Life as Director of Santa Clara Valley Airports

To read the entire interview from the July August Newsletter click “Read More”.

You’re a pilot, can you tell us a little about your aviation background?
I got hooked on aviation as an early teen.  I mowed lawns for a few extra bucks and one of my customers owned a Bonanza.  He offered to take me flying one day and he showed me my house from the air…what an experience!  When I got a Navy ROTC scholarship to attend the University of Nebraska I knew that this was my chance to become a Naval Aviator.  I had a wonderful Navy career flying P-3 Orions worldwide during the cold war and a number of other aircraft in between tours in P-3 squadrons.  My best shore tour was at the Beech factory in Wichita accepting new T-34C Turbo Mentors and UC-12s (King Air 200) into the fleet.  I got to fly just about everything Beech made in the early ‘80s and I was there for their 50th anniversary and got a chance to fly in a Staggerwing and see versions of many antique aircraft they had created in those 50 years.  I kept flying and teaching other Navy pilots to fly the C-12 which eventually led to an ATP and type rating in the Lockheed Electra.  With over 4,000 hours I have had a lot of fun in the sky.  My last tour in the Navy was as the Executive Officer at NAS Moffett Field.  Our neighbors at NASA were kind enough to offer rides in their T-38, YO-3 and the Cobra helicopter they used for aeronautical flight testing.  I also got a chance to run a couple of air shows (including the last Navy show) while there, so I also got bit by the air show bug and now have a lot of friends in the industry.  I still dabble in GA flying when I can and still hold the dream of owning my own aircraft one day.

What was your biggest challenge at Moffett Field?
The biggest challenge we faced during my last tour was the closure and transfer of the base to NASA in accordance with the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision by DoD and Congress.  The schedule was accelerated by four years so we only had two years to decommission and/or move the six P-3 squadrons, the training squadron and all the other Navy commands on the base.  During that same timeframe we dealt with the tragic loss of two P-3 crews that had a midair collision off the coast of San Diego.  On the bright side we completed a smooth and seamless transition of the base to NASA ownership, while continuing to offer great customer support for the fleet.  I also had a hand in creating the Moffett Field Historical Society and the museum they operate now near the base of Hangar One.

How long have you worked for Santa Clara County in an aviation capacity?
I started working for the County Airports a month after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks on our nation.  I worked as the assistant director under Jerry Bennett for my first year here and then I was promoted to my current position as the County airports director when he retired.  During my many years of commuting to Moffett while working for the Navy and NASA I would pass by RHV and think what a great job it would be to work at that airport, and here I am, enjoying every minute of it (well maybe not every minute). 

What is the biggest issue that you face as Director of Airports (RHV, South County and PAO)?
It’s hard to pick just one issue.  I think the biggest challenge that faces GA airport managers is the juggling act of keeping the myriad responsibilities we have in the air and not dropping the ball.  Our job is to balance the following priorities: Provide safe and efficient airports for the flying public; Provide good customer service for our tenants and on-site businesses, Comply with the needs and requirements of the bureaucracies and politics within the County or City that owns the airport(s) and the various external regulatory agencies (FAA, State, EPA etc) that we deal with; Keep the airport on good terms with neighboring communities; Find the resources needed to improve or sustain the operations, infrastructure and facilities on the airport, and probably most important but least identified is; The need to lead and motivate the staff that makes it all happen.  Unfortunately some of these priorities are diametrically opposed to each other some of the time.  On many occasions I’ve found it difficult to simultaneously please both the County leadership and our tenants due to conflicting operational requirements or philosophies.  I guess you could say we serve two masters, the government agencies who provide oversight and governance, and the tenants who provide us with our revenue and enable us to pay the bills.  I try to ensure that the front line staff doesn’t have to worry about this “Two Boss Dilemma”, and I emphasize that their job is to provide good customer service and keep the airports safe.

