FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
WHY ARE THE PILOTS SWITCHING TO UNLEADED FUELS NOW? IT SEEMS A LITTLE TOO COINCIDENTAL...
But that certainly did not disparage our spirits! In 2018, Santa Clara County passed an order to bring unleaded fuels to Reid Hillview, yet little was actually done to make way on that goal. The fine folks of Reid Hillview had to take matters into our own hands! Thanks to the work of several airport businesses, talks began to bring UL94 home to RHV, and two years later, in 2021, it finally happened! On August 9th, 2021, AeroDynamic Aviation, one of Reid Hillview's most prominent flight schools, transitioned its ENTIRE fleet of 20 aircraft to unleaded avgas. Initially, trucks would make the 1,700-mile journey to bring 7,000 gallons of UL944 every month but with the scale of operation at the airport, that certainly wouldn't do. That, combined with the unpredictable winter conditions in the Sierras, made the need for an alternative form of transportation apparent. Thankfully, the airport's unleaded fuel supply was upgraded to rail cars, capable of bringing a whole 30,000 gallons of UL94 in one go!
Of course, we would have loved to use unleaded fuel earlier, but this sort of deal just, unfortunately, took a great deal of time and effort to negotiate. It certainly couldn't happen overnight, but we began long before the announced results of the lead study.
Contrary to popular belief, it wasn't just for publicity! The truth of the matter is unleaded avgas is still in its infancy in the world of aviation. The FAA puts any potential candidate to replace 100LL through tremendous scrutiny, and unfortunately, the certification process is rather long and tedious. Additionally, the heightened octane rating which comes with the addition of tetraethyl lead cannot be easily replaced in unleaded avgas. Normally, this would be perfectly acceptable but many general aviation aircraft use higher compression engines, with power-enhancing devices, such as turbochargers. Such engines operate at much higher temperatures, and thus, risk experiencing detonation with unleaded avgas. Luckily, Swift Fuels has successfully come to our aid with an unleaded alternative, UL94, which is an extremely promising candidate to replace 100LL. However, that's another facet of this problem. Swift Fuels's only refinery is in West Lafayette, Indiana; well over 1,500 miles from Reid Hillview Airport. Simply put, there was no infrastructure in place to transport fuel such a long distance regularly.
The Press Conference held by AeroDynamic Aviation on August 16th, 2021, announcing the conversion of their entire fleet of 21 aircraft to UL94. This was a historic moment as AeroDynamic became the first flight school in Northern California to transition entirely to unleaded operations.
ISN'T THE AIRPORT ONLY USED BY RICH, AMATUER PILOTS FLYING THEIR PRIVATE PLANES?
Well, to be quite frank, the phrase "rich pilots," is going to be an oxymoron for most people! Want to know how to become a millionaire? Be a billionaire, and buy an airplane! All jokes aside, flying is, unfortunately, quite an expensive hobby but there are a number of ways available to bring down the costs.
A majority of pilots could not afford to be able to own their own aircraft, especially in an area with such a high cost of living! Most of the airplanes you see at the airport are used, with a sizeable number dating back to the 20th century! While their safety is not compromised, their age does help bring down their cost. Additionally, some aircraft owners will enter into a partnership agreement with other pilots, in which they'll own a portion of the airplane, and share the expenses with several other pilots.
For example, a pilot may want to purchase a $40,000 1972 Cessna 172M. While that's certainly cheaper than a brand new $300,000 2021 Cessna 172S, many still might not be able to afford regular upkeep and maintenance. Thus, our pilot brings in three other trusted pilot friends, and now he only has to pay $10,000. There are plenty of used cars that run for more than that!
Now one might ask who just casually has $10,000 lying around to fly an airplane for leisure? Well, that's easy, not many! That's why most pilots enjoy renting aircraft from one of the 4 fixed-based operators at the airport for anywhere from $100-$180 per hour. The funny thing is though, studies have been done, and eventually, it's actually cheaper to own an airplane than rent after a certain amount of time.
