Walter Rogers

Walt Rogers WX Writings

Jan 24, 2014

Why Did California City Become a Glider Unfriendly Airport?

Updated January 24, 2014

On January 17, 2014, Marty Eiler, the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) of the glider operation at California City Airport (L71) solemnly announced the end of his glider towing operations beginning February 3, 2014. This will end over 35+ years of soaring and recreational flying... the "End of an Era" at Cal City

Decisions precipitated by the City Manager, Tom Weil, have created economic conditions that make a viable business for Martin Eiler Aviation unworkable. Earlier blogs discuss this: October 25, 2013 "California City Airport Unfriendly to Glider Operations" and January 19, 2014 "Cal Trans Responds to SSA Letter - Where Do We Go From Here?"

You can read Marty's announcement email and explanation of his decision here.

Why has this happened and what lead up to this situation?

This was the question we, the California City Glider Pilots Action Group (CCGPAG), took on back in August 2013. After over five months of investigation, examination of Cal Trans permits, letters, correspondence and freedom of information requests, the picture has become clear.

The City Manager decided that commercialization and business development was to take precedence at the cost of soaring and other recreational aviation activities. This involved an over 11 year secret campaign he devised in 2002 to have Cal Trans depermit the glider landing strips and eventually force all flight operations, powered and unpowered to be combined on the main runway, inefficient for all and hazardous for sailplanes. If the city had conducted this campaign properly, it would have worked with the gliding and business airport community to come up with a Master Plan (ALP) that would have been mutually workable by all

So, what is the problem with that? Why not develop the airport in the way the city manager would like?

The answer is that California City is a public use airport developed with FAA funding. Or, more precisely... Federal Grant Assurances. Putting it another way... they are obligated to abide by the law.

Title 49 U.S.C. § 47101, et seq., provides for federal airport financial assistance for the development of public-use airports under the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) established by the Airport and Airway Improvement Act of 1982. Title 49 U.S.C. § 47107, et seq., sets forth assurances to which an airport sponsor agrees as a condition of receiving federal financial assistance. Upon acceptance of an AIP grant, the assurances become a binding contractual obligation between the airport sponsor and the federal government. The assurances made by airport sponsors in AIP grant agreements are important factors in maintaining a viable national airport system.

You can read more about the complaint to the FAA filed by the glider FBO, and other interests including the Soaring Society of America (SSA). Attachments 1-2

But there are other good reasons to promote recreation and glider activities. General aviation activity is declining and threatening the supply of enough trained professional pilots. One recent article on, "When it comes to promoting aviation are we on the right track?" January 14, 2014 Brent Owens:

By using a gateway drug that’s fun, relatively inexpensive, and teaches the fundamentals of flight, we come away with a new crop of pilots who have a solid foundation upon which to build.

Imagine having “fun flying centers” around the country where you can learn to fly gliders, ultralights, hang gliders, etc. Putting more energy into setting the hook this way will garner more folks who graduate to the big iron later on.

Besides violating the Federal Grant Assurances ... Martin Eiler glider business is the LAST active flight operation on the airport. Glider pilots and crews buy gas, eat at the restaurant, stay at local hotels and create financial benefits to the city. Airport operations will drop by 2/3rds without glider and tow plane activity. Why would the city sponsor want to turn the ramp space into an extension of the Mojave Desert? Soaring is an environmentally green activity... the purest form of flight. And the skills developed and taught are an invaluable resource especially for professional pilots like Sully Sullenberger. His "dead stick" landing on the Hudson was greatly aided by a background in glider pilotage.

Yes But... Cal Trans Department of Airports will not permit legacy glider operations!

FAA safety determinations pursuant to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) take precedence over any airport sponsor views, state interpretations of FARs or local ordinances pertaining to safety. The final ruling from the complaint filed to the FAA will determine the legitimacy of "legacy" glider operations and/or the need to develop a new glider friendly Master Plan (ALP).

The really sad part of this story is that an airport plan COULD HAVE BEEN DEVELOPED that accommodated both business commercial interests AND recreational flying so that all parties mutually benefit.

With the value and knowledge of 5 months of study and perfect hindsight, let me address points brought out at an August 6, 2013 city council meeting as described in Jill Nelson's Mojave Desert News article "New Plans Unveiled for Cal City Airport" (Aug 16th 2013):

CALIFORNIA CITY – The California City Council approved a request to install a temporary taxiway at the City > > Airport at a recent Council meeting.

