The approach to Pinal Airpark follows a small ribbon of asphalt through desert landscape. The tails of large commercial jets emerge above the shrub line. Then whole planes appear, one behind the other.
The road in leads to a guard stand.
A young man in jeans asks for your ID, where you’re headed. There used to be a formal guard gate with private security.
That’s come down.
But Jim Petty plans to take it a bit further. In a few weeks, he said, even the guy in jeans won’t be there. Motorists will be free to drive into the county-owned Pinal Airpark, no questions asked.
It’s part of a new push by Petty and the county to turn Pinal Airpark into an airport that welcomes the public — their cars and their aircraft. Big planes and small, all the way down to ultralights. Pinal Airpark, if all goes as planned, will become what it professes to be — a general aviation airport.
Petty is the director of the Pinal County Airport Economic Development Department. The county oversees two airports. One is Pinal Airpark. The other is a small airport in San Manuel.
Pinal Airpark sits on about 1,500 acres west of Interstate 10, about 40 miles southeast of Casa Grande between Red Rock and Marana.
For years, Pinal Airpark called itself a general aviation airport. But the Federal Aviation Administration has standards, and Pinal Airpark was out of compliance.
General aviation airports, for one, have to be open to the public, Petty said.
No guard gates. No asking for IDs to reach the terminal.
Well, there was no terminal. But the county recently installed a new office next to a parking ramp, just off the runway. For now, it’s pretty much an empty room with a desk on one side.
Petty spoke inside the office about the changes in store for the airport. They included getting the FAA’s stamp of approval. Without that, the airport won’t qualify for an FAA grant. And the county is counting on a big one to make badly needed improvements.
The 6,850-foot runway is falling apart, for one thing.
“In five years, if nothing is done, it’ll be gravel,” Petty said. Repairs will cost nearly $2.5 million.
An FAA grant would cover 91 percent of the cost. The county and the state would split the difference on the rest, using airport and aircraft licensing fees.
In September, the county got some good news. The FAA ruled Pinal Airpark was in compliance. In December, the county submitted paperwork for the grant.
Part of compliance means coming up with a clear plan going forward. That awaits the outcome of a study known as a master plan. The county is in the middle of that now, at a cost of $300,000.
Ninety percent of the tab is being picked up by the Arizona Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Group. A draft report is expected by November. A final report could go before the county Board of Supervisors before year’s end, Petty said.
Beyond that, making the airport more accessible isn’t just a matter of removing a guard gate. The county has to fight an image — partly justified — that Pinal Airpark is a CIA front and an armed military camp. The CIA, at one time, did run operations out of the airport. It doesn’t now, at least as far as anyone outside the CIA knows.
The airport began as a training field for combat pilots during World War II. The county acquired it in 1948 as the federal government was shedding war assets, Petty said. There’s still a military presence. The Department of Defense uses the runway for parachute jumps. Federal law enforcement agencies train officers there. The premises include a shooting range.
The Army National Guard has a helicopter unit just off site. Its helicopters also use the runway.
But the real hangup with FAA approval had to do with Evergreen Maintenance Center. It operated a supersized repair shop for large jets and cannibalized parts from those no longer fit to fly. Evergreen signed a long-term lease with the county in 1982. It proved to be an albatross.
“The lease we signed … made us out of compliance,” Petty said.
Through the lease, Evergreen became the sole tenant. And it pretty much sealed off the airport to visitors, at least by car. Pilots of small aircraft could still fly in but were met by Evergreen-hired escorts.
As far back as the early 1990s, the county sought to make changes — somewhat in line with changes it’s making now. A 1991 master plan spoke to that. It made recommendations to loosen Evergreen’s grip, open up the airport and put it back in the FAA’s good graces.
“I can’t think of anything that was implemented,” Petty said.
In 2012, the county sued Evergreen, claiming it owed back payments on the lease. The lawsuit is still pending.
The runway’s poor condition was noted in a 2012 report by Dibble Engineering of Phoenix, commissioned by Pinal County. Researchers noted missing pockets of asphalt on the runway. Evergreen officials told them they were “very concerned about engines ingesting these pieces of pavement and causing substantial damage to aircraft that use this facility.”
