Tuesday, February 13, 2007
Hometown airport coming to life
Nearly 100 private craft call it home
By DON HALEY
The Antelope Valley (CA) Press
TEHACHAPI – “I’d say we’re a hometown airport that’s coming to life.” Dave Zweigle’s words rang with optimism as the Tehachapi Municipal Airport manager outlined a flight path of airport development and enhancements he hopes will meet the needs of a growing community far into the future. The city-owned airport, little more than a rock’s throw north of downtown, dates to 1929 when its founders shared the original dirt runway with golfers. The airport today shares its acreage with nearly 20 local businesses, while the number of aircraft based there continues to rise. Transit aircraft operations have also climbed in recent years. Zweigle’s outlook is reflected in the growth in airport operations, which mirror the growth of Tehachapi.
The population of Tehachapi in 2000 was about 11,000 and the number of private and corporate aircraft based at the airport was about 60. Population today is estimated to be about 14,000, and Zweigle said the number of aircraft is nearing 100 as more private pilots establish homes in the city and neighboring settlements such as Golden Hills, Bear Valley Springs and Stallion Springs.
Zweigle, a commercially rated pilot with more than 3,200 flying hours, said the attractiveness of the Tehachapi region to developers is a big reason for the increase in annual takeoffs and landings, which rose from less than 11,000 in 2001 to more than 12,000 last year.
“We’re seeing more and more business traffic in and out of here,” said Zweigle, who is assisted by airport attendant Earl Forester, a city employee for nearly seven years. “It’s still a hometown airport, but the push for housing and commercial development in the Tehachapi area is bringing in more light jets and corporate turboprops ? businesses looking to build and invest in the community.”
The city airport, at an altitude of 4,001 feet, sits in a mountain pass that splits the southern San Joaquin Valley from the Mojave Desert. This makes it an ideal backup landing site for air express companies when Meadows Field in Bakersfield and other San Joaquin Valley airports are shut down because of fog.
To help keep pace with airport growth and demand, nine new hangars were erected last year and all paving was resurfaced, along with minor repairs to the 4,035-foot runway that angles from northwest to southeast between State Route 58 on the north and neighborhoods along Tehachapi Boulevard to the south.
Zweigle said the next big capital improvement project, updating runway and ramp lights and the field’s rotating beacon, will be a prelude to work beginning in 2009 that will begin reshaping the entire airport – development of vacant land north of the runway with additional hangars and a major expansion of industrial sites.
The airport’s present industrial park, a large area near the northern end of the taxiway, offers local tenants – cabinet makers, upholsterers, auto repair and paint shops, and similar small businesses – easy access in and out of the airport. The industrial partnership generates revenue from leases on airport-owned industrial buildings, with the funds going into the airport’s annual operating budget, currently $300,000.
“The industrial park is flourishing,” said the 39-year-old airport manager, who took over in late 2003. “The community is important to us, and the airport just seems like a good place to do industrial-type business.”
The big expansion projects will begin with a new northside taxiway identical to the present one on the runway’s south side. Next to come will be connecting taxiways, a large aircraft parking apron and vehicle service roads to access nearly 20 more hangars and the additional industrial buildings. Relocation of the administrative-terminal building to a site in the planned expansion area also is slated.
These projects and more are outlined in a 2003 airport master plan that reaches out to 2025 with capital improvement recommendations to keep the 233-acre city airfield economically, operationally and environmentally sound while meeting future aviation needs. Total cost of the phased projects recommended over a 22-year period has been estimated at $9.3 million, with about two-thirds expected to be Federal Aviation Administration grants aimed at keeping general-aviation airports like Tehachapi viable elements of the national air transportation system.
Meanwhile, Zweigle said the airport continues to keep pace with new technological advancements.
An recently installed automated weather observation system gives users in the air and on the ground an instant update of all weather factors at the airport, including cloud height and the presence of freezing rain and lightning. The sophisticated instrument can be accessed by radio and standard telephone, and over the Internet.
Zweigle said work has begun to upgrade airport security with a computerized system to “read” vehicle stickers at entrance gates.
“We need to take airport security very seriously,” Zweigle said. “If a terrorist incident or attack originated from a small airport like Tehachapi, the whole general-aviation system could come down like a house of cards.”
Zweigle said his goal is to maintain a policy that will allow the community to continue an open relationship with the airport while also remaining vigilant.
Tehachapi’s airport is in the process now of being written into the FAA’s global positioning system of airport approach navigation. When available later this year, pilots will be able to key a GPS instrument and match their aerial position to a template of the Tehachapi region and use the data to avoid hazards and land safely in any weather.
Zweigle said it’s possible that an air park, incorporating homes with hangars and taxiways that link living sites with the main airport runway, could be developed in the far northeast corner of the airport. He said several developers have expressed interest in an air park project. If it materialized, it would be one of very few in the nation on a municipal airfield.
Rosamond’s airport, which is privately owned, is the site of the only air park in Antelope Valley and homeowners belong to an association.
Two other projects are still in the “talking” stages, but likely will materialize. Zweigle said a high desert businessman has shown interest in opening an airport restaurant, and he is confident the details can be worked out. The other proposal is creating a motocross track on the airport’s north side in the vicinity of the rodeo complex. It, too, is being looked at favorably by the airport because it is a community project that would not interfere with air operations.
The airport, even with its close proximity to the established part of Tehachapi, does not have any serious encroachment problems, Zweigle said. Buffer zones off each end of the runway to help cut down potential noise complaints are closely protected from development by city planners.
Zweigle, who lives in Bear Valley Springs with his wife, Julie; their son Wesley, 9; and daughter, Hunter, 7, said the airport wants to be a good neighbor. In those instances when a project is proposed nearby, “we try to work as a team ? to mitigate problems from the beginning so everybody’s happy.”
A city-sponsored aviation camp conducted at the airport in June drew 140 young people who were exposed to all aspects of aviation, including first-time flights. The weeklong event was spearheaded by local airport hangar owners who are already preparing for the 2007 program, set for the last week of June. About 120 young people have already registered in advance.
One of the biggest community boosters of the airport is the Tehachapi Society of Pilots, which promotes local aviation through community and airport-related projects and assists in youth programs such as the aviation camp.
Tehachapi airport became a Kern County airport in 1938, the year of the first air mail flight between Tehachapi and Bakersfield. The airport was transferred from Kern County to Tehachapi in November 1980.
A destructive 7.7-magnitude earthquake on July 21, 1952, isolated Tehachapi for several weeks and daily flights into the airport were the only way that mail, food and medical supplies were received. Aircraft also brought in work crews that assisted with cleanup operations.