adding new hangers and a modernized runway that handles overflow from LAX. Elon Musk's SpaceX has since moved into the old Northrop factory that neighbors the airport; and the industrial area around the airport is turning into a hip destination with gastro pubs and coffee houses.

In Upland, Calif., which has seen many ups and downs since the recession, Bob Cable remains optimistic about the future of general aviation. Cable is the third-generation CEO of Cable Airport Incorporated, a privately-owned, public use 95-acre airport with a healthy number of tenants.

"We're not in it for the money. General aviation has never been a big moneymaker for anybody which is part of the problem for shortsighted cities," says Cable who has turned down offers of more than $100 million for his airport. "We're in it because we have a passion for aviation. We have a passion for what this stands for. This community is a dedicated group of people that's committed to keeping aviation alive. I feel confident about that."

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