Nut Tree Airport Provides Home for Variety of Pilots

Sunday, March 27, 2005
Nut Tree Airport Provides Home for Variety of Pilots
By Brad Stanhope
The Fairfield (CA) Daily Republic
VACAVILLE – Tom Beattie has “the perfect job.”

“I have an office minutes from home and I’m footsteps from my plane,” he said. “I fly every week – probably 120 hours a year.” Beattie, the national product manager for a construction material company, is part of the airborne culture at Nut Tree Airport, one of two general aviation airports in Solano County. The other is 11-year-old Baumann Field in Rio Vista, which gets about one-third the air traffic as Nut Tree.

Solano County supervisors are in negotiations to purchase 16 additional acres for the 40-year-old Nut Tree Airport – under the assumption it is built to capacity and needs additional space to continue to serve the growing population of the region.

The airport – built by the owners of the venerable tourist attraction of the same name in 1955 – features the Federal Aviation Administration identifier of VCB, similar to the San Francisco International Airport code of SFO or Los Angeles International Airport code of LAX.

Beattie’s flights are part of the average of 278 takeoffs and landings a day from northern Vacaville, all of which are done without a control tower.

“It’s used by everything from pleasure flights to business flights to corporate and business travel,” said Andy Swanson, the airport manager. “For somebody doing business in the Vacaville area, it’s better than flying into Sacramento or Oakland. You can conduct business quicker.”

That’s the case for Beattie, who began flying while in the Air Force and started working in the same building as the administration offices for Nut Tree Airport about 15 years ago – when he convinced leaders of the Tennessee-based Strongwell Corp. he could handle the job while working 2,000 miles from headquarters.

Part of that is flying his Piper Archer.

“I had a project in Santa Rosa and the operation was one block from the airport, so I flew over and did the business,” he said. “Next week, the company jet is landing here and the CCO and I are going to Southern California to meet with some people.”

For Beattie, Nut Tree Airport is part of his business.

“The real savings is time: When a businessperson is working on a $1 million or $1.5 million deal, time is the most valuable thing,” he said. “For me to drive to Santa Rosa and back is a minimum of three hours on the road, compared to 15 to 20 minutes. Where it pays huge dividends is when you move a lot of people. I took a staff engineer and sales rep (to Santa Rosa). It’s realistic that I can go to Santa Rosa, fly back and still have a full day in the office.”

Vacaville’s pilot projects

Suisun City resident Brian Compton is using Nut Tree Airport as a place to learn to fly.

Compton, an officer with the California Highway Patrol, recently received his pilot’s license. Unlike most beginning pilots, he raced through his training, taking just a few months while taking lessons from Blue Ridge Aeronautics – the flight school at the airport.

He and his wife, Kristine Compton, decided in December that he would pursue his license and he began two days later – working quickly because of the cost and his desire to advance.

“It’s a little of both – I wanted to go out, get it done and get it over,” he said. “My goal is to fly for my department and that will help me in the long run.”

Economics came into play because Compton estimates it will cost him $5,000 to $6,000 to get his license – less than if he took lessons sporadically and thus required more review from his instructors.

“I could sit around and rehash all the stuff, but I didn’t want to be constantly doing that,” he said. “Why spend an hour with an instructor doing that when you can be flying?”

Price is the big thing for most student pilots, added Kim Hunt, an instructor at Blue Ridge Aviation.

“Basically, it amounts to cost,” she said. “A lot of people run out of money. Each lesson is 1.5 hours in the air and a half-hour ground time. Brian did it four hours a day, four days a week.”

The desire to learn how to fly – one of the key elements to traffic at Nut Tree Airport – ebbs and flows, she said.

Compton rents a plane for $109 per hour, plus the cost of the instruction. He says his lessons usually last two hours in the air, plus ground school.

He sometimes thinks about buying a plane, but the cost makes it difficult. You can purchase a Cessna plane, he says for $30,000 to $200,000 – but then you pay for a hangar or to tie down the plane at the airport and you pay for regular tests for the aircraft.

Compton rents, but a majority of the nearly 250 aircraft at the field are privately owned – including Beattie’s.

Small staff, small airport

The staff at Nut Tree Airport can fit in the elevator that they take to their second-floor office: It’s Swanson, administrative secretary Tami Martin and airport maintenance director George Atondo.

“My job is to manage the airport in the most efficient and safe manner,” Swanson said. “And to stay in compliance with FAA, state and local laws.”

That’s the idea, but a lot of his time is spent balancing the needs and desires of the tenants – there are 67 county-owned and 12 private hangars at the airport, as well as dozens of planes tied down on the apron area.

“Tami takes care of accounts for businesses and tenants – she wears a lot of hats,” Swanson said. “George does all field maintenance, inspections, all mowing, everything else.”

Swanson was a commercial fisherman in Alaska when the love of flight – something he’d had since childhood – took off.

“I fished commercially out of Bellingham, Wash., and went to Alaska. (Flying) was the only way to get around,” he said. “I really loved aviation and so I went to school and majored in aviation management. I like flying and like projects. I fly, but don’t have a license now.”

The county hired him in November and now he’s in charge of the airport, a job he describes as representing the interests of all the tenants.

That means helping business people such as Beattie, beginning pilots such as Compton and multiple-flight pilots such as Jimmy Ferreira.

‘I grew up at Nut Tree’

Vacaville resident Ferreira, who moved to town when he was 9 and often went to Nut Tree to watch the planes land and take off, is now a pilot of corporate jets flying out of Novato.

“I grew up at (Nut Tree),” he said. “I learned through Blue Ridge. I washed airplanes, I pumped gas.”

He even taught out of Blue Ridge for a few years. His subsequent career features a variety of pilots jobs – he was a flight instructor, then specialized in teaching how to fly old-fashioned tail-wheel planes. He inspected underground pipelines from the air, was a pilot for a small cargo company with a contract from UPS. He was a fire-spotter and then a co-pilot on fire bomber planes before beginning his current job of piloting people around for corporate clients.

But Nut Tree is still his home field.

“I’m not there as much as I used to be – but I’m still a flight instructor in my spare time,” said Ferreira, 30. “I do it on weekends and when I have time off work.”

He has fond memories of the airport.

“When I started working, I was 18. I worked at Nut Tree (next door) in the aviation book store,” he said. “I started flying at 21.”

Plans for the future

With recreational pilots, business pilots and experimental pilots all sharing the facility, Nut Tree gets plenty of use. And Swanson and the county have big plans for it – assuming they can get the financing from the federal government and add the 16 acres or more.

Swanson hopes to get federal funds to upgrade the perimeter fencing around the airport as part of the post 9-11 emphasis on airport safety. He also hopes to have the apron area – which is bumpy and pothole-filled – resurfaced in the next few years, following the resurfacing of the taxiway and runway.

In the past few months, the Solano Community College aeronautics classes relocated to the airport, which could bring more young pilots and mechanics to the area.

“It’s changed in a lot of good ways,” said Ferreira, who learned to fly there a decade ago. “The runways were extended 900 feet and there is more corporate traffic.”

Ferreira could be a spokesman for the airport, having watched planes as a child and learned to fly there before making piloting a career.

“It’s the Solano County airport – a prime area for the extended Bay Area,” he said. “One thing I noticed is that Nut Tree is bigger and has more business than it used to. But there’s still the father standing with a son or daughter standing outside, watching airplanes, just like when I was a little kid.”