As for the pilots at the airport, some may be affluent but there's also a sizeable population of aspiring aviators, hoping to enter an exciting field as the very perfect time to do so. As the airline industry enters a period of tremendous growth, a vast new workforce will be needed to replace those facing retirement in the next few years. The media speaks often of the impending "pilot shortage," and they're not wrong. Boeing estimates the need for almost 800,000 pilots! But that's not all. Pilots are just one cog in the enormous machine that is the commercial aviation industry. Aircraft mechanics are needed to inspect and repair airliners, flight attendants are needed to look after passengers, ramp agents need to facilitate preparations for flight, and we need engineers to help design the future of aircraft! Not to mention we need Air Traffic Controllers to clear those flights, airport management to maintain the taxiways and runways, customer service agents to interface with passengers, and so much more.
Many of these folks get their start here at Reid Hillview. The pathway to a United Airbus A320 begins in a Cessna 172, where you learn the very basics of flight and navigation, before learning to handle a 100,000-pound jet. On top of that, pilots must build experience, which amounts to usually around 700-1000 hours of flight time required to even be considered for a position at an airline. Not many have the resources to pay for such a steep amount of time so they take jobs for relatively new pilots. One of the more popular avenues to do this is to become a Certified Flight Instructor at airports like Reid Hillview, where they'll train the next generation. Airports like Reid Hillview are a steppingstone for the future of flight, not just a convenient place for the affluent.
Here at Reid Hillview, we have 4 flight schools and host the San Jose State University Professional Flight Program. Together, they train a diverse range of individuals, including international students! Luckily, the United States has an incredible system for general aviation, allowing pilots to explore so much of the nation. However, that is not the case in some other countries, where such operations are simply forbidden. Student pilots of these countries depend on flight schools like those at Reid Hillview to grant them the chance to earn their certificates so they can return home and fulfill their dream of being commercial pilots.
A Cessna 172 Skyhawk taxiing at RHV. It is one of the more typical airplanes you'll see at Reid Hillview, and is one of 44,000 of the type ever built!
Something to remember about these airplanes is that they are designed to make flying as affordable as possible, while also remaining aerodynamic and relatively lightweight for their type of operation. When one thinks of a private airplane, the mind tends to flash to an ornate, incredibly expensive luxury aircraft, outfitted with plenty of amenities, space, and elaborate interior design. At Reid Hillview, that is simply not the case. Most of these airplanes are outfitted with the bare minimum in terms of passenger comfort, in which manufacturers prioritize the safety and reliability of the aircraft. Get up close to your typical flight school Cessna 172, and you'll see that its not exactly the most spacious vehicle in history; most of these aircraft don't even have cupholders!
COULD AN AIRPLANE "FALL OUT OF THE SKY" ONTO ME?
Reid Hillview Airport is surrounded by 4 Pirority Safety Corridors, which, according to the City of San Jose's Government Website, "...account for a high proportion of fatalities and severe injuries on San Jose streets." As you can see, vehicle fatalities on these four corridors near Reid Hillview have resulted in 39 deaths from 2016 to 2020. Aircraft accidents at Reid Hillview have thus far caused no fatalities.
Well, yes. They very well could. However, there are many things in life that could pose danger. Whenever we venture out, we accept that there are numerous dangers in the world, be it weather or cars. Reid Hillview is not even immune to threats from the outside world. (We've had cars drive into Reid Hillview Hangars before). However, when faced with these risks, generally we have to consider the likelihood of these events, and we typically assume that they are remote possibilities. It would be naive though to assume that anything is invulnerable to failure so we can take steps to mitigate those risks. Let's discuss the likelihood of an accident occurring at Reid Hillview.
The safety record at Reid Hillview has been excellent. An SRI study done in 1993 found that since 1964, within a 5-mile radius of Reid Hillview, there have been only 5 accidents and 11 fatalities. While these fatalities were all tragedies, thankfully none of them were sustained by civilians on the ground. An independent review of the NTSB history at Reid Hillview indicated that no further fatalities have occurred as a result of aircraft within 5 NM of the airport.
The following is a map of collisions that have occurred in the immediate vicinity of Reid Hillview from 2016-2020. Each dot indicates a collision involving a pedestrian, bicycle, or collision.
Data taken from the linked Website.
While there have been some deaths involving aircraft whose flight originated from Reid Hillview, these accidents occurred in the mountainous terrain far from the airport. There have been multiple off-airport landings at Reid Hillview but a majority are well-controlled landings that pose little danger to civilians, as pilots receive a great deal of training.
