100LL Ban Takes Effect in Santa Clara County

Leaded aviation fuel is no longer available at Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose and San Martin Airport in San Martin.

When the 100LL ban came down in Santa Clara County, Trade Winds Aviation replaced the 100LL with unleaded Swift94UL avgas, but not all airplanes can run it. [Photo: Walt Gyger]

If you are planning a flight to Reid-Hillview Airport (KRHV) or San Martin (E16) in Santa Clara County, California, read the notice to air missions (NOTAM) carefully: 100LL is no longer available for sale at these airports. 

In August 2021, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to ban leaded fuel as a means of reducing lead pollution allegedly suspected of coming from the airports. The ban, which went into effect on January 1, was triggered by a county-commissioned, peer-reviewed study that linked the ongoing use of leaded aviation fuel with elevated blood lead levels (BLL) in children living near KRHV.  For decades, the medical community has known that lead exposure, especially in children, can lead to cognitive and developmental challenges.

Critics of the study allege it unfairly targets the airport as it did not take into account the lead present in the paint and pipes used in the construction of many of San Jose’s older neighborhoods before the dangers of lead exposure were fully understood. Aviation advocacy groups, airport businesses, and pilots, in particular, are skeptical of the study, calling it a “manufactured health crisis” and a “political move” to force the closure of the airport. 

County officials have a different point of view.

In a news release, Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who represents the neighborhood where Reid-Hillview is located, stated, “Children living near these smaller airports, all over the nation, are unconsciously being harmed by leaded fuel. The County of Santa Clara is doing everything in its power to eliminate this health and equity crisis here at home, as we press for a change at the federal level.” 

County Board of Supervisors President Mike Wasserman, whose district includes San Martin Airport, added, “We are thrilled to be a vanguard for the move to unleaded aviation fuel. The future of general aviation airports will not be tainted by toxic lead fumes, and we look forward to seeing more and more airfields across the nation make the switch to unleaded aviation gas.” 

Times Change

Reid-Hillview, which today sits on 180 acres, was established in 1939. At the time, the land surrounding the facility was mostly orchards and farm fields. Over the decades, thousands of neighborhoods, some industrial, some residential, were built as the area’s industry evolved from agriculture to high-tech. 

The county took ownership of the airport in 1961, just as the computer and aerospace jobs were moving into the region soon to be known as “Silicon Valley.” Opponents of the airport suggest the facility has outlived its usefulness and the property would better serve the community if it was redeveloped as housing.

Rolling With the Punches

KRHV has a robust flight training footprint, and the school owners are protective of their livelihoods.

Last summer, the FBOs on the field replaced their 100LL with unleaded Swift94UL avgas, which is a replacement for 100LL. 

Walt Gyger, the owner of Trade Winds Aviation, a flight school in Santa Clara County, said the flight schools made the switch to 94UL last summer. His fleet of Cessna 172s operate on 94UL.

Gyger noted that the county does not have a means to pump 94UL for pilots who come in looking for fuel. Often, the municipality that sponsors an airport will have a fuel concession. That is not the case at Reid-Hillview. 

“The county is not ready to pump fuel at all. They are asking the FBOs to pump 94UL,” Gyger said.

He is skeptical of the board of supervisors’ interpretation of the lead study. He said the issue really isn’t about the health of local children, rather, “it is the goal of the county to close the airport.”

The impact is already manifesting itself for the flying community. LP Enterprises, one of the businesses listed on airnav.com as a provider of 94UL at KRHV, has apparently gone out of business. A call to the telephone number provided on the website indicated that the number had been disconnected.

“The county succeeded in driving business away,” Gyger said. “The issue with 100LL is just the tip of the iceberg. The county is trying to minimize the value of the airport.”

Gyger noted that what is happening at Reid-Hillview can happen at any airport when the airport sponsor bends to political pressure and seeks ways to close the airport.

The FAA objects to airport closures, especially when the airport has accepted federal grants. Each time these grants—which are often used to pay for airport improvements such as runway repaving and lighting—are accepted, the clock “resets” and the airport sponsor agrees to keep the airport open a set amount of time. These grant assurances require Santa Clara County to keep KRHV open until at least 2031.

Aircraft Are Still Using 100LL

Critics of the ban on 100LL note the prohibition of leaded fuel sales at county facilities does not prevent aircraft that have filled up elsewhere with leaded gasoline from flying into Reid-Hillview or San Martin. In addition, 100LL is still available at Norman Y. Mineta/ San Jose International Airport (KSJC), located 5 nm to the west of Reid-Hillview. KSJC is the primary airport in Class C airspace. As KSJC is not sponsored by the county, it is not subject to the ban.

Aviation advocacy groups such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) have voiced objections to the county’s ban on 100LL. Among the arguments presented were that the lack of 100LL could contribute to an accident caused by misfueling an aircraft or fuel exhaustion.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen,” said Gil Wright, vice president of Region 2 of the California Pilots Association. “All it takes is some bad weather, high winds, and a tired pilot, and the holes in the Swiss cheese are going to line up, and we’re going to have an accident,” he said, referring to the FAA’s risk assessment model that notes accidents are usually caused when several issues “line up.” “The pilot may be trying to get to another airport that has 100LL, and it’s too far to Palo Alto or they can’t get into Mineta.”

However, the county did publish a NOTAM advising the aviation community that 100LL is “not available” at Reid-Hillview or San Martin Airports. Checking NOTAMs falls under FAR 91.103, the “become familiar with all available information prior to the flight” regulation that pilots are required to follow as part of their pre-flight planning. 

An Ongoing Battle

On December 20, 2021, the FAA launched an informal investigation under Part 13 into allegations of potential safety violations at Reid-Hillview, such as non-standard signage, overgrown vegetation, and wildlife issues. In addition, the FAA alleges the county is violating grant assurances by only offering month-to-month leases to business tenants at the airport rather than the longer leases that allow the business to make improvements then recoup the costs in revenue acquired.

In addition, the FAA maintains that the county’s refusal to allow the sale of 100LL violates the commerce clause in the U.S. Constitution.

The county was given 20 days to respond to the investigation.

County officials rebutted the Part 13 allegations. They claimed it’s a back-and-forth between the FAA and the county of Santa Clara that goes back several years and can often be traced to December 2018, when during the public comment session of the board meetings, a suggestion was allegedly made that the airport be closed and the 180-acre site be redeveloped into housing. 

The FAA learned of this and sent a letter to the county reminding them of grant assurances that require the airport to remain open until 2031; therefore, the decision to close the airport for redevelopment was not going to be allowed to stand. The letter also remarked on potential safety issues created by “non-standard exit signs” located at the southeast end of Runway 13L-31R.

The county replied with a letter stating that the board did not decide to close the airport. The letter went on to state that some of the FAA’s concerns about signage had to do with signs that were approved by the FAA for installation.

Local pilots, airport business owners, and county officials note that these issues are ongoing. Normally, an airport sponsor is given 30 days to respond to a Part 13 investigation, but given the seriousness of the allegations the FAA has reduced the county’s response time to just 20 days, beginning December 22.

The county has posted copies of the investigational letter from the FAA along with supporting documents and other news releases concerning the airports on its webpage.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.
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