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Pilots Living in ‘Flier’s Paradise’ Dodge Flak in Fight to Protect Their Neighborhood Airport

Associated Press

The pilots who live in Cameron Air Park call it a flier’s paradise, and they are trying to keep it that way with some down-to-earth politicking.

Cameron Air Park--the residents emphasize the Air --consists of 55 very special homes in Cameron Park, an unincorporated bedroom community of El Dorado County about 33 miles east of Sacramento.

The special homes are linked to a 4,000-foot general aviation runway by 100-foot-wide streets with lanes marked for both autos and airplanes. Each has a garage large enough for at least one airplane, plus cars. There is room for 70 more such homes.

Homes $200,000 and Up

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These and the homes around the golf course cost $200,000 to $350,000, far more than those in the rest of the community, which generally meet only the 1,500-square-foot minimum.

Some air park residents are airline pilots who commute to larger cockpits in San Francisco, San Jose or Los Angeles. Others are business executives and engineers who fly to construction sites, oil fields or sales meetings hundreds or even thousands of miles away. Some are aviation enthusiasts who are retired.

But with housing development booming around Cameron Air Park, the national trend of airport closures has become a growing concern in this flier’s paradise.

So the fliers have organized a grass-roots group to protect their high-flying life style with down-to-earth techniques called “comprehensive land-use planning.”

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Cameron Air Park is not the only community of its kind in this country, but the pilots contend that it is the best. At 1,200-feet altitude in the Sierra Nevada foothills, it is almost always above the Central Valley fog line to the west, and below the snow line to the east. Bad weather may come and go, but the runway is never closed in for long.

What is closing in, the pilots feel, are noise-sensitive non-pilot neighbors, ecology activists and tax-hungry politicians.

It is happening nationally: 18% of all public-use airports have closed since 1974. In California, 24 have closed in the last 10 years.

Keeping Cameron Air Park open is the avocation of pilot Hen-Min Hiu, 47, a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran who won a Distinguished Flying Cross during the Vietnam War after being shot down on his 298th mission as a forward air controller.

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In 1980, Hiu organized 52 plane-owning families, explaining that in previous cases of closure and restriction, “by the time the pilots found out what the neighborhood was doing, they couldn’t mobilize their groups to respond.”

Pilots complain that the public has little knowledge of general aviation--non-airline and non-military flying. They say that there is a perception of general aviation fliers as rich playboys.

County Owns Airport

Jay White of San Carlos, president of the California Aviation Council, said 80% of all general aviation flying is done for business, with only the remaining 20% for sport or tourism.

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The chief of the state Division of Aeronautics, Jack Kemmerly, said that typically in airport decisions, when local officials “decide what stays and what goes, airports don’t have as much constituency” as their opponents.

The problem Hiu saw with Cameron Air Park is that the county owns the airport, making it overly vulnerable to pressures from residents concerned about noise, hazards and business development. The solution: Form an airport district, under the direct control of the resident pilots and other airport users, who would tax themselves and no one else.

Easier said than done. The Friends of Cameron Park Airport were soon taking flak from the local services district, and the business-dominated Cameron Park Property Owners Assn., which is leading a drive to incorporate Cameron Park as a city.

The services district, which provides street lights, recreational facilities and fire protection, apparently fears encroachment into its functions.

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The president of the property owners association, Howard Kastan, said, “Our major purpose in seeking incorporation is to get local control of land policies.” And that is just what Hiu and his organization fear: houses might sell better without airplanes flitting about.

But Kastan added: “We feel that the airport is an asset . . . an attractive thing. . . . We would look favorably on continuation of the airport as an airport.”

Need Proper Policies

Continuation for the long term, said state aeronautics chief Kemmerly, requires the proper land policies.

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Kemmerly, who deals with airport problems daily, said, “The lack of comprehensive land-use planning is hurting general aviation.”

Kemmerly said that in California at least, once a comprehensive land-use plan is adopted by a local jurisdiction for a public-use airport, it must be accommodated in a county’s general plan, and the land-use decision cannot be overridden without a two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors.

One problem at Cameron Air Park, Kemmerly said, was the failure to notify the Federal Aviation Administration of all construction in the “clear zones” beyond the ends of the runway.

But Hiu, who has navigated the district plan through a swarm of commissions and hearings, said the three homes in the clear zones are “grandfathered in.” The plan should go on the ballot later this year, and its backers are optimistic.

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Minimum Land Space

El Dorado County Commissioner Bob Dorr said he thinks that the district is a workable idea because “when the county was given--rather, talked into taking--the airport, the developers gave it runways and taxiways but no property around it. We didn’t have enough real estate to make it a feasible airport to run. . . . It is a lot more sensible to leave it to the owners around it.”

Dorr said the proposed operator of the airport, Cliff Plummer, has run airports before, “so it’s not like turning a bunch of sheep loose in the wolf’s pasture.”

Hiu said that he flies now only for pleasure. But this involves a lot of volunteer work in his four-place, single-engine Cessna 182, such as search-and-rescue missions, ferrying vital organs to hospitals and helping school officials scout for new sites.

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Another retired pilot is Dick Tatti who, when he was an official of the California Highway Patrol, flew his 1958 Cessna to safety projects throughout the state. Flying is now just a hobby.

Plummer, a former airline maintenance chief, is also a hobbyist. In his garage, he recently removed the tricycle landing gear of a Cessna to “turn it back into a real airplane” with a tail wheel.

Business and Pleasure

Among the business fliers, building contractor Earl Ancker on one recent day used a lawn mower-like motor “tug” to help pull his twin-engine Cessna 310 out of its hangar. Then he took off to check construction sites at Lake Tahoe and Napa and in Orange County.

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But he also took on a friendly race with his neighbor, Chuck Lischer, an engineer with projects in the natural gas fields of Northern and Southern California, who took off right behind him.

Lischer uses his expensive Italian-made military-type plane, an SIAI Marchetti SF260, to lead the stunt group “Team America” to air shows all over North America. That’s his hobby.


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