Contrary to popular belief, airplanes usually don't just "fall out of the sky." The media has greatly over-sensationalized what happens when an airplane malfunctions. The truth is, when an engine fails, the airplane will still fly. The controls will still work, and the airplane can keep moving forward. The only difference is essentially a timer has started for the pilot. They have a limited amount of energy to work with, based on the altitude they achieved and the airspeed they have. The pilot of the aircraft must properly use their position to maneuver the airplane to safely land. These off-airport landings can take place on fields, or in Reid Hillview's case, a road like Capital Expressway. Rest assured, the pilots still have a great deal of control over where their aircraft can land when their engines quit.
On top of this, we recommend you read our section about SAFETY AT THE AIRPORT as you can learn about the numerous safety features of aircraft engines, along with the procedures, inspections, and training, that keep Reid Hillview and its neighbors as safe as possible.
CAN'T WE JUST MOVE THE PLANES TO SAN JOSE MINETA INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT?
"SJC is the county's only airport for scheduled commercial flights. SJC and RHV serve two very different markets and functions that cannot be construed as interchangeable. As such, changes to RHV have the potential to impact the operations, safety, and infrastructure at SJC- Even if only a few of the RHV aircraft and/or operations at RHV relocate to SJC."
Director of Aviation at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport
Written in a LETTER to Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors
Short Answer: No.
Unfortunately, this would not be a viable solution to the issue at hand, and there's a very simple reason why. Piston and jet aircraft don't mix!
San Jose Mineta International Airport conducts regularly scheduled passenger service, with big Part 121 airlines, like Southwest, United, Delta, American, etc. The airplanes used in these operations, such as the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, operate at speeds in excess of 140 miles per hour on both landing and takeoff. At Reid Hillview, our airplanes rarely exceed 70 miles per hour in the vicinity of the airport. This atmosphere would make flight training inefficient as our aircraft would be forced to give way to these large transport jets, traveling much faster than we are.
I, the person writing this, was once told to either use a "short approach," or cut my pattern short, so as to try and beat a landing Southwest 737 coming into land. However, I was uncomfortable with trying to beat a jet moving at almost twice my speed and probably over 25 times heavier than my airplane so I informed San Jose tower that I would be willing to circle. Credits to San Jose tower for all that they do but in a rather harsh tone, I was informed that if I was to circle, I would need to continuously circle for every inbound 737, spaced 5 miles apart, that followed that Southwest flight. Suffice it to say, I departed the airspace. This story is bound to happen again and again if we were to move our operations to SJC.
There's another factor to consider here, which is safety. The large transport aircraft at San Jose produce a phenomenon known as "wake turbulence," which are two counter-rotating vortices that trail behind these aircraft. They have enough energy to overturn small airplanes. A recent, famous incident occurred over the Arabian Sea, when an Emirates Airbus A380, one of the world's largest aircraft, overflew a smaller corporate jet, a Bombardier Challenger 640, flying in the opposite direction 1,000 feet below. The wake turbulence trailing the A380 was so powerful that it overturned the small jet, causing it to plunge 10,000 ft. uncontrollably as it tumbled. The nine occupants underwent an incredibly violent ride, and the aircraft sustained such heavy damage, that the Challenger was written off and scrapped. Imagine a tiny, 2400 pound Cessna vs a 125,000 lb Boeing 737 at just 500' above ground level. Luckily, pilots are trained to avoid this but it would require massive disruptions to operations as training pilots give way to the larger aircraft, and allow time for the turbulence to dissipate.
Interestingly enough, long ago, San Jose Airport did have a third runway, designated for general aviation operations, which allowed the airport to host San Jose State University's Aviation Program. However, this runway was eventually removed, replaced with a taxiway, and the SJSU Aviation Program was shifted to Reid Hillview. To this day, airport authorities are incredibly concerned with any possibility of moving traffic to San Jose.
OKAY. SAN MARTIN? PALO ALTO? WHAT ABOUT THESE AIRPORTS?
"Please understand that many of the public use airports in the Bay Area are physically constrained and may find it difficult to absorb the air traffic activity currently served by RHV."
