Can Unleaded Avgas Blunt Efforts To Close Reid-Hillview Airport?

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Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose, California, is in the news with an announcement Monday that its based aircraft will now be “switching to unleaded fuel after years of demands.” That revelation, following some high-profile reporting on lead contamination around the airport over the past few months, is one piece in a complex quilt of news related to unleaded avgas.

At an EAA AirVenture press conference last month, Swift Fuels President Chris D’Acosta told reporters that, as a result of ramped up distribution efforts, his certified 94UL unleaded avgas would soon be available at several new airports in northern and southern California for a total of 47 locations in the state. Reid-Hillview Airport is on the list of new outlets for the fuel (presumably resulting in Monday’s announcement), which is approved for around 66 percent of piston aircraft (several high-performance engines are not eligible, though Swift is developing its 100R blend that it expects will bridge that gap).

Days before Swift’s AirVenture press conference, Oklahoma-based General Aviation Modifications Inc. (GAMI) announced long-awaited STCs for its G100UL high-octane unleaded fuel, with management from distributor Avfuel looking on at the press conference as a partner in the effort. G100UL is ultimately expected to be approved for virtually all GA engines. The fuel has been in development for around a decade, and the reason for this summer’s logjam-busting approval from the FAA was not exactly clear. GA advocacy groups have been pressing for unleaded avgas for years, as it has shown itself to run cleaner, extend engine life, and improve performance.

The announcement seems like good news for supporters of Reid-Hillview, which local groups have been trying to shut down for a number of reasons. Lead contamination has been one rallying cry for airport opponents, though according to a San Jose Spotlight review, “elevated blood lead levels found in the local study are consistent with the state average and neighboring counties. Out of 17,000 blood samples, only 1.7 percent show lead levels that call for further testing. The statewide average of children who meet the same criteria is 1.5 percent.” Average lead levels for children under 18 in the airport area are less than half of what the Centers for Disease Control considers “elevated” and around 1/20th of those for which the CDC suggests medical intervention is warranted.

Airport supporters and other skeptics believe the stronger motivation for closing Reid-Hillview is economic, be it repurposing the airport property with low-income housing, business development or other non-aviation use.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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37 COMMENTS

  1. RHV is on some of the most valuable real estate in the country.

    Lead and noise have nothing to do with it it’s development dollars.

    The airport is doomed.

    When I lived in the Bay Area I’d fly there often. Nice field and great location and quite pleasant to operate out of. The future of GA is bleak, especially in wealthy areas.

    • A lot of the “push” comes from one man. I met him at work about 20 years ago. He was a software QA engineer. I mentioned that I was a pilot, and he started ranting at me about how evil RHV was, and how it ruined the neighborhood. He runs a website – reidhillview dot com.

      As far as I know, he is not a developer – he just doesn’t like little airplanes flying over his back yard.

      • Pilots can be their own worst enemies. It would seem that some, if not many, go out of their way not to be good neighbors.

        As a pilot, I would not be adverse if the local airport, a mile away, got closed. To many arseholes disrupting me and everyone around me. For no reason. Either ignorance or noncaring.

      • Jerry, I would hazard a guess that the airport was there long before your airport hater moved in. It always amazes me that people never hear the planes overhead until after they have signed the papers on their new house.

        • John Mc,
          Exactly correct. It’s worse though. I’d like to have someone take a decibel meter around to the houses where the complaints come from.

          These idiots will show up with their pick ups and motorcycles sporting modified exhausts to complain about airport noise from an airport that was there years before their home was built or they were even born.

  2. Private aviation for average citizens is now dead. Average citizens are losing airports, and the ones left are guarded with access gates that say “no public access”. Once you get in you have a bazzilion regulations to follow OR risk fine/imprisonment for any aircraft or airspace error.

    GA is the most complicated and unwelcoming thing you can do as an average citizen. It’s not about the fuel.

