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Small-plane pilots try to protect their place at John Wayne Airport

Small-plane pilots try to protect their place at John Wayne Airport
The SoCal Pilots Assn. wants to upgrade storage space for small general aviation planes at John Wayne Airport without losing acreage to larger private jets, a possibility under a proposed county plan. (Photo by Hillary Davis)

About 37 acres at John Wayne Airport are set aside for private planes like Gary Schank’s single-engine Beechcraft Bonanza.

The six-seater is what pilots call “light GA,” a smaller class of general aviation planes in contrast with heavier corporate jets such as Bombardiers and Gulfstreams, which get 27 acres of their own at JWA.

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As Orange County, which owns and operates the airport, ponders upgrades to aging general aviation infrastructure such as buildings and airfield roads to comply with Federal Aviation Administration standards and reflect what officials say is current usage, light-GA pilots fear being squeezed out by private jets.

Under a plan preferred by airport staff, private jets would get more benefits, including a new terminal, and small planes could lose up to 20 of their 37 acres, displacing 250 light-GA aircraft.

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The SoCal Pilots Assn., of which Schank is vice president, believes it has a solution.

The association, which says it provides a “voice for general aviation” at Southern California airports, suggests leaving overall space allocations, and activity, the same for light and heavy general aviation and trading uncovered “tie-downs,” or parking spaces, for enclosed hangars for the smaller planes.

It also would allow for three support operators for corporate jets — providing services including fuel, hangars and maintenance — each with about nine acres.

The Bonanza that Schank co-owns with two partners is stored in a $140-per-month uncovered tie-down near the runways. It’s the least costly of the three storage options, behind hangars and carport-like covered spaces. Covered spaces cost $300 a month and hangars about $700 monthly, and both have waiting lists, he said.

Airport staff has recommended changes including the new general aviation terminal — the airport currently has terminals only for commercial service — and dedicated, fee-based customs screening for non-commercial international flights. The county says the updates would serve an increase in the number of private jets at the airport and reflect a decline in smaller planes.

Schank said he also has seen a decline but added that the trend includes the recession years of a decade ago and that the drop wasn’t huge.

Leading into the start of the recession in 2008, 445, or 74%, of the 604 general aviation planes based at JWA were single-engine aircraft, while 68, or 11%, were private jets, according to airport data. By 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, all types of private aircraft based there had dropped — 358, or 77%, of the 462 planes were single-engine, while 40, or 9%, were jets.

Schank said the pilots association is allied with Newport Beach residents concerned that the airport’s preferred plan would lead to increased noise from more jets.

Schank, who lives in Coto de Caza in south Orange County, said that if he has to move his plane to the Corona, Long Beach or Fullerton airports, it would be inconvenient and far from what he considers his home airport, JWA.

“Nobody wants to be evicted from their home,” he said.

Noise-sensitive neighbors and “light GA” pilots oppose the idea of catering more to corporate jets at John Wayne Airport.
Noise-sensitive neighbors and “light GA” pilots oppose the idea of catering more to corporate jets at John Wayne Airport. (Photo by Hillary Davis)

County officials have delayed votes on the general aviation matter several times in the past month. The Board of Supervisors had been scheduled to resume discussions Tuesday but is now scheduled to vote on a plan June 25.

After the supervisors spent roughly five hours on discussion and public input at their May 7 meeting, they appeared to lean toward a compromise that would expand business jet services while limiting overall private jet activity and preserving storage capacity for smaller planes. But the board has twice put off a vote.

The compromise, suggested by Supervisor Andrew Do, would allow for a general aviation terminal while capping the number of private planes based at the airport — 65 business jets and 374 light planes, primarily single-engine aircraft. The compromise also would keep the number of support operators the same and increase hangar space for light GA.

The county Airport Commission twice has delayed votes on recommending a general aviation plan to the Board of Supervisors in hopes of maintaining onsite storage space for smaller private planes that could be squeezed out by amenities for corporate jets.

Laguna Niguel pilot Randall Lipton told the supervisors that private pilots who preceded the arrival of commercial carriers at John Wayne Airport didn’t mind sharing their space at first.

At this point, he said, “as a GA pilot, I’m sorry that we let the camel’s head into the tent.”

It would be a mistake to scrap parking for small planes, he said, adding that their economic impact hasn’t been properly measured.

Newport Beach pilot Jeffrey Swedo, who has been based at JWA for 15 years, used aviation metaphors to urge the supervisors to consider the pilots association’s plan.

“You’re flying around in the soup. It’s in the clouds. You’re bumping along. You need to get down safely. And how do you do that? You pull the throttle back. You slow down, you assess what you’re doing,” he said. “You know why? Because you have one chance to get your plane on the ground and do it right. You all have one chance to come in for a great landing.”

This article was originally published at 5:20 p.m. May 20 and was later updated with additional information.

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