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So you think Napa County's airport is a little strip for Sunday afternoon pleasure pilots? Think again.

More than 126,000 takeoffs and landings are recorded every year, according to Napa County Airport Manager Wanda Kennedy. Many of those flights are by corporate jets, which directly through taxes and indirectly through employment and business helps fill coffers in the county.

At the peak of general aviation (small aircraft) activity — in 1994 — the Federal Aviation Agency recorded nearly 231,000 such operations.

Napa's airport and businesses located at the facility employ 343 people with an annual payroll of about $15 million.

"We're a business and we have to operate that way," Kennedy said from her office, from which she can look out over the aircraft-parking apron toward the runways and control tower. On a clear day she can see Mount Tamalpais.

The sprawling facility, located on 800 acres between Napa and American Canyon, serves as a major North Bay hub for general aviation, pilot training, excursion flights and corporate jet traffic.

It all began at the dawn of World War II, when America feared an attack by the Japanese Imperial Air Force on the U.S. mainland. In 1941-2, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a small airstrip to be used for military pilot training and as a first line of defense against a Bay Area air raid.

After the War, the airport was deeded by the government to the county for civilian use.

By 1947 a half-dozen small businesses based at the new facility sprung up, but only Bridgeport Flying Service survived even a year. A trio of flyers — Dick Bridgeford, Caesar Bertagna and Jack Bergin — shaped BFS into a thriving flight school that has trained thousands of pilots (including the author of this article) over half a century.

Among businesses at the airport was Southwest Airlines, which included Napa on a Bay Area commuter run to San Francisco International Airport. In 1952, however, a fire that started in a SWA radio room burned down the entire terminal.

Another major tenant — International Air Services Company — took root at the airport in 1971.

IASCO General Manager Don Hefkin said the training facility is a joint operation with Japan Air Lines, which enrolls about 80 students every year and plans to expand to more than 100 by 2005. JAL students live in a housing complex at Big Ranch Road and Trancas Street.

IASCO and JAL have become an integral part of the Napa community with their support of the annual Rotary fly-in, Airport Day and Open House, the Fly a Leader program of the Napa Chamber of Commerce, the annual Academy Awards AIDS benefit, and other programs.

Hefkin said IASCO has 82 employees. That, and the taxes paid to the county on its fleet of 25 single engine and turbo prop aircraft contribute to the local economy.

He said business is expected to increase soon, as IASCO launches a flight service venture designed to serve executive jets that fly in and out of the airport. IASCO has trained pilots for other airlines, but, "For the last 10 years it's essentially been JAL," Hefkin said.

Another permanent resident at the airport is the California Highway Patrol, which bases both fixed-wing and helicopter craft at its hangar, located on the west side of the field.

The CHP has designated Napa County Airport as a primary operations base in the event of a major Bay area incident, such as an earthquake.

Pilots praise airport

Although Napa has catered to corporate air traffic in recent years, it is still a haven for private pilots, who often fly into Napa just to eat at Jonsey's Steakhouse, a fixture since the earliest days of the Napa airport when it was little more than a hotplate service with a couple of chairs and a table.

Pilots of pleasure aircraft as well as businesses aircraft can be found at the airport.

Ed Kempky is both.

The president and CEO of Kempky Risk Management keeps his restored Stearman, a World War II biplane, alongside his twin-engine Aerostar, which seats seven and can reach a groundspeed of 300 mph. "One goes real fast and one goes real slow," he joked.

"This is a full-service facility," he said. "You can find fuel, maintenance, pilot supplies and amenities, and a restaurant here."

Kempky said he's not surprised to find lots of airmen make Napa a destination. "When I travel, those are the types of things I look for.

"I learned to fly at the Napa airport. I soloed on my 16th birthday in 1964. I got my private (pilot's license) on my 17th birthday and on my 18th birthday I got my commercial endorsement. I had my pilot's license before I got my driver's license."

He always wanted to fly. "You look up in the sky and it is intriguing, adventurous. It just hooks you."

His father was a World War II pilot. His brother, who works at the same company, also files.

