McClellan-Palomar Airport – Flying high at 50

Opened in 1959, McClellan-Palomar Airport is now a bustling and modern airfield, but not everyone agrees that growth has been good.

McClellan-Palomar Airport has come a long way since its birth in 1959.

Carlsbad had fewer than 10,000 residents then, one-tenth today’s population.

The airport, which cost $163,000 to build, was surrounded not by houses, businesses and golf courses, but by tomato, bean and flower fields.

One road from the coastal highway dead-ended at the airport. There was no road to it from the east.

Now, 50 years after it opened, McClellan-Palomar Airport ranks as one of the busiest single-runway airports in the country, and is the only airport in San Diego County besides Lindbergh Field with scheduled airline service. United Express flies to and from Los Angeles International Airport with a dozen takeoffs and landings a day.

The airport’s story began when the county had to close Del Mar Airport to make way for a new freeway, Interstate 5, and it was looking for a new home for general aviation, which includes all private and commercial flying with the exception of military and scheduled airline flights. The result was Palomar Airport, 250 acres named after the mountain.

Today’s airport only slightly resembles its 1959 version, when World War II was a fresh memory and air travel was still regarded as daring and romantic. Gerald McClellan, an avid private pilot and Carlsbad civic leader who was instrumental in getting the airport built, wouldn’t recognize it.

In 1982, McClellan’s name was added to the mountain’s to honor his contribution, but many people still call it Palomar Airport.

After more than 50 years of operation, the airport has a terminal building and rows of hangars housing gleaming jets. It covers 487 acres now and has a 4,900-foot runway, about half the length of the runway at Lindbergh Field, limiting flights to smaller-sized aircraft. Most airline flights in and out of Palomar have been 25-to 30-seat turboprops.

The new 18,000-square-foot terminal opened in January as part of a $35 million airport project that added parking lots and restrooms, improved security and set up a U.S. Customs station. The Federal Aviation Administration and San Diego County, which owns the airport, paid for those improvements.

Rows of jets sit outside gleaming new buildings that represent more than $90 million in private investment in the airport over the past decade.

The airport recorded 190,455 takeoffs and landings last year, according to the FAA. That’s down significantly from the 255,000 in 2000.

But the growth of Palomar as a modern facility has come at a price, say pilots and others who have used the airport for years.

“At one time it was a friendly little place,” said Larry Grismer, who said he flew into the airport on its first day of operation – March 20, 1959.

Grismer, 79, said that in Palomar’s early years, regulations were few and that bartering and informal deal-making were more common. He recalled swapping an airplane for some temporary structures, which he set up on concrete pads then rented out as hangars. He flew charter flights to Mexico out of Orange County and bought land east of the airport that he developed and opened as the Carlsbad Raceway in 1964.

The raceway hosted drag and motocross races for 40 years, closing five years ago to make way for a business park.

Grismer, who still owns 14 airplanes, said general-aviation pilots were forced out to make way for the new hangars and corporate jets. The county set aside space for general-aviation pilots to tie down their planes, but many were priced out of space and moved to airports in Oceanside, Ramona and elsewhere.

“About five years ago, maybe six, we saw a real dramatic change in the flavor of the airport,” said Tom Harnish, who operated Barnstorming Adventures out of Palomar from 1994 to 2006.

Harnish and his wife and business partner, Kate Lister, flew passengers along the coast in vintage 1920s and 1940s aircraft. That changed after Premier Jet moved to Palomar, Harnish said.

Premier Jet, which provides a variety of flight-support services, such as fueling and cleaning, booking charter flights and leasing hangars, opened a $30 million, high-tech facility at Palomar in 2006.

“When Premier built their facility, they wiped out a whole bunch of general-aviation hangars,” including the ones that housed Barnstorming Adventures, Harnish said. He said hangar space with public access was a problem, and he and Lister sold the business in 2006.

“When Barnstorming Adventures was trying to find a way to stay there, no one would make it possible,” Harnish said.

Donnya Daubney, owner of the airport pilots store, said today’s Palomar is markedly different from the one where she first took flying lessons 30 years ago.

Daubney has operated a pilots store, which sells charts, aviation gear and souvenirs, for about 20 years. She moved into Civic Helicopters’ building when new hangars wiped out the building that housed her store and the airport restaurant.

“Quaint,” Daubney said when asked to describe yesteryear’s Palomar. “Quaint and nice. And very, very friendly.

“You would be able to walk down the hangars, and if they were open, (the pilots) loved to talk to you. Talk about their planes, talk about their past, even give you rides.”

Today, she said, “it’s very corporate.”

Chin Tu, owner of Civic Helicopter, arrived at Palomar in 1974 with Hughes Helicopter, which moved to the airport in the mid-1960s.

Tu recalls Palomar as a vibrant place exuding energy and enthusiasm, similar to the early days of airplane barnstorming. He said Hughes wrote a chapter in aviation history right there on the runway.

“The AH-64A, the current attack helicopter, was born right here at Palomar Airport,” Tu said.

“It did its first hover at Alpha Four,” a reference to a location on the runway.

Hughes was competing at the time for the contract to build an advanced attack helicopter for the Army. It tested its design, which today is the renowned AH-64 Apache, at Palomar from 1978 to 1981 and won that contract.

Hughes Helicopters was sold to McDonnell Douglas in 1984, which later became part of Boeing.

“Those days we had people walking all over the taxiway,” Tu said. “These days? Forget it – you can’t walk 10 feet without seeing someone with a badge.”

The airport has grown attractive to businesses that either own or share ownership of aircraft. Nearly 350 aircraft are based at Palomar today.

Peter Drinkwater, the director of county airports, said the change was inevitable. Just as North County’s economy has shifted from agriculture to research and manufacturing, so the airport needed to change apace, he said.

“The airport reflects a lot of North County that is sleek, sophisticated,” and represents the biotech, high-tech and other industries that have made their homes in North County and nearby Sorrento Valley, Drinkwater said.

“You have corporations that have global reach, and the airport has global reach as well,” he said.

“It’s a continuing evolutionary process. Along the way, the private pilot still has a place, but it’s different. The feel of the airport is different from bygone years, and the sophistication has evolved.”

Drinkwater said more changes lie ahead, as Palomar continues to adjust to the demands of the surrounding economy and community.

Palomar itself also has had to contend with growth as the surrounding area has urbanized, prompting complaints from some residents about noise and safety.

Dwight Webster, a spokesman for loudairport.com, which encourages people to file noise complaints against the airport, said many pilots don’t follow prescribed takeoff and landing patterns, part of a “voluntary noise abatement program” that directs airplanes away from populated areas.

He noted that there have been five fatal accidents, accounting for 13 deaths, at or near the airport since 2002.

“And you’ve got to wonder, with the recent history of crashes, when’s the next one coming down?” Webster said.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said there’s no relationship between noise and safety, and that Palomar’s accident rate has been consistent over the decades.

The FAA is concerned about a recent cluster of three accidents in 19 months. He said the fatalities involve pilots and passengers, and that no one on the ground has been killed.

“The fact is, Palomar is a challenging airport,” Gregor said, noting that early-morning fog and winds can play tricks on pilots.

“We’ve taken steps to address the issue, gone out to flight schools and briefings out there” to be more safety-conscious, Gregor said.

All the accidents since 2002 were attributable to pilot error, according to a National Transportation Safety Board database. In one instance, a tower operator contributed by failing to alert pilots that they were on a collision course.

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