Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Airport a beehive of activity
By K.C. MEADOWS
The Ukiah (CA) Daily Journal
With two inches of rainfall behind us and wildfires blazing in Southern California, the tankers and other CalFire aircraft at the Ukiah Municipal Airport are gone, and probably won’t be back this season. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty going on at the airport. On any given day you’ll find Calstar crews working on their medivac helicopter, private aircraft coming and going, freight haulers waiting for packages and a number of interesting businesses under way. Paul Richey, airport manager, has been working at the airport for more than 30 years, the last four as manager. He’s an admitted flying nut and says he doesn’t get up in the sky as much as he used to, partly because airplane fuel is up to $4.25 a gallon. Private pilots everywhere are seeing their passion get more expensive with each hike in oil prices, and Richey says there’s a joke about the “$100 hamburger” you can get at a fly-in diner at Willows. The burger is cheap, it’s the flying that’ll cost you. But this time of year, Richey says, the “bird’s eye view” of this valley is spectacular. “All of us who are bitten by the flying bug, it’s … the freedom,” he says wistfully. “Every time I go flying it’s a rush.”
Richey spends a lot of time at the airport, but not at Hangar 9 where his own plane is parked. No, he’s in the airport office getting ready to start a storm drain repair and replacement project that will cost $1.7 million and close the runways off and on for periods of time next year while storm drains are dug up and replaced. He keeps a rusted out pitted piece of storm drain under his desk which he uses for show-and-tell whenever he’s asking for money for the project.
It seems to work every time.
The Ukiah Municipal Airport is a place where lots happens that no one seems to know about, Richey muses. Besides the CDF tankers and FedEx delivery routes, there’s also DHL freight coming and going and another hauler called Ameriflight. In addition, there’s flight school, rental car agencies and air charter service at the airport.
There are also an aircraft sheet metal business and aircraft parts manufacturer on the premises. Richey said the airport tries to lease land or hangars to businesses dealing with aviation, but if they can’t find one when needed, the bills must still be paid, so they allow non-aviation businesses in.
One longtime non-aviation business is Oak Valley Nursery, which is officially on airport land and has been there since the 1970s.
On a wall near Richey’s desk is an architect’s drawing of a new expanded airport terminal with a two-story glass front and a roof line representing an airplane body.
It’s never gotten off the ground.
Budget considerations squelched it, but even so, expanded air service seems unlikely in Ukiah.
Since the 9/11 terrorist attack, Richey explained, federal Homeland Security requirements for airports have become overwhelming for a lot of small airports. Having regular air service into Ukiah would require the city to install the same airport security measures any major airport has. It would also require the city to cut off public access to the runways and hangars. It would be expensive and, it would seem, unlikely to result in a return on investment for the city’s costs.
But Richey thinks perhaps a new expanded terminal could dovetail with the needs of Homeland Security if it is couched as improvements for emergency situations.
Richey sees the airport as the perfect place to centralize efforts to house refugees in hangars or tents after an earthquake, flood or other natural disaster.
And even if the runway is damaged, helicopters could come and go, delivering needed supplies, and the airport could have its own power supply for runway lights and other emergency needs.
But that’s a ways into the future.
For now, Richey says the airport, as is, remains one of Ukiah’s best kept secrets.
He worries a little about encroaching development near the airport, something all airport managers worry about.
In a perfect world, you “wouldn’t have Mrs. McGillicutty’s cow within a two-mile circle” around the airport.
But he sees nothing on the horizon locally he feels would be a serious concern.
If only he could see that horizon from the air more often.