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On the Same Plane: Board Fosters Partnership with Somerton Airport

2013-09-07 15:58:42

When Charles Saltzer talks about the Somerton Airport he purchased a decade ago, he uses the pronoun “we” a lot. That’s because as far as he’s concerned, his little privately-owned airport really is everyone’s airport.

It’s where general aviation pilots can bring their kids and pets and drive right up to the hangar where their airplane is stored. Student pilots can practice the intricacies of flying there without having to dodge commercial airplanes and military jets. A Care Flight helicopter drops by to execute a couple of landings. And visiting paragliders can put down temporary roots in their motor homes while they enjoy Yuma’s flying weather.

The airport has three runways with lights, 29 hangars, outdoor tie-down spaces, fuel and even a snack bar, so to speak. There’s a barbecue grill for winter cookouts overlooking Yuma Valley (just one of several items recycled from Marine Corps Air Station), shooting range and all-purpose cement pad that serves as a place to work on airplanes, check them over and wash them down – or hold a party.

The adobe building housing the office has a long history that might have included stints as a school house and a bar in previous lives. The airport even has its own mascot – Spot the Airport Dog. All it lacks, acknowledges Saltzer, is a paved runway. The three runways are gravel, surfaces that Saltzer takes pains to maintain in good condition. And they’re safe, meeting all Federal Aviation Administration standards.

But a paved runway would be helpful, he said, reciting a laundry list of the benefits paving would provide. He’s quick to add that it’s the community and its economy that would reap the rewards because he wouldn’t see any increased revenue as a result. Those benefits, he said, include:

• Having the alternative airfield removes general aviation away from MCAS. That includes those looking for a quiet, little community airport to park their plane, students learning to fly from full-time flight instructor Jim McDermott (who operates out of Somerton Airport) and other pilots who are brushing up on their landing skills.

• A paved runway likely would attract more transient air traffic as pilots drop in for fuel and perhaps to spend the night.

• The airport could be used for emergency evacuation of accident victims in south county.

• It has potential for use by the Cocopah Tribe and those who visit the nearby casino or speedway operated by the tribe.

• There could be more banner-puller activity.

• It might attract more winter visitors who have their own aircraft.

• It provides an emergency landing strip for crop dusters.

• It potentially could be used as a staging area for military training during WTI exercises.

• And it pays taxes.

The Yuma County Airport Authority agrees that Somerton Airport plays an important role in local aviation. Therefore, the board has taken the unusual step of fostering a partnership with the privately held airport in an effort to secure funding to pave the longest of the three gravel runways there.

“We understand the importance of paving that runway,” said Gladys Wiggins, interim executive director of the Yuma International Airport.

“It’s very desirable. (Saltzer) has great runways. He does a good job maintaining them and they’re safe, but they are gravel.”

While the authority’s main focus is on the large airport, it’s mission is to promote general aviation throughout Yuma County, Wiggins explained. That includes providing options for general aviation pilots.

“We want to make sure we can provide a reliable runway for general aviation … give them an alternative,” she said. “It’s important to us to have that partnership with Charles to expand services.”

Not only does the Somerton Airport provide an alternative for general aviation, it’s also one where the pilots don’t have to go through the strict security measures required at Yuma International Airport because of its relationship with MCAS, she said.

Wiggins estimated it would cost between $200,000 and $300,000 to pave Runway 175 at the Somerton Airport, money the authority currently doesn’t have. But the board is committed to trying to obtain it, perhaps through state or federal funding sources.

“General aviation has asked for it,” Wiggins said. “It’s a great community airstrip. We want to be part of that. We want to help him out.”

As part of the agreement, Saltzer would agree to maintain the runway and continue to operate the airport for 20 years. Not a hardship, he said, because his intention is to pass it down to his son.

Somerton Airport, located south of Yuma just off State Highway 95, got its start after World War II when E.N. Sturdivant opened a flight school in 1946 to train veterans to fly. Over the years, others took over the airport and operated it primarily to support agriculture.

It then ended up in the hands of Stan and Cathy Lawless, who maintained aviation services and pilot training there for 15 years. Many Yuma pilots learned how to fly under Lawless’ wing. One of his students was Dr. Laurel Clark, a U.S.Navy captain and flight surgeon, who was a crew member on the ill-fated Columbia Space Shuttle.

Saltzer, who was the director of engineering for a time at MCAS, began parking his airplane at Somerton Airport in the 1980s. In 2003, he retired from his day job and took over the airport from Lawless. Now he works seven days a week and loves every minute, he says with a broad smile.

It all goes back to that “we” pronoun. Oh, yes, about Spot the Airport Dog. She had been a stray but now lives with Sherman Grubb in his motor home on the airport, where he provides security and lends a hand where needed.

And Spot? “She loves people and riding around on the equipment,” Saltzer said. “She’s gotten spoiled.”

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