What challenges do you and other airport managers face as a result of the downturn in the economy?
Many airports (both GA and Commercial Service) are struggling with the loss of revenue due to the recent downturn in the economy.  Many rural GA airports that rely on general fund support from their community are dramatically trimming back on their services, staffing and projects due to city, county or state cutbacks.  Most commercial service and reliever airports are fortunate to be self-sufficient financially, and do not receive funding from their sponsor County or City general fund to make ends meet.  During good times this is relatively easy to maintain, but when pilots reduce their flying, sell their aircraft or quit buying products and services from on-site businesses, revenue doesn’t always keep up with the cost of managing the airport(s).  Our neighbors at SJC are facing layoffs this year due to the loss of airline traffic, and we are finding we don’t have the resources we would like to have for proposed capital improvements.  Although the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP) is well funded for the foreseeable future, airports still need to provide matching funds for the grants, and need to have the ability to cover unforeseen construction costs.  In addition, many non-airfield related airport improvements like hangars, terminals and landscaping are not FAA grant eligible and you need to have a diversified revenue program to weather the vagaries and cycles of aviation industry.  Those airports that have large corporate airparks or other commercial and retail operations that pay rent to the airport are doing better financially than those, like ours that are almost 100% reliant on aviation for their revenue stream.

Can you give us an idea of how many people are employed at your airports?
The County Airports staff consists of a total of 15 people.  We have 5 administrative positions, 2 airport operations supervisors and 8 airport operations workers at the three airports.  We work for the County’s Roads and Airports Department and a number of the people in other divisions of the department provide services to the airport system including fiscal, administrative, engineering and management.  There are approximately another 200-250 people directly employed by private businesses at the three airports, over 20 FAA employees that work in the Air Traffic Control Towers, and literally thousands of people whose jobs are impacted by the economic engines that our three airports provide to the surrounding area.

Everyone knows the issues that RHV has been faced, such as closure threats etc.  Is the threat passed, or should we continue to remain alert?
Reid-Hillview has been through a number of public debates regarding its future and has weathered several efforts to close it over the last 20 years.  The issues of safety, noise, economic vitality, land use and long range viability have all been met with affirmation that the airport is still an essential element of the transportation system in the County and the State.  Aside from its critical role as a reliever airport for SJC, the airport continues to be the biggest bread winner for our entire airport system.  RHV’s large customer base and busy flight training businesses have kept the airport in the top 100 GA airports in the nation based on operations.  Most urban GA airports seem to have similar issues related to community compatibility and the constant effort to close or modify the airport’s footprint or operations.  RHV’s struggles have become an industry example of what it takes to survive in an urban setting.  There will continue to be new efforts by politicians and community members to question the airport’s existence, so the aviation community must maintain a dialogue with elected officials and community leaders, stay in tune with local issues and ensure that the airport’s positive attributes remain in the front of everyone’s minds.

Do you feel that an aviation background is a positive, a negative or neutral benefit as Director of Airports?
I truly believe it’s a must for any airport manager to have some background in aviation to understand the needs and thoughts of their customers.  You can’t really get a good picture of your airport’s relationship to the surrounding area from the ground level…you have to be able to also see it from the pilot’s perspective.  Many small airports are managed part time by a community’s public works or administrative department staffer and as a result are operated much like any other city or county resource.  Airports are pretty unique places with some rather technically challenging problems.  One compliment that I’ve heard at a number of industry conferences from large commercial service airport managers is that a GA airport manager is truly a “Jack of All Trades” individual who has to know everything about how the airport runs and is financed.  This is primarily due to the fact that there really isn’t anyone to delegate the job to at a GA airport, unlike a big airport with a staff of hundreds that make them run smoothly.

As an airport manager what advice would you give pilots regarding their airport?
In addition to remaining informed about on-airport issues and supporting the local airport pilot association, I would recommend that they stay in touch with local community issues, land use planning around the airport and elections.  A supportive County Board or City Council can change directions dramatically with only a few changes in elected officials.  Be aware of all political candidate platforms and aviation policies during elections.  And of course pilots should always feel comfortable providing feedback to their airport manager and staff.  We value your opinions and ideas, so keep them coming.

What are the biggest challenges you face being the interface between your aviator tenants and on the other side, your management chain?
To further my discussion of this subject in the answer above, the two biggest issues that cause friction between our customers and our management are fees and regulations.  Of course I understand that pilots would like to have the ultimate freedom to do their own thing with their aircraft (and their hangar) and not have to pay much for the privilege, but management’s responsibility is to make ends meet and ensure compliance with an ever increasing number of federal, state and local laws and regulations.  An unpopular government policy or a need to raise storage fees to balance the budget are not the things I like to talk to pilots about, but I believe its essential and necessary for me and my staff to explain the reasons for the change to the tenants in as calm and informative a manner as possible.

