Deal Between Turlock, Airport Praised by City

Five years ago, pilots complained that Turlock Municipal Airport suffered from a lack of upkeep and from indifference among city officials.

Saturday, May 1, 2004

The Modesto (CA) Bee

Five years ago, pilots complained that Turlock Municipal Airport suffered from a lack of upkeep and from indifference among city officials.

Today, with the small airport operated by a nonprofit pilots group, it is a different story. The group has made several improvements to the runway and other features, and it is embarking on a major renovation expected to cost $4.1 million, paid for mostly by federal grants.

“We’re holding our own and paying our bills and managing to keep the place going in a very satisfactory way,” said Otis Mercer, owner of Aero Vista, which provides fuel, flying lessons and plane rental at the airport.

Mercer used to manage the airport for the city and now is one of several volunteer co-managers for the Turlock Regional Aviation Association. In 2000, this group took over the operation under a five-year contract with the city, which still owns the place.

The association covers operating and maintenance costs with the fees it collects from airport users. It had $56,000 in the bank and no debts as of the end of 2003, according to a report to the City Council this week.

The deal came about after Turlock officials, reluctant to spend city money on an airport that few city residents use, considered selling it outright in 1999.

“I am exceptionally pleased at how it has turned out,” said City Councilman John Lazar, who had suggested the sale. “Frankly, I think the airport is running better than it ever has been.”

The airport, about 8 miles east of Turlock and just inside Merced County, was built as a World War II training field and came into city hands in 1947. It is home to 74 small planes, mostly two- and four-seaters. Fuel, plane repair and rental, and lessons are available.

Backers say the airport is an increasingly useful place for businesses, emergency agencies and leisure aviation.

Projects over the past four years have included new hangars, runway restriping, lighting repair and weed control, said Chuck Sanders of Modesto, president of the association.

“The bottom line is we really went a long way in taking care of the airport, trying to make it presentable,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to pay 95 percent of the $4.1 million cost of major upcoming projects. The California Division of Aeronautics would pay 4.25 percent, and the association would cover the tiny remainder.

The work is planned in three phases, according to association treasurer William Behrens of Denair:

  • Storm drainage, electrical and communications improvements, plus new pavement around the hangars and airplane tie-downs. This could be done by the end of the year.
  • Repaving in other areas, plus installation of a water system for firefighting.
  • Replacement of the 3,000-foot runway with one extending to 4,500 feet. This phase also would include improvements allowing pilots to use instruments, rather than just eyesight, to land in poor weather.

    The second and third phases have no completion date yet, but Sanders said he hopes the entire plan is carried out within five years. The FAA has delivered a $1.04 million grant for the first phase and has indicated that it will provide money for the others, Behrens said.

    Sanders said the new runway would allow landing by planes with up to 10 seats, a type used by some businesses.

    Mayor Curt Andre, himself a licensed pilot, said the contract with the association has been “an ideal partnership.”

    “I learned to fly at the airport when I was a teenager, and I’ve kept abreast over the years,” he said. “It has never looked better.”

    Attached Photo: Otis Mercer of Aero Vista Inc. helps run Turlock Municipal Airport.

    Editor’s Note: The Turlock Pilots Association is CPA chapter that was formed for the purpose of enabling the pilots to take over management of the airport–although CPA is not mentioned in the article.