Paul Girard refers to Columbia Airport in Tuolumne County as a jewel, but what he actually sees while walking the grounds is far less polished.
The airport features what is believed to be one of two remaining public-use grass runways in California, which Girard uses to land his 1946 Taylorcraft single-engine airplane.
Cal Fire’s Columbia Air Attack Base is located at the north end of the paved runway, while a number of private companies operate out of the airport, as well.
It also has an 11-site improved campground with amenities that few others do, including hot showers, bathrooms, fire pits, barbecues, a projection screen, volleyball court, and event hall.
Columbia State Historic Park and downtown Sonora are both a short drive away in either direction.
However, starthistle stands 18 inches tall in the grass runway and weeds grow out of cracks in the pavement around the airport’s periphery.
The roofs of the buildings at the campground are getting so brittle that Girard can stand under the edge of an overhang and easily push a stick through them.
Sheet metal airplane hangars owned by the county haven’t been painted in what appears to be many years, if ever.
“It’s so disheartening to see something like this that’s such an asset to the county going to wrack and ruin,” Girard said.
Girard, 76, has been flying at the airport since he was a teenager.
He’s one of the few remaining pilots who owns a hangar that won’t revert back to the county’s ownership after a certain period of time.
Over the years, Girard said he’s seen a decline in use of the airport that he partly blames on a lack of interest from county leadership.
“I don’t think there’s an understanding of really what the possibilities are,” he said. “This could be a cash cow for Tuolumne County.”
The airport was built in the early 1930s as a New Deal-era Civil Conservation Corp project under President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Originally dedicated as Ralph Field, the airport was renamed a few years prior to the construction of the existing paved runway in 1950.
Improvements were made over the ensuing decades that included an extension of the paved runway and establishment of the Cal Fire air base, which Girard credits as a reason many people in the wildfire-prone county have been able to buy homes.
“This is a jewel in many, many ways,” Girard said. “Not just for us that fly, but for the whole county.”
Girard has been a fierce critic of the airport and its management for many years.
He has blamed a lengthy waiting list for hangar space on people who he says are illegally using some to store things other than aircraft or subleasing them to friends.
Another issue that irks Girard is how tens of thousands of dollars from the county’s General Fund are used each year to cover the costs of operating its other airport in Pine Mountain Lake, an affluent gated community near Groveland.
Pine Mountain Lake
The PML airport is not eligible for federal funding because it lacks security, specifically a gate, due to the number of high-priced homes built along the runway with attached hangars.
Del Chase, a retired county roads worker who rents a hangar at Columbia Airport to store his Aeronca Champ that he built in his own garage, shares Girard’s views about the county airport system.
“All of the important stuff is swept under the rug,” Chase said. “Paul and I and others have spent hundreds of hours working issues at the airports, and we are convinced our agenda is 100 percent spot on.”
Both men believe the county is neglecting smaller investments that could help boost Columbia Airport’s profile in favor of focusing on large, seven-figure grants from the Federal Aviation Administration that are mostly earmarked for pavement maintenance.
They said the older buildings at the campground could be upgraded and more maintenance could be done on the rest of the airport’s facilities.
There’s a graded area where they said new hangars could be built that would generate more ongoing revenue, but it would first require a water line extension to provide flow for fire protection.
Girard also suggested that local businesses could be encouraged to offer discount cards that could be given to people flying into the airport from out of town in hopes of enticing them to stay around for awhile and check out the area.
Finding the money for the capital projects they suggested could be difficult, however, especially given the county’s financial constraints for the foreseeable future.
Benedict Stuth, county airports manager, said the FAA mostly provides funding to airports solely for pavement maintenance and improvements as opposed to buildings or equipment.
“For the FAA to give you money, the project has to benefit the national air system,” Stuth said.
Columbia Airport is included in the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems and classified as a regional general aviation airport.
The airport is considered an enterprise fund in the county budget, basically meaning that the revenue it generates pays for the cost of operations.
Revenues for the current fiscal year that began July 1 are estimated at about $604,000, of which about $390,000 will go to the salaries and benefits of the airport’s four employees.
Stuth said the majority of the airport’s revenues come from hangar rents, tie-down rents, landing fees from Cal Fire, and fees on fuel sales from Bald Eagle Aviation.
The airport can receive up to $150,000 a year in entitlement funding from the FAA for a specific project, while larger commercial airports can receive up to $1 million.
To get any other money from the FAA, the county must compete against big and small airports across the nation for discretionary funding.
“Generally, the FAA likes to do projects that are in the same amount as the entitlement, which makes it hard for (general aviation) airports,” Stuth said. “They think you should be able to take care of the infrastructure on your own.”
The airport received $3.2 million in grants from the FAA for projects since 2000, with the latest two coming in 2015 for a combined $527,000 to rehabilitate a taxiway and update the Airport Master Plan.
Prior to Stuth’s arrival in 2014, it had been six years since the county received an FAA grant.
One of Stuth’s goals over the past four years has been to get the airport back in the FAA’s grant program because the agency prioritizes funding for those that have a proven track record.
“The trust between the county and FAA wasn’t there because it hadn’t been in the program for so long,” he said.
The county received a grant for more than $2 million earlier this year to reconstruct a taxiway that had a Pavement Condition Index rating of 12 out of 100, meaning that it was considered close to failing.
Funding for taxiways is based on testing done periodically to assess the condition of the pavement, Stuth said.
Stuth received a call from the FAA out of the blue Tuesday morning asking if the county would be willing to accept an additional $1.3 million grant for rehabilitating parts of several other taxiways.
“I think getting that phone call was kind of a testament to the work we’ve done for the past four years,” Stuth said.
Stuth hopes to someday find funding to repair the volleyball courts and buildings at the campground on the airport, as well as expand the event hall. He also would like to align a taxiway with the edge of the campground so that planes could park along the edge, among other improvements.
Stuth said he’s considered organizing fundraisers and asking the clubs that use the campground each year to raise money for the effort.
“We want it to be a place you can fly in, stop and bring your families,” Stuth said.
The airport is scheduled to host eight fly-ins and a private wedding this year, four of them involving groups who have done fly-ins at the airport for 10-plus years.
Some airports have attractions like restaurants on the grounds, though Stuth said there’s little land the airport owns that can be used for non-aviation purposes and would be economically viable to develop for that.
There’s also not a lot of growth projected at the airport through 2035 that would accommodate such development, according to a draft of the update to the Airport Master Plan.
The plan projected that by 2020 there will be about 27,300 annual landings at the airport, which would grow 2 percent every five years to 33,500 in 2035.
Stuth said many people from out of the county come from Southern California and the Pacific Northwest, with a smaller number of visitors from states in the East.
“We want to see the airport grow and be successful,” he said. “Our careers are staked on it being successful, but we have to do it in a very methodical way.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.