Have the airport/pilot organizations been helpful to you?
We are blessed to have three active and involved CALPILOTS affiliated airport/pilot associations (RHVAA, PAAA, SCAPA), and I feel we have a good working relationship with all three groups.  In addition we work closely with the EAA, CAP, the ‘99s, and the Santa Clara County Airmen’s Association.  The RHVAA has valiantly risen to the closure threat several times in the last 20 years.  The SCAPA organization has grown substantially in the time I’ve been with the County and has taken a leadership role in the community around the South County/San Martin airport.  The PAAA is a well connected group that is currently working with the City of Palo Alto to transfer responsibility of that airport from the County back to the City.  PAO has the good fortune to also have a Joint Community Relations Committee to assist with noise and other airport issues with the surrounding communities.  We used that model to create a JCRC at RHV and hope to have the committee formulated in the near future.  We also created a FBO/Users Group at RHV and at E16 to regularly meet with FBOs and various airport businesses and tenant groups to discuss airport and FAA air traffic control issues.

What major projects have been accomplished over the past 3-4 years, and what is scheduled?
RHV: Improved drainage systems between hangar rows; New fencing and gates around the public areas; New roofing and HVAC on the terminal and Swift Avenue facilities, Installation of a Noise Monitoring system; and Acoustic Treatment of several homes north of the airport.  Total investment during this timeframe: over $2.5M.  Near term plans include conducting an environmental review of the Master Plan, which when approved will add a west side taxiway, improved runway lighting, provide pavement repairs and shift the runways slightly north to provide adequate Runway Safety Area at the south boundary of the airport.  We also plan to purchase several properties in the runway protection zone, and lease out a parcel of land at the corner of Tully and Capitol Expressway to a commercial developer to provide revenue for airport projects that are not FAA grant eligible.

PAO: Improvements to the Terminal Building/Operations offices and addition of 4 new maintenance buildings; Repair and upgrade to the levee paralleling the runway; New fencing, access gates and road improvements near the fuel farm and FAA ACTC.  Future plans include adding an AWOS IIIP later this year, and doing a significant pavement repair project in 2010.  Other projects that were proposed in the Master Plan will need to be discussed will the City of Palo Alto before conducting the necessary environmental review.

E16: Addition of 100 new hangars; Improvements to the Operations offices; New fencing and access gates.  Total investment during this timeframe: Over $7M.  Future plans include addition of an AWOS IIIP this summer, and an environmental review of the Master Plan.  Based on the outcome of the EA/EIR there are plans to lengthen the runway to 5,000 feet, add additional taxiways and weight bearing capacity, and build a new maintenance facility.

Are you still actively flying?
Not nearly as much as I’d like, which is a pretty standard pilot response.  For the time being, my flying has been primarily related to flying to local area airport meetings and visiting our three airports.  As I stated above, I’d like to find the time and resources to get my own aircraft one of these days.

How long did it take to get the Reid Hillview (RHV) and South County GPS approaches approved?
The work was underway when I arrived at the County, but I believe it took around three years to certify the new approaches.  We’re working with the FAA to upgrade these approaches to utilize the new WAAS system to provide lower minima at the three airports.

What was your biggest challenge at Moffett Field?
The biggest challenge we faced during my last tour was the closure and transfer of the base to NASA in accordance with the 1991 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) decision by DoD and Congress.  The schedule was accelerated by four years so we only had two years to decommission and/or move the six P-3 squadrons, the training squadron and all the other Navy commands on the base.  During that same timeframe we dealt with the tragic loss of two P-3 crews that had a midair collision off the coast of San Diego.  On the bright side we completed a smooth and seamless transition of the base to NASA ownership, while continuing to offer great customer support for the fleet.  I also had a hand in creating the Moffett Field Historical Society and the museum they operate now near the base of Hangar One.

How long have you worked for Santa Clara County in an aviation capacity?
I started working for the County Airports a month after the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks on our nation.  I worked as the assistant director under Jerry Bennett for my first year here and then I was promoted to my current position as the County airports director when he retired.  During my many years of commuting to Moffett while working for the Navy and NASA I would pass by RHV and think what a great job it would be to work at that airport, and here I am, enjoying every minute of it (well maybe not every minute).

Editor’s Note: We would like to thank Carl for his time and efforts in writing this article. CALPILOTS believes that it is important to understand that airports are more than where we base our aircraft, they are also businesses. It takes a lot of time and effort to successfully run an airport, which is another reason to get involved and work together with your airport manager and/or sponsor.

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