  3. The lead claims are completely fabricated, so thanks for pointing that out. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), which deals with air quality issues (as if that weren’t obvious from their name) had monitored lead at RHV for years and recently discontinued the monitoring; they’d never found anything beyond negligible levels and didn’t think it was worth continuing to spend the money to test.

    There are several other more likely sources for any actual lead issues, starting with lead paint in older homes. While lead emissions from 100LL-burning planes are real, the impact on humans is not significant. But these bogus but effective claims that “the airport is hurting our children!” show why it’s important to get rid of the lead ASAP. RHV will not be the last airport targeted by developers with these sorts of attacks.

    My plane is based at a nearby field where 94UL fuel has also recently become available. It’s actually priced less than 100LL, so it’s a no brainer. I bought the STC to use the new fuel and am looking forward to kissing lead goodbye…. at least when I fuel up somewhere that can sell me an unleaded Avgas.

    • Agreed. Whether or not lead emissions near GA airports has any statstically-significant impact on the environment is moot, since any detectable lead emissions will be used as a rallying cry to help shut down more GA airports. That’s besides the fact that the lead in 100LL is not friendly to our engines (aside from the octane boost, which most planes don’t even need), and at some point the TEL additive will become harder to obtain. It just makes sense to continue the efforts in getting the lead out of our fuel, and it looks like we are actually nearing the point where that will happen at a sufficiently large-enough scale.

      • “… at some point the TEL additive will become harder to obtain.”

        You can revise that to say that at some point TEL will become impossible to obtain. Only one manufacturer left in the western world. If they have a plant fire or decide the economics are no longer there, we are lead free, one way or the other.

  4. Reid-Hillview served as a receiver airport when GA was virtually kicked off of SJC. Problem is it is square miles of land in an area where land is valued by the square inch.With millions ( maybe billions) of dollars worth of land for developers to use,it is only a matter of time before the airport is on the chopping block. Ultimately probably not all that bad in the end,as the Bay Area ( even the South Bay) is becoming a less and less desirable place to go to via any means. It’s too bad too,as SJC was a great airport in the 70’s.

    • The irony is, air travel is really the only reasonable way to get around southern CA. Helicopter, really, but airplane is a very close second. I spent about a week in that general area and was actually getting claustrophobic from all of the road traffic (and I’m not generally prone to claustrophobia).

    • SJC is still a decent GA airport – maybe not as good as the seventies – but we are still there. We lost some tie downs for the new fire station – but for a busy class C airport in the 10th largest US city it could be worse. I left RHV a few years back when the writing was on the wall that they were going to close it down. I’m really happy being at SJC – once you have your badge, access is pretty easy and they do really bother us much.

  5. 1/2 of the airborne lead emissions in the USA are from GA. That is a fact. Lead is bad for humans. That is a fact. Whether one chooses to deny the quantifiable obvious or not, leaded Avgas makes for horrible PR and a ready weapon for those interests, regardless of motivation, wishing to close airports. I regard news of the switch to UL as good news.

    • Jeffry: It’s good news on more than one front. Lead is also even worse for airplane engines than it is for humans. I’ve heard some say the logjam in approving UL products is headbutting between the EPA and the FAA, with the former dragging its feet on approving the anti-knock properties of UL fuel (both Swift’s and GAMI’s) and the latter kicking the can down the road (through several Administration turnovers) with exemptions, thinking no one would pay much attention. Ironically, the recent surge in anti-lead publicity at RHV (which is arguably more “anti-GA”) could be part of what’s pushed the FAA off the dime.

    • Except if it’s not. Which so far, it’s showing not to be.

      There’s a lot of skepticism about electric multi rotor aircraft on this site. Much of it justified, but also most of it badly presented. If someone were really trying to kill off the new tech, they’d be linking the airport issue with the new dream. There will likely will not be a way to operate the new aircraft without replacing the urban airfields. Many of the aircraft are STOL rather than VTOL. Aircraft in distress will need a big space to retreat to.

