Among Palo Alto's wild marshlands lies a small airfield that has come to be appreciated as a city treasure.
Palo Alto Airport has a rambling past and an uncertain future. During its 82-year history, it has moved several times -- once to the baylands from the Stanford campus -- and the airport recently became the subject of a heated dispute over whether the city or county will run it in the future.
But though its ultimate ownership remains uncertain, those who love the little airfield by the golf course are confident it will remain a choice spot to slip into the skies and settle back down to Earth.
``It's an invaluable resource,'' said Palo Alto resident and pilot Bob Lennox. ``There's a huge community out there that uses the airport and benefits from it.''
The airport also is a place where childhood dreams come true, said Lennox, vice president of the Palo Alto Airport Association, a pilots' group.
``Over 35 years ago, I rode my bicycle out there and paid for flying lessons,'' he said. ``I now live in Palo Alto and make my living as a pilot.''
The airport is located off Embarcadero Road east of Highway 101 and features one 2,443-foot runway and 371 spots where pilots can tie down their planes. It handles mostly light aircraft, and over the past 10 years it has served an average of about 200,000 takeoffs and landings a year, according to statistics from the airport's Joint Community Relations Committee. The committee's members are appointed by Santa Clara County, which runs the airport's operations, and the city of Palo Alto, which owns the land.
Apart from recreational flights and commuters, the airport also serves local hospitals that use it to transport and receive patients. It supports a variety of flying-related businesses and is home to the largest non-profit flying club in the country, the West Valley Flying Club.
Controversy over the airport's future erupted earlier this year when the county pressed the city to take a stand on what would happen once the facility's 50-year county lease runs out in 2017. Without guarantees that the city would take some responsibility for the airport, the county was reluctant to apply for new grants from the federal government.
After much debate before the Palo Alto City Council, city leaders vowed July 11 that the airport has a future and pledged to support it once the lease with the county runs out. County officials then applied for the grants, which are expected to pay for security fences and runway lights.
Local pilots cheered the city council's endorsement. Lennox also hopes Peninsula residents will attend the airfield's annual Airport Day on Sept. 11.
The 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. open house will feature antique and new aircraft on display as well as demonstrations of falcons and other birds of prey. Children are encouraged to attend, he said.
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