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May 20, 2024
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FAA investigates ‘unsafe’ conditions at Santa Clara County airports

Inquiry includes San Martin Airport; pilots sound alarm over damages, conditions

Damaged runway lights, a non-functioning airport beacon, potholes and gravel in the taxiways, deteriorating hangar buildings, rats and snakes in indoor areas, a rampant ground squirrel problem—these are among the many issues that pilots at San Martin Airport have been reporting to county officials for years. 

Now, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has opened an investigation into the San Martin Airport and its owner, Santa Clara County. The investigation includes the county’s Reid-Hillview Airport (RHV) in east San Jose—where the FAA has already been working with the county for more than a year to make improvements. 

The FAA investigation is focusing on “actions and inactions by the county that appear to lead to unsafe airfield conditions” at San Martin Airport (known as “E16”) and RHV, says a March 8 letter to the county from FAA Director for the Office of Airport Compliance Michael Helvey.

Because the county has received grants from the FAA that are designated for specific expenses, the FAA investigation will seek to determine if Santa Clara County has breached its contractual obligations for the use of those funds, Helvey’s letter explained. 

“Substantial evidence” from the FAA’s own inspections, user complaints and other sources “spanning more than a decade document the ongoing unsafe conditions at RHV,” Helvey’s letter states. 

“Additional airfield maintenance issues at (San Martin Airport) have also been documented through site visits, including unresolved burrowing by ground squirrels potentially impacting the airfield pavement, signage and lighting,” Helvey wrote in the March 8 notice.  

Helvey’s March 8 notice was addressed to Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Susan Ellenburg. 

List of grievances

County Counsel Tony LoPresti’s office responded to Helvey’s notice of investigation on April 8, arguing that there is no “legitimate basis” for the FAA investigation.

“The county does not believe the issues raised in this letter pose safety concerns,” says the county’s response signed by LoPresti and Deputy County Counsel Jerett Yan. 

Numerous pilots who rent hangars and fly in and out of San Martin Airport beg to differ. Pilot Steve Miller, of Gilroy, said the extensive burrowing ground squirrel population not only threatens the integrity of the surface—the animals also invite hungry birds that can get caught in an aircraft’s propeller or intake as they swoop down for a meal, potentially resulting in extensive damage or a crash. 

Miller did note that since the investigation was brought up at a public airports commission on April 1, county staff have notified the airport tenants that they have begun an effort to mitigate the ground squirrel problem at the San Martin airfield. 

Potholes—and gravel remnants of past efforts to patch them—are apparent throughout the paved surfaces surrounding San Martin Airport’s hangars. These holes can cause major damages to an airplane, even as it taxis slowly out to the runway, Miller explained.

Helvey’s letter notes that federal airport grants to Santa Clara County include $600,000 in 2021 for runway and taxiway pavement repair at the San Martin Airport. Total grants from the FAA for both RHV and E16 have amounted to about $11.6 million since 1983. 

In 2018, the county stopped applying for FAA grants for RHV, and in 2020 presented a plan to eventually close the RHV site and redevelop it for housing and mixed use. 

Other pilots recently have taken photos of dead rats and snakes caught in traps inside hangars and the San Martin Airport’s bathrooms. Rubber seals at the bottom of hangar doors—designed to keep critters out—are deteriorating in many of the leased spaces. Some of the hangar roofs leak during rainy weather. 

Weeds and other vegetation in unpaved areas were taller than waist-high when a reporter visited the site at the end of March. 

“This is the worst maintained airport I have ever been to,” said Miller, a founding member of the South County Airport Pilots Association who has been flying in and out of the San Martin Airport for 33 years. 

While there haven’t been reports of any significant incidents due to these conditions, some of the tenant pilots suggest it’s only a matter of time. 

History of concerns

Pilot David Stites, of Morgan Hill, wrote in a March 17 letter to Douglas Rice of the California Pilots Association, that the San Martin Airport’s visual approach slope indicator (VASI) lights are not operating. Stites described VASI as “a system of lights on the side of an airport runway threshold that provides visual descent guidance information” upon landing. 

Furthermore, the airport’s rotating beacon “is frozen in place and does not rotate,” Stites’ letter says. 

Potholes and gravel are scattered throughout aircraft parking and moving areas adjacent to the hangar buildings on the north side of the San Martin Airport, pictured on a rainy afternoon March 29. Photo: Michael Moore

“This is a safety issue for pilots attempting to identify the airport,” Stites wrote. 

And parts of the airport’s Automated Weather Observation System are not working, Stites added. 

Stites, Miller and other pilots have also reported issues with the airport’s security gates failing; lack of signage on taxiways; foreign objects including screws and bolts on paved surfaces; and even nighttime users drag racing up and down the runway in their automobiles. 

“The well-being of all users of this vital, public-use facility, from pilots to maintenance technicians, depends on swift and decisive action to address these issues,” says Stites’ letter. 

Helvey’s March 8 notice does not provide details about many of the pilots’ complaints. Issues under investigation listed by Helvey include the county’s requirements to complete and maintain airfield signage and pavement markings; maintain airfield markings; maintain the airports’ pavement; keep weeds down; consider airfield geometry changes that could improve safety; and address wildlife concerns at both airports. 

The county, in its letter, said it plans to complete an “Airfield Upgrades Project” in September. 

The county’s response also states that “much of the deferred maintenance at the county airports is due to insufficient Airport Enterprise Fund revenue.” This shortage of revenue is blamed on the FAA, as the county has “been waiting for years for FAA approvals” for projects—including property leases—that would help grow the local airports fund. 

“Without additional leasing revenue, addressing the maintenance issues will become increasingly difficult for the county,” says the county’s April 8 response. 

LoPresti added in a statement, “The county takes safety at its airports seriously, and is committed to addressing any maintenance concerns promptly before they become a concern.” 

Helvey’s letter invited the county to consider efforts to resolve the identified issues informally, and the county’s response expressed a similar desire. 

Santa Clara County Airports Director Eric Peterson said he couldn’t comment on the pilots’ complaints or the county’s efforts to address them due to the ongoing FAA investigation. 

A bent and broken drain grate between hangar buildings poses a damage risk to aircraft as they taxi out to the San Martin Airport runway, according to tenants. Photo: Michael Moore

The county’s director of the Roads and Airports Department, Harry Freitas, said while he is not familiar with the details of the conditions in question, the county is generally “proactive on a number of fronts” when it comes to maintaining or making repairs at the airports. 

The FAA’s efforts to work with the county to resolve “airfield maintenance and safety issues” date back to 2009, Helvey’s letter added. 

Informal inquiries into the county’s operation of the two airports date back to 2021, although those investigations focused on the county’s prohibition of leaded aviation fuel at the sites—another issue that worries pilots who cannot refuel at the county’s airports. 

Helvey’s letter also refers to a one-year memorandum of understanding with the county that expired in February, in which the county and FAA had agreed to “address ongoing unsatisfactory airfield conditions.” The MOU expired with many of the issues unresolved. 

The county, in its April 8 response, claims it has made progress under the MOU. “The county’s ongoing collaboration with the FAA has resulted in substantial improvements to RHV and E16,” says the county’s response. 

As of March 8, San Martin Airport had 34 based aircraft and an average of 46 operations per day, Helvey’s letter says. RHV has 329 aircraft and averages 573 operations per day. 

Michael Moore
Michael Moore
Michael Moore is an award-winning journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor for the Morgan Hill Times, Hollister Free Lance and Gilroy Dispatch since 2008. During that time, he has covered crime, breaking news, local government, education, entertainment and more.

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