Napa County’s Bustling Airport

CHP Helo Cockpitwp

By Laird Durham

On an average day, 30,000 cars pass by Airport Boulevard at the junction of Highways 29 and 12.  There is a good chance yours is one of them, if not every day, at least once in a while.  But, the chances are that you do not know much about what goes on at the end of the road. You probably know it is an airport, and, maybe sometimes, while waiting for your traffic light to turn green, you see an airplane climbing up or circling in for a landing, but that’s about it.  Well, it may surprise you to find out that the Napa County Airport is a busy, exciting place. Among other things, it is an ideal place to train airline pilots and mount search and rescue operations. And, airport tenants provide more than $1
million a year for Napa schools.

First of all, on a peak day at the airport, there could be as many as 300 take-offs or landings – the Federal Aviation Administration lumps take-offs and landings together as “operations” – from twin-engine jets to small 2-seat planes, some built by their pilots from kits.  The operations are controlled by FAA Air Traffic Controllers housed in the state-of-the-art tower.  James Swanson, a second-generation, ATC Supervisor, says the Napa ATC crew is the youngest, most collaborative, and most professional he has ever worked with. They are so good the Napa tower is rated as a training center by the FAA, Swanson says.

The biggest and oldest operation at the airport is the 68-year-old, Napa Jet Center that manages or supports most of the private air activities: aircraft charters and rentals, jet fuel and av-gas supply, aircraft and engine repair and maintenance, aircraft sales, flying lessons, guest parking, pilot lounge and kitchen, and emergency medical service.  The Jet Center also will make reservations for fly-in visitors’ hotels, dining, car rentals, and wine tasting.  That last service is a big one:  Mark Willey, the Jet Center’s CEO, says 90% of visiting aircraft come here for winery visits.

Besides private and business aviation activity, the airport is a hub for law enforcement and search and rescue operations.  The California Highway Patrol has a flight operations center there, covering seven Bay-Area counties, with two helicopters and two fixed- wing airplanes manned almost around the clock by 24 pilot officers and

medics.  They have made some dangerous rescues over the past few months, from lifting injured hikers from rocky cliffs to off-shore boating accidents. At other times, CHP pilots have used high technology to direct ground officers to burglary or robbery suspects hiding in the bush. A group of some 20 airplane owners, based at the airport, support the Napa County Sheriff with a volunteer, Sheriff’s Aero Squadron that monitors emergency situations and helps with search and rescue operations.   

The International Airline Training

Academy, next door to the terminal building, has a fleet of 13, single-engine, Piper, flight trainers to qualify pilots for Asian airlines. For several years the academy was used to train pilots exclusively for Japan Airlines, but now it is training pilots for a handful of Asian airlines that some planners estimate will need 500,000 new pilots in the next ten years to meet the demand of Asia’s exploding growth. Unlike the US, with a large supply of airline pilot candidates from military and general aviation, Asian airlines must create pilots from scratch.  Captain Ron Davis, Chief Flight Instructor for IATA, expects to have 200 or more trainees this summer.

Many of the 197 aircraft owners who keep planes at the Napa airport are members of the Napa chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and the Napa Pilots Association.  Both of those organizations sponsor the Young Eagles program that gives free airplane rides to youngsters 8 to 17 – more than 1 million children at last count. On one recent flight, an 8 year old wondered about the small, black dots in a meadow below, then realized they were cows. “Wow,” the young eagle said, “the earth is a really big place.”

The EAA also hosts monthly displays of vintage aircraft, and annual visits of a B-17 and a Ford, Tri-Motor airliner with rides open to the public.  Sometimes these activities are joined by
ground-based, historic automobile displays.

Some members of the EAA are building their own airplanes in hangars at the airport; some from kits and some plans of successful models. Their aircraft are classified as “experimental” by the FAA, a designation the Feds apply to any aircraft other than a factory-manufactured, certificated model.  Once built and test-flown 40 hours to meet FAA specifications, the home-built airplanes have the same degree of airworthiness as factory-built airplanes.

There’s a restaurant in the Napa Airport terminal building called “The Runway”. It is the successor to the long-closed, Jonesy’s restaurant, once a favorite of many old-time Napans. Besides a full menu and bar, “The Runway” is a microbrewery producing its own pale ale. Across the lobby is a gift shop with aviation-themed merchandise.  Tops in popularity are child-sized, flight jackets.  Grandmothers love them.

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