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The Importance and Relevance of General Aviation Airports

By Richard Caso, MD.

I recently reviewed a monograph from the United States Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration entitled General Aviation Airports: A National Asset. The article was based on an extensive and comprehensive 18-month study of general aviation airports in the United States. One interesting fact is that 75% of takeoffs and landings at U.S. airports involve general aviation aircraft and most of these flights occur at general aviation airports.

The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 defines a general aviation airport as one that either does not have scheduled service or has scheduled service with less than 2,500 passenger enplanements each year. The most recent figure for general aviation airports in the United States is 2,952 landing facilities (2,903 airports, 10 heliports, and 39 seaplane bases) to support aeromedical flights, aerial fire-fighting, law enforcement, disaster relief efforts, and to provide access to mountain or rural communities. Included in this group are 121 airports that provide limited scheduled air service boarding (more than 2,500 but less than 10,000 enplanements per year). As of February 2018, California has 217 general aviation airports, 26 commercial service airports (23 report greater than 10,000 enplanements per year), 167 hospital, 22 federal airbases, and 1 joint use facility (March ARB).

In view of the known potential for natural and manmade disasters in California (flooding, landslides, wildfires, earthquakes, tsunamis, terrorist activities, etc.) and the more than 217 general aviation airports within California and the volunteer pilot community, we can play a vital role in keeping our communities safe during the critical few days (24-96 hours) until a massive concerted response by state and federal relief agencies occurs. These efforts include ferrying medical and surgical supplies to hospitals in impacted areas when the supply chain is broken. In addition, ambulatory patients can be transported to hospitals for specialized care (dialysis, fetal monitoring, chemotherapy, etc.). 

Most hospitals in the United States use just-in-time inventory management owing to limited storage space, the carrying cost of excess inventory, and the limited shelf life of supplies. Typically, this is not a problem as hospitals receive supplies on a daily basis during the week. However, when the supply chain is interrupted as a result of roadway closures, disruption of transportation hubs (runway liquefaction at major airports), or unavailability of truck drivers who live in impacted areas and are tending to their own and their families’ needs.

Shortly after I retired from medical practice, I founded a non-profit foundation, AeroMedical Community Emergency Services, to explore how general aviation airports and the general aviation pilot community could take a leadership role in providing a valuable resource to first responders, hospitals, Red Cross, and other disaster relief agencies. My organization performed a simulated emergency drill with the Orange County Health Planning Agency to study the feasibility of using available hangar space in general aviation airports as temporary strategic supply depots. We transported supplies (medical and surgical as well as portable ventilators) from Long Beach Airport to John Wayne Airport. We learned that had we not spent several weeks in laying the groundwork for this exercise, it would have been very difficult if not impossible to perform. We had to be vetted by airport security, obtain permission from the different airports, notify the FBOs and get permission to park and unload on their ramps, etc., etc. The logistics involved were also formidable, as we had to wait to receive supplies from the federal strategic warehouse depot, unload the supplies, estimate the weight, load onto two airplanes, and then fly to the receiving airport. Much time could have been saved if the strategic supplies had been stored in the hangar as they would have already been labeled and weighed. We also worked with local ham radio operators to provide emergency communication between hospitals and emergency agencies during an airport day event at Fullerton Airport in 2017. Opportunities exist to explore the use of unmanned drones in flying blood, medications, and other supplies to urban and rural hospitals.

I would like to invite my fellow pilots to become actively involved in ensuring that general aviation continues to provide important resources to help keep our communities safe. In addition, we should reach out to our younger pilot community to gain insight and expertise in learning to use social media, video, and other formats to broaden our scope to the public at large. Particularly important would be the science, medical and technology communities in California who can introduce our concept to large and influential technology companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. We can provide community outreach to engage our neighbors, community leaders, elected officials, business and civic leaders, airport managers, and disaster planners from the local hospitals and emergency agencies. In addition, this can provide an opportunity for youngsters to learn about aviation and volunteerism. Our pilot community represents a diverse cross-section of careers and interests that can provide a wonderful opportunity for mentoring young volunteers in our communities.

Editor’s Note:This article was reprinted with the author’s permission from the Southern California Pilots Association (SoCal Pilots, SCPA) May/June 2019 Newsletter. For more information about SCPA, visit their website at www.socalpilots.orgor by email to organization president Joe Finnell at

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