SAN JOSE — Taking off with a roar from Reid-Hillview Airport in East San Jose, Paul Marshall’s Beechcraft Bonanza A36 plane cruised around the summit of Mission Peak east of Fremont on Saturday morning.
But the pilot who has been flying since 1998 has entrusted control of the six-seater single-engine plane to his co-pilot: Julian Aviles, 10.
“Planes aren’t quite like cars,” Marshall told Aviles, stretching out his arms to show how the plane moves before takeoff. “Keep watching the yoke – that’s how we go up and down, see that? Hey Julian, that’s gonna be your job.
Brothers Armando and Ernesto Tapia joined Julian, climbing onto the plane in their Nike sneakers and baseball cleats, which they put on at the Eastridge Little League field next to the airport.
More than 200 children took to the skies in Saturday’s Young Eagles Flight Rally, a monthly affair hosted by the local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft and Volunteer Pilots Association of Silicon Valley. The program has provided more than 2,500 free flights to children since its first year in 1992.
“I’ve flown 300 Young Eagles in my life,” Marshall said after landing in Reid-Hillview. “I think it’s one of the best programs in the world. Children rise in the air; they can fly for free. Julian was a natural pilot of the plane; he could be an airline pilot, you never know.
But beyond putting smiles on children’s faces after landing on solid ground, Saturday’s event was meant to draw attention to – and hopefully reverse – the planned closure of Reid-Hillview by Santa Clara County by 2031. The County Board of Supervisors voted in 2018 to stop accepting federal subsidy to help maintain operations at the airport.
Previous claims that the soil around Reid-Hillview contains high levels of lead have been challenged, after a study commissioned by Santa Clara County reported earlier this month that soil samples did not exceed state and federal “hazard levels” of lead, ranging from 50 to 800 milligrams per kilogram. Small planes like those at Reid-Hillview fly almost exclusively using leaded aviation fuel to power their piston engines.
While county officials on Jan. 1 banned Reid-Hillview from selling anything other than special “UL 94” unleaded fuel — which 80% of planes there can use to operate — several pilots, students and instructors say the change jumped the gun and may contribute to more emissions, as some planes opted to simply refuel at other airports in Watsonville, Palo Alto, Hayward, Livermore, Hollister and Vacaville county.
Debate is still ongoing over East San Jose Airport’s contribution to airborne lead levels, after an August study found that 1.7% of children living near Reid-Hillview had high blood lead levels – more than 4.5 micrograms per decilitre, or one-tenth of a litre.
Although any amount of lead can damage a child’s developing brain and nervous system, blood lead levels found around East San Jose airport may not be different from those in other parts of California. According to 2020 data from the California Department of Public Health that sampled children ages 0-21, the same amount of lead was present in 1.49% of samples from Alameda County, 1.29% in Contra Costa County and 2.13% in Santa Cruz County. Sacramento County reported the highest rate of 4.14%.
That hasn’t slowed efforts to get people out of Reid-Hillview.
The Little League grounds where Aviles and the Tapia brothers play on the streets are still in danger. The county has ordered teams to vacate baseball diamonds by June 28, and they may be closed due to potential contamination.
However, several parents and community members in East San Jose believe the dangers — at the airport and on the baseball diamonds — are overstated in an effort to turn the 180-acre airport property into housing.
Ruby Arias said that if there was lead at Reid-Hillview Airport, there was lead everywhere else. If the county doesn’t also close nearby schools, malls and homes, she said closing the airport is a greedy move that also closes opportunities for the community, especially children.
“Most of these kids will never be able to fly a plane like that,” Arias said. “It gives them the opportunity to feel more included in the community itself. I feel like today’s event draws a lot of attention to the fact that they want to close the airport. Hopefully this makes people realize that this is important.
Captain John Heldt spent 10 years with the San Jose Civil Air Patrol, specializing in search and rescue, disaster relief and wildfire tracking. If Reid-Hillview Airport closes, their response times will suffer, he said.
“I can’t imagine why we have politicians here who would see other uses for this land,” Heldt said. “When the fire burns down the hill and you live there, do you want your planes to come from San Martin or Hollister?”
But more than that, Heldt said the opportunities for local children to grow and learn through events like the Young Eagles and the Civil Air Patrol cadet program would be lost if Reid-Hillview was closed.
“It’s about building character and teaching them how to be leaders,” Heldt said.
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Post expires at 8:32pm on Friday July 1st, 2022