      If municipal governments are planning to let uber and the like fly around providing air taxi service, they ought to change their tune on these airports. If not, they should speak up before many more millions are spent chasing useless vehicle designs. They better be careful because it’s going to be a divisive subject that will definitely affect the ability of downtown areas to remain relevant.

      I think everyone knows that the right thing to do, though very hard to do, is to let the existing airports operate. All the homes and businesses decided to go there when the airport was already there. The only reason any of them might be more of a nuisance is because others were already destroyed moving volume to the remaining survivors.

    • Water kills tens of thousands of people every year, that is a fact. Food kills half a million people every year, that is a fact. One data point can define a sphere, 2 data points can define a universe.

      Unless you have context, then simple facts can lead you to some really absurd “conclusions”. GA fuels are not a health problem.

    • Alert! The question is how bad.

      In drinking water is one thing, frequent direct ingestion, probably worst from water standing in plumbing if it has much lead in the solder used to connect parts of the plumbing together.

      In the air in what quantity? How much from small airplanes? Up to your to explain.

  6. They have been trying to close RHV for decades mostly based upon the alternate value of the real estate but also noise and general nuisance issues. The locals have been held at bay due to FAA funding rules, but they have tried numerous times to ignore or get around the agreements for which they took funds. The local lead issue there is and always has been a red herring. As Paracelsus the father of toxicology said: “The dose makes the poison” . At some exposure rate or concentration everything is toxic or non toxic, and that goes for Pb in any form. As the info above points out the levels of Pb are so far below any health threshold they are not toxic. There is evidence in the literature that Pb is an essential mineral for humans, albeit at extremely low amounts. The avgas Pb issue is just another lever to excite and exploit the ignorant masses, including some who comment here. The death knell for RHV will be when there is a near airport crash because there is no significant open space for miles around. A crash and fire will probably be the end for RHV regardless of whether there is unleaded avgas available.

    • You’re right, Dale, lead in Avgas is a red herring. RHV is the target of land developers, and lead exposure is just part of the scare tactics used to kill it. Unfortunately the city council is equally willing to close it down because they see a potential windfall in property tax revenue when it is turned into businesses and/or housing. This is just another Santa Monica, and I suspect the same outcome will apply.

  7. Well.. We learned that 5 politicians can indeed vote to close an airport like Reid Hillview over a manufactured “lead crisis” last night. Despite facts that no airborne lead found by EPA or BAAQMD, and that lead levels around airport smack in middle of statewide averages, linked to paint, legacy lead in dirt from auto gas, lead plumbing, etc, the County Supervisors not only voted to close it, but voted to demand FAA close it 10 years before Grant Obligations expire.. Sadly, the City of San Jose, San Jose Mineta Airport, and the Chamber of Commerce weren’t interested in helping, as they did in 1995. Now up to the FAA to decide whether to resist request to shut it down, or roll over. If litigation follows, lead in Avgas will be long gone before case ever gets to trial, but closure advocates have confirmed that even if lead gone, they just want to close it.. And no, they won’t actually get cheap housing if it closes… That is what they have today, relatively…

  8. As a teenager, I lived in San Jose from 1956 through 1959, and Reid-Hillview (As I recall, we referred to it back then as Reid’s Hillview) Airport was one of my favorite haunts. I don’t know when the airport was built, but it was already a well established fixture at the time I lived in San Jose. If my memory serves, I believe that the only commercial enterprise, other than the FBO at the air port, was Clevenger’s Crop Dusting, operating highly modified Stinson L-5 aircraft. My Civil Air Patrol Squadron also operated out of the airport, and still does to this day. The only complaints regarding the airport’s location back then, were from pilots on short final being hit by golf balls from the adjacent golf course.

    • I was there a bit after you, Robert, having been born in 1958. I got my license at RHV, and was a member of the John J. Montgomery Memorial Cadet Squadron 36 which still met there from 1975-1980.

      There were three FBOs and one Red Baron Lounge at the field at that time.