A. Wayne Lackey never gets tired of his job — flying clients of his helicopter service above and beyond the Napa Valley.
He loves the freedom, he said Wednesday, as he choppered above an ever-changing landscape of houses, vineyards and warehouses near the Napa County Airport.
“It’s like being in a 4-wheel-drive in the middle of the wilderness,” said Lackey, president of Wine Country Helicopters.
Lackey was among the pilots who took half-a-dozen visitors into the skies this week via the Fly-A-Leader program, a sort of open-air open house designed to introduce community leaders to Napa County Airport.
Airport officials want the public to see the facility as an economic hub. About 122,000 flights take off or land at the south county facility each year. It generates $1.4 million in property taxes, $1 million of which is apportioned to local schools.
Along with a bird’s eye view of the Napa Valley, the Fly-A-Leader guests got a close-up of the 820-acre airport, which first opened during World War II.
The airport is getting some updates these days, including renovations to the Federal Aviation Administration control tower, a federally-owned and operated facility set among the airport’s three runways.
The dozen air traffic controllers assigned to the Napa County Airport will move this week into a temporary building in front of the 1960-era tower while work crews remove asbestos, replace radio equipment and upgrade plumbing and electrical systems, part of $1 million worth of renovations paid by the federal government.
The project will take about three months.
The visitors also stopped by the Japan Air Lines’ flight school, where IASCO — a flight training school — and JAL flight instructors train as many as 120 future airline pilots and co-pilots at a time on simulators and a fleet of single-engine Bonanza planes.
All trainees undergo 100 hours of English conversation courses from two instructors, said Ron Daugherty, a flight instructor at the school.
English is the universal language for pilots, he said.
“The demand (for pilots) in Asia is crazy,” Daugherty said.
Participants in the leaders program also stopped by the California Highway Patrol office where Sgt. Greg Crippen, aerial supervisor for the Golden Gate Division, gave a tour of its center, home to the division’s two airplanes and two helicopters. The aircraft are dispatched for rescues and searches in the nine-county Bay Area.
Liliana Mattis, a Napa real estate broker, said she enjoyed Wednesday’s visit and flight over the Napa Valley. She was happy to learn that the airport would have a key role in case of a disaster or emergency that would force either Oakland or San Francisco international airports to shut down.
“For an emergency, we have it,” she said.
Mattis, who had never flown out of Napa County, said she also enjoyed her Cessna flight over the Napa and Sonoma valleys. The flight, she said, “was fun and scary.”
“It’s just amazing from the way up … it looks so different,” she said.
Devery Stockon, like Mattis, is no pilot and rarely visits the airport. But, she said, the airport is a “wonderful opportunity” for Napa County. “We have a gold mine out there,” she said.
Wings & Wheels 2008 at Napa County Airport.
Sat, Aug. 30. 10 a.m. to 3: 30 p.m.
Napa County Airport.
Free. Vintage planes, electric cars and hot rods on display. Suzy Godfrey will schedule free airplane rides for youth ages 8 to 17. For info on the Young Eagles Flight program, call 253-7032.