Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 13, Issue 14
The height of flightFrom Army air base to where locals go to get away and air tankers come to fight fires, the Santa Maria Airport keeps growing
BY SHELLY CONE
There’s a main rugged artery that winds around the Santa Maria Airport field like an old-timer telling a story: “That used to be a dairy, and over there is where they train K-9 dogs.” You can almost hear the road say it.
It bends past an ag preserve, passes by a recently updated terminal and straight past a brand-new runway extension, then twists through the remnants of a fighter pilot training field. It continues on through a grown-over runway scene from a movie, past an aviation history museum, through an air tanker base, and back to where it started.
And you thought Grandpa could weave a yarn.
Few Santa Maria Valley residents know all the stories the road that circumvents the airport could tell. But there are many. The airport has come a long way from its early days as an Army air field. This year, the airport has experienced a lot of changes—and officials expect even more.
Most recently, airport officials announced that Allegiant Airlines will be offering flights from Santa Maria to Honolulu beginning in November, but there’s been a lot more activity at the airport, and it isn’t all coming from the planes.
The old days
Back in the early ’40s, the airport was known as the Santa Maria Army Air Field. But before even that, it was simply an old dairy owned by the Toy family.
It was 1942. World War II was under way, and the military needed a place to train bomber pilots. The Army Corps of Engineers bought 160 acres of land from the Toys at $79 an acre. The space would grow to more than 3,600 acres out of necessity. The airport was built to train crews of B-25 aircraft, then P-38 pilots and ground crew.
After 1946, the county acquired the land. In 1949, the city of Santa Maria obtained a one-half interest in the facility. Dual management of the property eventually became difficult, and it transferred to the Santa Maria Public Airport District in 1964. That year, the Santa Maria Army Air Field became the Santa Maria Public Airport.
New, new, new
While remnants of those early days remain, the Santa Maria airport looks a lot different today. Under the jurisdiction of the airport district, the airport has seen several updates to terminals and luggage holding areas. Because the airport isn’t owned by city or county government, as are many other airports, its size benefits from a dedicated board, which has been able to complete projects without carrying any debt.
One such project, a newly expanded runway, is nearly complete, but now open—just in time for an announcement by Allegiant Airlines that it would be bringing flights from Santa Maria to Honolulu in November.
Allegiant Airlines spokesperson Jessica Wheeler said the airline considered several airports, but chose Santa Maria’s as one of the cities from which to offer the Honolulu flights because of the success of its Las Vegas flights.
“We evaluated a number of different markets on the
She also said the airline looked into airport and fuel charges, which airport General Manager Chris Hastert said are considered low at the Santa Maria airport. In fact, it’s one of the factors the airport district hopes will win over other airlines. Hastert said the airport district wants to attract other airlines offerings, but currently has its eyes on a United Airlines flight to Denver. He said that even though the runway can accommodate 757-type aircraft, the Santa Maria Valley doesn’t have the population base to support large flights; flights to areas like Denver, however, would be popular with business travelers wanting to continue on to the east and with Vandenberg Air Force Base because of its ties to Colorado Springs.
“We do hope to have other destinations with typical regional type aircraft,” he said.
To help woo the airline to offer Denver flights, the airport district is applying for grants from the Small Community Air Services Development Program. Though they’ll likely be competing with airports in Oxnard and San Luis Obispo, Hastert said the Santa Maria airport has plenty to offer in its runway length, its terminal upgrades, the amount of business travel it can attract, its free parking, wi-fi television, more comfortable screening areas, and low airport costs
The remarkable thing about the Santa Maria airport is its size: 2,598 acres, making it close in size to LAX, which boasts just more than 3,500 acres. Though it covers such a huge expanse, only a relatively small portion is used for commercial or general aviation. Much of the property remains ag preserve, while some of the property is leased for a variety of different uses.
Go-kart racing had been enjoyed on the property and is expected to return again soon under a new lease. Karting events attract people from all over the state. RVs carrying families would often park on the pads formerly occupied by fighter planes.
“It’s really a good community event,” Hastert said. “This is one of the oldest tracks around, so we’re happy to be working with them.”
In another area of the airport, sheriff’s deputies often use unoccupied space to work with training K-9s. And in yet another area stands the Museum of Flight, the place to learn everything about aviation history—especially Santa Maria aviation history. The museum is also responsible for the annual air show.
A business park has been in the works for years and is getting closer to being ready to accept tenants.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that everything is online now and we’ll see some action within the next year,” Hastert said.
The business park has already attracted some potential tenants, Hastert said, and will be completed in multiple phases with ultimate buildout expected to take 20 to 30 years.
“We think the timing is pretty good right now; as we are getting closer and closer to being ready for tenants, the economy seems to be picking up. Hopefully the timing will be that just as we’re ready, others will be ready to move in as well,” Hastert said.
He explained that the airport board hopes to add a maintenance facility to the grounds to make the airport even more attractive to airlines, as well as to give a boost to the local economy by adding more jobs as those types of businesses attract similar types of businesses.
One of the latest developments is the addition of full-time staffers at the air tanker station on the property. The U.S. Forest Service’s air tanker station has been there for six years, but this year is the first time it will be managed full time.
The base is one of 31 nationwide. Andrew Madsen, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service, Los Padres National Forest, said the new situation went into effect May 15, which is the start of this year’s fire season, and will allow for quicker and more convenient fire response for large brush fires.
The station staff has offices in the Central Coast Jet Center and will have a lead attack plane on standby. This plane carries a fire tactical supervisor and a pilot who act as air traffic control and identify tactics for where the planes will drop retardant.
“We do like to make the distinction that this does not mean there is an air tanker waiting,” Madsen said. “There are limited numbers of them. We would still need to request air support.”
Even so, having full-time support that’s required to be able to spring into action, request tankers, and fuel them within minutes will be a welcome help to crews in the local region.
Mark Nunez, division chief for the U.S. Forest Service, said the attack zone range runs from Southern San Luis Obispo County to Kern County and Los Angeles County and south to Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The next heavy air tanker stations are in Paso Robles and Lancaster.
Nunez said crews have three minutes to fuel a tanker with retardant from the moment it lands to takeoff.
Nunez is an air-attack supervisor who rides in the lead attack plane and is responsible for traffic control in the fire area.
“It’s a very technically challenging and complex job,” he said. “It’s not uncommon to have 20 or so aircraft operating in that field at one time.”
Most often a fire will trigger two air tankers, a lead plane that guides the tankers on where to make drops, an air attack plane, and—if it’s a large fire—media helicopters. With all of that activity—oh, and also a fire going on—things can get a little crazy.
“Every situation, every fire is different. Fires only guarantee one thing: People are going to come to check it out,” said Capt. Dan Pierce who pilots the attack plane that sits at the airport.
The future and beyond
For now, the airport has many of its long-term projects nearing completion or—in the case of the business park—close to wrapping up phase one. That doesn’t mean the district is taking time to sit back and manage things. Hastert said the board recognizes the opportunity such a large property offers.
The only nearby competition is the Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo regional airports. Hastert said that while San Luis Obispo has the university, Santa Maria’s airport has Vandenberg Air Force Base and a large business traveler base. He said airlines like business travelers, and that gives Santa Maria an advantage.
The biggest plus, however, remains the airport’s size. Compared to the Santa Barbara airport (at 948 acres) and San Luis Obispo (340 acres), Hastert sees potential for the Santa Maria Public Airport—not just for the district, but for the entire community.
“Once those airports get a little bigger, they have no room to grow,” Hastert said. “On the other hand, here it’s almost unlimited opportunity.”
Contact Arts Editor Shelly Cone at email@example.com.
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