Director for Western Pacific Area, FAA Office of Airports
As Director McClardy mentioned, many of these airports are already near full capacity and do not have the resources that Reid Hillview has to handle its traffic. Reid Hillview airport features two parallel runways, enabling two aircraft to takeoff or land simultaneously. Additionally, Reid Hillview has a part-time air traffic control tower which allows for a very smooth, and organized flow of traffic that enables quick and efficient operations.
San Martin (E16), located around 20 NM to the south of Reid Hillview, has only one runway, and is an uncontrolled airfield, meaning that pilots are solely responsible for the flow of traffic at the airport
Palo Alto (PAO), located a little over 15 NM from Reid Hillview, is also a single-runway airport, though it does have a control tower.
Another thing to consider is the impracticality of reaching these airports from locations across the Bay Area. We are all familiar with the traffic situation on Highway 101. A 20-minute commute can sometimes surge to be multiple hours long! How would a San Jose Student fare if they needed to have a 1-2 hour commute just to complete flight training? It would be a logistical and inefficient nightmare, compared to the short 5 miles they need to drive to Reid Hillview.
IF WE CLOSE THE AIRPORT, THE LEAD PROBLEM WILL GO AWAY, RIGHT?
A side-by-side comparison of Reid Hillview Airport and the Sacramento Executive Airport. One can note how both of these airports are both located in populated neighborhoods. Alongside both Reid Hillview and Sacramento Executive, there are many other airports similarly situated across the US; many of which use 100LL. All of those in the vicinity would be in danger of lead exposure so any solution to this problem would need to be applied across of the aviation industry, not just one singular airport.
Source: Google Earth
Sure but there's a school of thought to be had here.
Currently, in the United States, there are well over 5,217 public-use airports, serving general aviation operations. Such a figure also discounts the additional 14,702 private airports, whose aircraft can also continue to use 100LL. Yes, Reid Hillview could close and yet, every single one of these airports will continue to operate and sell leaded avgas. In our backyard, some of the airports within 50 miles of Reid Hillview, that have people living close to them, and regularly serve general aviation aircraft, including San Carlos, Palo Alto, Watsonville, Monterey Regional, Salinas, Hollister, Hayward Executive, Oakland International, Livermore, Concord-Buchanan, Byron, Tracy, Modesto, Stockton, and more where that comes from.
Sure, they may not be as densely surrounded as Reid Hillview but as the opponents of this airport say, no amount of lead is acceptable in the blood of children. The aircraft at Reid Hillview will have to go somewhere else, and wherever they go, they'll bring those exact lead emissions with them. Add this all up, and it amounts to simply sending the problem somewhere else. Do the children of these cities matter any less than those of East San Jose? Do the families across the country who leave within 1.5 miles of an airport matter less than those of the East Side? Certainly not. However, closing the airport because of lead sends exactly this message.
The residents neighboring San Martin Airport have voiced this exact sentiment, complaining that Santa Clara County's actions are going to put the lives of their children in danger. While the county has banned the sale of leaded avgas at these airports, the fear is entirely justified for other municipalities. A satellite view of the Sacramento Executive Airport will yield a similar layout to Reid Hillview: surrounded by neighborhoods.
To close Reid Hillview because of the lead would not be a solution to the issue of lead in the fuel of piston-engine aircraft. It would merely be a temporary fix to a problem that would still exist across the country. And to that affect, Reid Hillview's lead problem has dramatically improved with the efforts of CAAPSO. Since August of 2021, RHV has only sold unleaded UL94 gasoline, and each of the four major flight schools on the airport, which account for roughly 80% of the airports hundreds of thousands of annual operations, have converted their fleets to unleaded avgas.
Additionally, on the national scale, in September of 2022, the FAA approved 100UL, an unleaded avgas alternative produced by General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI), for use in all piston-engine aircraft in the United States! Once this fuel is in mass-production, 100LL can become a thing of the past. However, there will still be a great deal of effort involved to guarantee that this change takes place. As one of the few airports currently in the United States that offers unleaded avgas, Reid Hillview is currently an inspiration and guide to pilots and airports across the nation on how a safe transition to unleaded avgas is possible. Closing RHV would likely set back the progress of this movement so it is vital that the airport be kept open to continue to serve as a role model of the movement to make unleaded avgas widespread.