The runway lighting is old and substandard. Concrete aprons for parked aircraft are crisscrossed with spiderwebs of asphalt to cover the cracks.
It’s worse than it looks at first glance.
“It’s broken in so many pieces, it’s called shattered,” Petty said.
The report provided alternatives for improvements, including the $2 million-plus option. The county didn’t have the money. And the tenant, Evergreen, wasn’t going to pay for a runway it didn’t own.
Without FAA money, nothing would get done.
But the picture brightened a bit in 2011, before the Dibble report. That year, Evergreen Maintenance was acquired by Relativity Capital LP, a private equity firm based in Arlington, Va. The new owners later changed the name to Marana Aerospace Solutions.
And shortly after that, Petty said, Marana Aerospace agreed to renegotiate its lease with the county.
“We’re operating under what’s called the fourth amendment,” Petty said.
Under the new terms, the county will take direct control over nearly two-thirds of the acreage now in the hands of MAS — in steps. As Marana Aeorspace retrenches, larger portions of the airport will become publicly accessible.
The runway and MAS facilities are being secured by new fencing. And entering the MAS-controlled portion will still require going through a guard station.
Just as the FAA requires the airport to be open, it demands high security for centers that work on commercial aircraft, said Marana Aerospace Solutions CEO Jim Martin.
“We’re an FAA repair station,” Martin said.
Losing FAA certification would certainly be bad for business.
Losing turf to the county, however, shouldn’t hurt the bottom line, Martin added. Evergreen had an airline. MAS doesn’t, he said.
And Marana Aerospace Solutions would benefit from a runway do-over. Still, the change might take some getting used to, he said.
“Once the public has access it will be a novelty for a while,” Petty said.
The master plan will guide the county in developing its newfound real estate.
“The FAA requires a reasonable set of alternatives,” said Carly Shannon, a planner for C&S Companies in San Diego, the contractor for the master plan.
Part of that plan could mean bringing in new aviation-related businesses, Petty said. And new revenue — at bottom — would make up for the loss of lease revenue from MAS. Based on a recent quarterly invoice on the current acreage, the amount has been about half a million dollars a year.
A big component of the master plan is getting public input. One meeting was held Dec. 10 at the county’s new airport office. Another one is planned for sometime in spring. Petty’s agency will announce the date on its website, pinalcountyaz.gov/airport.
Ron Vogler and his wife, Mary Aguirre-Vogler, attended the Dec. 10 meeting. Aguirre-Vogler’s family has ranched in the area for some 100 years.
By phone, Aguirre-Vogler said improvements at Pinal Airpark are long overdue.
“It’s been very much of a disappointment to me and I’ve been there so long and have seen it degrade so much,” Aguirre-Vogler said.
She serves on the Pinal County Planning and Zoning Commission, but she said her comments reflect her own opinion, not the commission’s. She and her husband don’t fly, she added. But they used to come to Pinal Airpark for dinner. They were regulars at the Flightline Grill.
“We enjoyed it a lot,” she said.
But it wasn’t just a matter of dropping in for a bite to eat. They and other customers first had to clear security. Many people wouldn’t bother. The restaurant lost business.
“It made it difficult for the people who had it to keep it going,” Aguirre-Vogler said.
Tom and Susan McGilvra closed Flightline last July, though they still cater special events there. They owned and operated it for 17 years.
“What was discouraging was the gate,” Tom said by phone. “During those 17 years, sometimes they would encourage outside people coming in and sometimes they would not.”
With a reluctant public, Flightline depended in good part on military and federal officers and recruits, there for training. They stayed at a motel next to the restaurant, complete with swimming pool.
British pilots and ground troops — who also trained in the area — made up a big part of the business, Tom said. They would stay for months at a time. When they left for good, it was something of a final straw. It didn’t help that, in addition, the aircraft maintenance workers were laid off in a down economy. They were a good part of the lunch crowd.
“We were losing money,” Tom said.
If the airport’s open-door policy brings in lost business, McGilvra said they might reopen Flightline. But he made it clear. People had to show up. And much of the public only knows guard gates, not welcome mats.