This story is part of a series we are presenting about how local Santa Cruz businesses faced challenges of the last couple years with strength and perseverance. From the COVID pandemic shutdown which began in March 2020, to the CZU fires of August 2020, to the continuing pandemic rollercoaster in 2021-2022, our community members have proven their resiliency.
Watsonville Municipal Airport, which covers 330 acres, is a General Aviation Airport that features over 285 aircraft based there including many used by the agri-business community. With four runways and 218 hangars, the airport conducts more than 55,000 operations each year. As of January 2022, there were more than 90 people on the hangar waitlist. The airport’s 2021 revenues were more than $3.5 million.
Rayvon Williams has served as Airport Director for the busy regional airport for five years. Williams joined the Watsonville Airport Staff as Airport Manager in 2011 and was promoted in 2017. In addition to leadership skills, he brings distinctive experience—that of a pilot—to his role. In 1998, he began flying lessons at the airport, followed by earning his private pilot certificate, instrument rating, multi-engine rating, commercial rating, and ground and flight instructor/instrument instructor ratings.
The original airport, at a nearby location, was built in the 1920s. The current location was built right before World War II and used as a Naval Auxiliary Airfield for a few years. In 1943 the city of Watsonville leased the Airport to the U.S. government, and the site was used for fighter pilot training during the war. The last official Navy flight that took off from the airport was in 1945. In 1946, a Southwest Airlines plane came to Watsonville Airport to pick up its first passenger (plus 16 pouches of mail), representing the first airline service to local community members. In 1948, the War Department returned the airport to the City of Watsonville for “civilian use.”
The Last 10 Years
Improvements have been made to the airport over the years. For example, in 2012 the self-service fuel island was upgraded, and the terminal building’s lobby and restrooms underwent renovations. Satellite low visibility approach was implemented in 2017, runway lighting, markings and signage were improved in 2018, and there were runway rehabilitations in 2019.
The airport recently took a pioneering stand when it started offering unleaded fuel to airplanes (the first General Aviation Regional Airport in the state to do so). It’s more eco-friendly, and they decided to make this change after getting input from Watsonville-based owners and operators and pilots at nearby airports through multiple surveys.
Early in the Pandemic
The airport mostly shut down for the first few weeks of the pandemic. “We had skeleton staff during this time. For the first two weeks, there was little leisure travel with the exception of flight training which the FAA considered essential. Shortly after that, private flying slowly picked up,” says Williams. Also, some ag businesses were able to continue operating. “A number of local Agri-Businesses have instituted ‘Flight Departments’ and as such base jet and turbo-prop aircraft at Watsonville, explains Williams. “By managing and maintaining aviation assets, these businesses were able to continue operations.”
Helping During CZU Fires
Watsonville Municipal Airport supported CalFire’s efforts to combat the CZU Lightning Complex Fire in August 2020. It activated its Emergency Aerial Support Action Plan, which greatly increased the number of helicopter aircraft and support crews available and also designated a specific area to support aircraft, personnel and equipment including mobile fuelers and support vehicles. “CalFire, and the community, were grateful for this assistance,” says Williams.
Learning from the Pandemic
“We learned that our planning, procedures and operational policies actually worked well outside of what is the normal day-to-day activities,” says Williams. “We were pleased to discover how quickly the FAA, Caltrans Department of Aeronautics and most importantly the City of Watsonville (Electeds and Staff) were supportive of the Municipal Airport during the challenges of COVID and 2020-2021.” They also now have “…greater confidence in the tools and techniques that we can implement if required.”
The Watsonville Airport is thankful for support it received during the pandemic including the fact that “Sister City Departments assisted the airport to help keep the public safe,” says Williams. The Watsonville City Council also received the following grants: FAA Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), FAA Airport Rescue Grant, and FAA Build Back Better which will continue for a few years.
“For the last 10 years we have sponsored and hosted a monthly Historical Aircraft Display,” says Williams. This takes place the second weekend of each month, and tenants taxi their aircraft to the airport’s transient ramp for display. It benefits both the public and the tenants. Community members get a chance to view multiple award-winning, antique aircraft, plus neo-classic aircraft and “War Birds,” for free. Tenants get to use the state-sponsored personal property tax exemption which requires aircraft to be displayed 12 times each year. As the pandemic and shelter-in-place continued, preventing these displays from occurring, the airport team worked diligently to find a solution. They succeeded, identifying a way to utilize and implement technology to serve these based aircraft tenants at the airport. “From June 2020 until December 2021, we moved that display to a virtual online effort. It was very successful,” says Williams. Effective January 8, 2022, the Historical Display days are once again in person, open to the public.
Facing Challenges Head-on
“The largest challenge during the last 18 months was taking care of our most vital resource, our employees,” says Williams. “Ensuring our operations included intentional efforts and consistent planning to get the work done while keeping our employees safe” has been a constant priority, requiring hard work.
“We are fortunate to serve as caretakers and managers of a small general aviation airport,” says Williams. “We have Flight Training, Air Tours/Taxi/Charter, skydiving onto the field, a Medivac unit, flight departments for local law enforcement, State agencies, Agri-businesses, volunteer Angel Fights, Kids Fly Free Rallies….in that environment you can’t help but be positive!”
Williams oversees a staff of about a dozen City employees and is very appreciative of their hard work. “The Airport Staff did not miss a beat during the challenging times,” he says. We are open seven days a week and provide after-hours service on request. At no time during the past 1.75 years did the Municipal Airport close or cease operations. That is the definition of resiliency for a “Full Service” General Aviation airport.”