Kempky has watched the changes, including construction of an FAA control tower in 1964.

"They developed more hangar space, IASCO came, runways were lengthened and a new runway was added. With that came more aircraft and more traffic. This is an active airport, year-round."

Another pilot, 64-year-old Dwight Small, loves flying and the Napa Airport so much he was appointed to the Napa County Airport Advisory Commission. He is also a founding member of the Napa Pilots Association.

The Association was created to protect the interest of pilots and airplane owners at the Napa Airport, Small said, "We've not felt that need lately. Now it's largely social, but very, very community minded and involved."

NPA remains a citizen watchdog on anything that might impact the airport, such as nearby development.

"I think (the airport) fits into the regional picture for transportation in the Bay Area," Small said.

"There is more and more business use now. I think it will grow, but I don't see it as being served by any airlines."

Small is retired after flying for 34 years for Tiger Airlines and FedEx. Like Kempky, his interest in aviation was piqued as a boy. "It started way back when I was a kid," he said. "From day one I used to watch airplanes fly over. I kinda felt that's where I should be."

He, too, took his first solo flight at age 16 and earned his pilot license at 17, the legal minimum.

Today, he owns a single engine Cessna 182. "I do a lot of traveling with it — four trips a year — to the Midwest for family reunions. My wife has family in British Columbia, so we fly there, too. And Mexico.

"This is a good airport," he said.

He said Napa's first airport manager, Bill Partain, was sometimes controversial, but did a good job in protecting the land around the airport from development that might interfere with operations.

Partain, who died in 1999, directed the airport activities from 1947 until his retirement 40 years later.

He was replaced by Leonard Peterson, who was airport manager until Kennedy took the helm in 1997.

Bridgeford fleet expands

The airport's primary fixed-base operator — Bridgeford Flying Service — has been part of the facility since its inception.

Harold Morrison became president of BFS in 1989. "We're seeing more and more corporate aircraft flying in here," he said. "Napa Valley is becoming a destination. In the last 10 years, it's become the norm to have corporate jets parked out here."

The Bridgeford fleet has expanded from a handful of two-seat and four-seat Cessnas for pilot training, to 10 charter aircraft including prop engines and jets.

Their rental fleet has a dozen more aircraft. They also sell new airplanes for the Cessna Aircraft Company.

Morrison said some companies are coming to Napa because they can house their jets here. "That's great income for the county," he continued. "(The county) charges property tax (based) on the value of the airplane."

Kennedy said local schools are the primarily benefactor of taxes on aircraft based at the Napa Airport. She said a typical Galaxy Jet valued at $20 million pays $147,512 in taxes to local education, the biggest benefactor from the levy. That's about three quarters of the total property tax paid by the aircraft owner.

Policy makers such as the Board of Supervisors often depend on the Airport Advisory Commission for guidance in shaping the airport's future.

Jim Ford has served on the commission for 15 years, including 12 as its chair.

"What makes our airport so great? Lots of flyable weather when compared to the other airports in the Bay Area," he said.

Ford also noted it is just outside the highly restricted, heavily trafficked and often confusing control zones of the major airports including those at San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.

"The airport has, over its 57 years, been protected from residential and building encroachment and that continues to be a high priority," he said.

Ford also cited as an attraction the airport's facilities, including various navigational aides to pilots.

He reserved special praise for the JAL/IASCO flight Training Center. "This facility contributes untold benefits to Napa County, including a lot of prestige. It is a fabulous facility," he said.

Ford looks forward to installation of a full service instrument landing system. "This has been our highest priority for as long as I can remember," he said. "It's looking promising."

He'd like to see the terminal building replaced someday, but acknowledged, "There's nothing in the works."

Ford predicted aviation-oriented growth, but doubts there'll ever be any scheduled air service.

The airport has served Napa for more than 50 years. Pilots, business representatives and government officials contacted by the Register see that role continuing for at least the next half century.

Pat Stanley can be contacted online at napapat@sbcglobal.net.

Business editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series. Next week watch for a story about the "Be A Pilot" program held at the Napa County Airport.

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