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Palo Alto Airport Day celebrates 80 years in the Baylands

Sunday event to feature free rides, airplane fly-by in formation

Palo Alto Municipal Airport will make history on Sunday, Sept. 27, when it celebrates its 80th anniversary of its Baylands location at Palo Alto Airport Day.

The annual event will be chock full of fun activities and interesting glimpses into aviation history and the airport. It's a chance to step inside cockpits and pull on the controls and to check out the evolution of small airplanes, from the 1940s to an aerobatics biplane and extremely fast, modern Lancairs, a sleek home-built aircraft.

Sunday's event takes place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 1925 Embarcadero Road, which is adjacent to the Palo Alto Baylands Preserve. Admission is free.

Ralph Britton, president of the Palo Alto Airport Association, said the formation fly by and colors ceremony are "quite impressive." Kids ages 8 to 17 can take free 20-minute flights on aircraft or help build a wing rib from wood. There will be food, exhibits and aviation-related items for purchase.

Palo Alto's long history with aviation dates back to 1906, when resident George Loose built a fabric and wood airplane, according to an article in the Palo Alto Times. Noted aviator Amelia Earhart flew from the Palo Alto Municipal Airport; and movie icon James Stewart, a longtime private pilot before he flew U.S. bombers during World War II, also flew out of Palo Alto, according to Britton. Writer John Steinbeck also took flying lessons at Palo Alto Airport in 1940, according to a Weekly 2001 compilation of local aviation history.

The airport actually started in 1928 at a different location, near the current Stanford Stadium. But College Terrace residents living near the air fields petitioned the city to move the airport because of noise. The controversy pitted two of Palo Alto's top lawyers against each other until a settlement was finally ironed out between the City of Palo Alto and the residents, Britton said.

The airport was moved to the baylands in January 1935. By July it was open, a feat of expedient planning, permitting and construction that is a marvel compared to today's years-long developments, he said. An original wooden hangar from the Stanford site was disassembled and moved to the baylands. It is still in use today, he added.

The city planned to marry its newest technology to the airport.

"There was a plan to use gas generated at Palo Alto's nascent wastewater-treatment plant to operate a gas light to illuminate the airport, but that proved impractical," Britton said.

With the advent of World War II, the airport was closed to the public in 1941. It was taken over by the U.S. Army Air Forces as a pilot-training airfield, according to Air Force historical documents. But after the war, Palo Alto High School offered aviation instruction at a ground school at the airport in 1945, and the airport returned to public use.

The airport became a popular place for flying lessons after the war, and flying became a sign of social class. Bay Area newspaper society columns frequently noted the named of Palo Altans who flew to Sacramento for lunch or to Los Angeles for dinner, the Weekly noted in 2001. But it didn't become the burgeoning center of aviation some thought it might be.

"Everyone thought that everyone would have a plane. Lots of companies bet on it, but it didn't happen. The theory was that there were so many retired veterans with flying experience that there would be a big market for planes," Britton said.

While the private-pilot boom did not materialize, the airport continued to grow. The city added a control tower, tie-down areas and a runway in 1968. The airport functioned as a semi-commercial facility with passenger and mail service, according to the Weekly compilation. But by 1972, passenger service ended when the airport faced too much competition from San Jose and San Francisco international airports.

Britton said that Palo Alto airport had two runways at one point. The second, a diagonal runway, ran at the edge of the current Palo Alto Municipal Golf Course. But it was removed when San Francisquito Creek was reconfigured to reduce perennial flooding problems.

Britton was flying at Palo Alto Airport in those days and recalled a flood in 1958: "The plane sunk up to the cabin and there was 3 feet of water inside."

Fixing the flooding posed a problem. Moving the creek meant changing the boundary between San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The city engaged in extensive negotiations to annex a small portion of San Mateo County, Britton said.

The airport has also faced opposition through the years, including several lawsuits. Local environmentalists opposed it, claiming it interfered with the Palo Alto Baylands bird sanctuary, and there have been long debates regarding its commercial viability. For some, the airport is a symbol of privilege for a few.

But the airport is also the staging area for LifeFlight helicopters that transport trauma patients to Stanford Hospital, and pilots and groups flying humanitarian missions frequently depart from Palo Alto.

With the return of the airport to city control in 2014, the airport is entering a new and hopeful era, Britton said.

Santa Clara County leased the airport for about 50 cents per year, agreeing to operate the facility as if they owned it, Britton said. "But they decided to do no maintenance for the last several years. It was going downhill fast."

With federal funding, the city has repaved the runway, eliminating a serious dip that was becoming dangerous, he said. A double-wide trailer that has served as a terminal has also been cleaned up and repaired.

Those changes are starting to reap benefits, he said. Many more of the previously vacant tie-downs -- parking spaces for planes -- are now filled, increasing the city's revenue from fees.

The county also sublet hangars, office buildings and maintenance facilities, and a huge percent of revenue goes into the pockets of lessors, Britton said. Those leases are at low, fixed rates, but the lessors have sublet the buildings at market rates. The leases will terminate in 2017, giving the city considerably more revenue from the new leases, he said.

Information about Sunday's Airport Day is posted at the Palo Alto Airport Association website.

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Race is tomorrow!

​On Friday, September 21, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run, or—for the first time—half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

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