Jennifer Julian sat in the flight simulator's cockpit and soared through the clouds. Before her, the large computer screen was a blank sea of gray. Dialing in coordinates on the instrument panel, she called out headings to flight-instrument instructor Chuck Hellweg: "Initial heading 0-6-0; transponder on for 5-0-5."
Cleared for takeoff, she steered the plane down Palo Alto Airport's Runway 31.
"This plane really cranks," she said, as the simulated engine roared and she lifted off into the sky.
Taking to the air is doubly special for Julian. Eight years ago she was gasping for breath, waiting for a double-lung transplant. Last year the Federal Aviation Administration cleared her for solo-pilot takeoff, finding her "fit to fly" with help from the Stanford Hospital transplant team and a final flight check with an FAA examiner.
"I got a second chance. My attitude is: Go out and kick butt!" she said, over the engine's hum.
Julian has spent the last three years learning to fly out of Palo Alto Airport -- the third busiest in the region with 18,000 annual takeoffs and landings, according to Airport Manager Andrew Swanson. Some people think the airport is a waste of public money that only serves the wealthy, but for people like Julian, it is a godsend.
"That airport is used by Stanford Life Flight and Angel Flight, and they fly in organs for transplants. ... For flying in patients and retrieving of organs, it's a huge asset," she said.
Without Palo Alto Airport, its supporters say, Stanford's and other emergency flights would lose precious time while trying to save lives. The airport has also been a boon to many businesses that rely on quick access to small planes for trips to manufacturing plants and other outposts.
Stanford Life Flight helicopters do roughly 600 transports per year, and it launches twice as many trips for potentially life-saving work that are canceled, Michael Baulch, manager, said.
"We spent $40,000 to $60,000 per quarter on fuel alone. If we didn't have Palo Alto, we'd have to fly to (the) San Jose airport. The fuel is more expensive, and we can't have fuel services on campus. There's too many regulations. The folks at Palo Alto know us and know our mission and priority. In San Jose, we would be in line with corporate jets," he said.
Stanford Life Flight will show its helicopter and services to the public at Palo Alto's Airport Day, an open house on Sunday, Sept. 28, that offers the community a chance to see the inner workings of the municipal airport. Visitors can take control-tower tours, go on Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles introductory flights for kids ages 8 to 17, see a raptor demonstration by the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo, and look at displays of unusual and vintage aircraft and formation flybys of light planes.
This year's event marks the first since the City of Palo Alto took over management of the airport in mid-August. For nearly 50 years, it was leased and operated by Santa Clara County.
Airport users and businesses wait with a mix of excitement and trepidation over the city's plans. Some businesses expressed concern for their leases; others said they think the city's takeover will bring the airport to its full, most lucrative potential.
Through Advantage Aviation, a 400-member flying club located at the airport adjacent to the Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course, Julian learned to fly three years ago. An avid scuba diver, now she is going for her instrumentation certification, which will allow her to fly in clouds and fog.
Julian has wanted to fly since she was a very young girl, she said. Her father, a private pilot, was killed in a plane crash when she was 5. After her lung transplants, friends encouraged Julian to fulfill her dream. She got her license in 2013.
She chose Palo Alto Airport after interviewing several instructors. She volunteers regularly as a adviser for Stanford Hospital and for the California Transplant Donor Network, she said.
The city's takeover is a huge benefit for the airport, she said.
"I was excited. It needs a little love and attention and TLC. It's a robust airport with some very talented air-traffic controllers," she said.
The airport is home to five flying clubs, and some of their graduates have gone on to become astronauts. The 800-strong West Valley Flying Club displays photographs and a club flight jacket worn by former student and astronaut Kalpana Chawla, a former aerospace engineer at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View. Chawla, a mission specialist, died on the Space Shuttle Columbia during a re-entry accident when the spacecraft caught fire.
Steve Blonstein, general manager for West Valley, said that Palo Alto has a larger number of women who are learning to fly.
"Nationally 6 percent of pilots are women. Our club has significantly more," he said. A notice board of recent achievements showed five women out of six students who recently completed their first solo flights.
Many flights out of Palo Alto are business-related. Pilots from high-tech companies such as Google commute to Los Angeles and the Central Valley or out of state to meetings and factories, said Carrie Ferguson, co-owner of aircraft-maintenance firm West Valley Aircraft Services. She got her love of flying from her mother, who was a pilot and whose picture standing next to plane is prominently displayed in her office.
Partner Kevin Pinger recently dismantled an engine in the cavernous hangar where several aircraft from vintage to modern awaited repairs and maintenance. The hangar dates to the 1920s and was moved to its current location in the mid-1930s after Palo Alto's first airport at Stanford University was closed.
Ferguson pointed to the old redwood timbers.
"We call this our 'good luck hangar,'" she said.
As the City of Palo Alto considers its airport future, Blonstein, Julian and Ferguson said they look forward to more consistent management and improvements that will continue to serve the city and surrounding communities. The future remains uncertain, however, as city staff works to decide on how it will manage and maintain the facility.
The city could choose to bring in a fixed-base operator to handle all of the fuel, maintenance and management, which could shut down the mom-and-pop businesses such as Ferguson's.
Blonstein said he believes the airport could become highly lucrative if the city makes strategic improvements.
Julian said she will continue to fly out of Palo Alto, and she anticipates making longer trips to places such as Montana and Idaho.
On Tuesday, she looked forward to boarding a plane with Hellweg to test out her newly honed skills.
"I get excited filing a flight plan and hopping in the plane. I'll just have the biggest grin on my face," she said.
Palo Alto Airport Day
Where: Palo Alto Airport, 1925 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto
When: Sunday, Sept. 28, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Information: Palo Alto Airport Association