Norm Hill Aviation made the request for the taxiway to be used for towing purposes to Taxiway A, which is on the company’s leased property. It would be used to take planes and other things to its hangers.

The proposed taxiway would be 30 feet by 225 feet. Hill Aviation will fund the project, but asked the City to do the grading. A grind compound will be added later to control dust.

“We’ve been trying to do something like this for years,” said City Manager Tom Weil.

Hill noted that the City’s Airport is a ‘diamond’ of place.

“It’s not looked at enough as a viable place,” he said. “I think more businesses would come here if they if looked into it further.”

REBUTTAL: The FAA requires the airport owner or sponsor to keep its Airport Layout Plan (ALP), which is a planning tool for depicting current and future airport use, up to date. Grant Assurance 29 prohibits the airport owner or sponsor from making or permitting any changes or alterations in the airport or any of its facilities that are not in conformity with its FAA-approved ALP. The last airport Master Plan (ALP) approved by the FAA on 01/06/2006 does not support such a taxiway without building a new "glider runway". In any case, the ALP has expired after it's 5 year term and requires another approval by the FAA.

By gaining this new taxiway, another entity loses. Because of updated FAA rules, the two glider runways that parallel Taxiway A must be deactivated.

REBUTTAL: The city cannot deactivate the two glider runways because the airport Master Plan (ALP) does not support it. The city needs to prepare and update their Master Plan (ALP) and conduct sufficient public debate with all aviation interests and get it approved by the FAA

“We had been working with the FAA to try and devise a revised plan for the runways,” Weil said. “All our plans were turned down because of its non-standard design. The FAA will not fund any future construction projects to the airport if we do not conform to its standards.”*

REBUTTAL: Yes, Mr Weil may have been working with the FAA to devise a revised plan... but he did not involve glider interests nor conduct any public debate. In fact, changes to the airport permit by the state, Cal Trans Department of Airports, were hidden from the glider operator for over 11 years!

Martin Eiler, who had run the glider operation, disagreed with the findings.“There are always exceptions for small airports,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and asked to be part of the discussions. If I had, it’s possible things could have been different with the FAA. I was kept in the dark.”

SUPPORT: Not only was Martin Eiler kept in the dark about discussions of airport infrastructure, he was NOT told by the airport manager or city manager, Tom Weil, that the glider state permit dis-allowed towplane glider takeoffs on the taxiway. This activity continued from March 2002 until August 2013. Had there have been an accident the city would have been vulnerable to legal action.

Mayor Pat Bohannon reported they had to go with the FAA recommendations. “If someone has a accident or crashes, the City would be liable,” he said. “We have to be in compliance.”

REBUTTAL: It was the Cal Trans Department of Airports interpretation of the safety of glider operations (May 13, 2013 letter to city) that lead to the depermitting of the runways and an order directing the city to destroy them. The FAA made no such recommendation. FAA safety determinations pursuant to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) take precedence over any airport sponsor views, state interpretations of FARs or local ordinances pertaining to safety.

The City also has to be in coordination with CalTrans to implement an operations plan. It will require a 60-day implementation schedule to allow coordination and communications with based airport users.

REBUTTAL: There is no evidence of any coordination with CalTrans to implement an operations plan. Martin Eiler the most impacted airport user was given only 10 days before the city council meeting to respond to a city order directing a radical change in glider operations.

So How can all this be fixed and/or resolved?

After a favorable safety determination by the FAA evaluating the previous glider operations at Cal City it is the request of the California City Pilots Action Group (CCPAG) that the city sponsor immediately re-instate a return to "legacy" operations. These legacy glider operations should be allowed by the City, until all necessary improvements to infrastructure are made that support the safe and efficient use by powered and unpowered aircraft. These improvements must be included in a new Airport Layout Plan (ALP) approved by the FAA.

The California City Glider Pilots Action Group (CCGPAG) consists of:

  • Martin Eiler, FBO Martin Eiler Aviation
  • John Shmoldas - SSA Liason and Principal Investigator
  • Walter Rogers - Cal Pilots liason
  • Andy McKittrick - AOPA liason
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