Happy landings | September 21, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 21, 2012

Happy landings

Public invited to Palo Alto Airport Day on Sept. 22

by Bryce Druzin

On a Tuesday evening, Chuck Peterson parks his fuel truck next to a gas pump adorned with signs car drivers would find familiar: "Phillips 66," "Self Service," "Open 24 Hours."

But "$6.12/gallon" might raise some eyebrows.

Peterson said the price reflects the higher standards airplane fuel must meet.

"If the engine seizes, you can't just pull over to the side of the road like a car," he said.

Peterson has worked for 30 years at Palo Alto Airport, which will hold Airport Day on Sept. 22. The open house will include airplane flights for children and tours of the control tower.

Sandwiched between the municipal golf course and the Baylands, the airport is the Bay Area's third busiest, trailing only San Francisco and Oakland.

All that flying keeps refuelers like Peterson occupied.

"We work from sunup to sundown, 364 days a year," Peterson, a former helicopter flight instructor, said. "The only day we're closed is Christmas. They tell us we have to fill Santa Claus up on Christmas Eve."

Much of the flight traffic is generated by student pilots and instructors like Jeff Katz.

"My main joy comes from teaching someone who wants to fly but isn't sure they can do it, getting them to a point where they can control the plane," he said.

While pilots are learning their craft high in the sky, air-traffic controllers on the ground are honing their skills as well.

"This is basically a training facility ... 85 percent of our learning is on the job," according to Abasife Green, a fourth-year air-traffic controller.

Green said controllers spend two to four years at Palo Alto before moving on to other airports. He said Palo Alto has the youngest roster of controllers in its Federal Aviation Administration region, which spans Arizona, Nevada and California.

Green said he enjoys the non-repetitive nature of his job, but that it's not without its drawbacks.

"It's high stress, like people say," he said. "But the stress doesn't hit you until you get home."

Airplanes aren't the only aircraft being directed in and out of Palo Alto.

When a Stanford Life Flight helicopter approaches the airport Tuesday evening, refueler Mike Garcia has his truck waiting a safe distance from the landing area before the aircraft even touches down.

"We know what they sound like," said Garcia, who has worked for Rossi Aircraft, Inc. for six years. "They pretty much have priority over everybody else. We fuel them, they save lives."

After waiting for the blades to come to a complete stop, Garcia drives in closer and electrically grounds the helicopter to his truck before refueling the aircraft.

Life Flight pilot Doug Evans, fresh off transporting a patient from Santa Rosa to Stanford, climbs out of the cockpit and exchanges pleasantries with Garcia.

"They take care of us. They come out all hours of the day," Evans said, referring to the 24-hour fuel service Rossi provides.

Garcia said Airport Day reminds him that he works in a unique environment.

"For me (the job) becomes repetitious," he said. "But when people come out and see it they're like 'Oh, that's cool,' because they're not around airplanes."

The airport, which is currently run by Santa Clara County, is home to five flying clubs that function as middlemen between members, airplanes and flight instructors.

Steve Blonstein, West Valley Flying Club general manager, has been a member for 20 years. What began as a practical way to commute to and from Grass Valley for work became a passion that led him to fly to every one of California's 240 general aviation airports.

"There's corners of California I didn't even know existed," he said.

Outside West Valley Flying Club's maintenance hangar, shop foreman Jasper Sardalla is fixing a bad RPM drop in the engine of a Cessna-172, a common single-engine prop plane.

He gets in the aircraft, turns on the engine, and gives it some throttle.

"That sounds better," said David Vital, director of maintenance for the club. "When it's bad it'll sound like it's popping."

Vital maintains around 40 airplanes the club leases from owners and then rents to members. He said paying attention to details is crucial.

"To keep motivated, my saying is 'You can't pull over in the air.'"

Airplanes are subject to specific inspections after every 50 and 100 hours of flight time. All work done on an aircraft is entered into a plane's maintenance log.

"The paper trail behind everything you do is almost as much as the work on the plane," Vital said.

The next day, Vital stops by Rossi's maintenance hangar to borrow a gasket, bantering with Joel Harris, the parts and service manager, while he looks for the part.

"Are you writing this down?" Vital asked.

"I'm not writing this down," Harris said.

"Well, we'll just have to be honest with each other," Vital said before heading back to his garage.

"It's a small community," Harris said afterward. "So everybody tries to help out if they're short a gasket or something."

Blonstein and other members of the aviation community shared their belief that the airport provides economic benefits as well as services such as Angel Flights, where pilots volunteer to transport people seeking medical care.

But they also lamented the poor condition of its physical infrastructure.

Carl Honacker, director of county airports, acknowledged the problems, but said planned improvements have been delayed due to an FAA funding freeze following a dispute over the county's decision to prohibit a skydiving club from using San Martin Airport.

This has complicated the city's planned takeover of the airport, but Honacker hopes the transfer is completed by the summer of 2013, he said.

Besides the resident aviation community, charter pilots also make use of the airport.

On a Wednesday afternoon, Mark Schmaltz and Robert Myers relax in the airport's modest terminal building after flying in two clients from Los Angeles.

"We found out about this trip yesterday," Schmaltz said, reflecting on the volatile schedules of charter pilots.

"I'm still finding out what I'm gonna do this weekend," added Myers. "I hope it's Napa."

When their clients return an hour ahead of schedule, Myers and Schmaltz pop out of their seats.

"That's the life right there. They come in and ... ," Schmaltz said, finishing the sentence by getting up and heading towards his plane.

What: Airport Day

When: Saturday, Sept. 22, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: Palo Alto Airport, 1925 Embarcadero Road

Activities: Tours and exhibits, food vendors, aircraft-oriented items for sale, children's activities

Cost: Free

Info: www.paloaltoairport.aero/airport-day.html

Freelance writer Bryce Druzin can be emailed at bdruzin@gmail.com.


Posted by Trentz, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2012 at 8:12 am

Nice article Bryce

Posted by Marco Schuffelen, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2012 at 10:40 am

I assume most of the small planes buzzing by are just for the enjoyment of the flyers - but for me on the ground it's just a lot of unpleasant noise - I wish they would stay away from inhabited areas.

Posted by Nice, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 21, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Sounds fun.

Posted by George, a resident of Palo Verde School
on Sep 21, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Are you saying that the Palo Alto Airport is busier than San José International? That's pretty hard to believe, even if the definition of busy means take-offs and landings without regard to passenger and crew numbers.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 21, 2012 at 5:23 pm

Aircraft operations per day average for calendar year 2011: Palo Alto 516, San Jose 375, SFO 1169, Oakland 597.