While Santa Clara County has touted its ban on leaded jet fuel as an environmental achievement, pilots and flight instructors say the action was too hasty and did little to improve the health of neighbors at the airport.
Some even suggested that the ban is nothing more than a ploy to speed up the potential eviction from San Jose’s Reid-Hillview County Airport.
“It’s just their way of slowly closing the airport,” said Chris Leipelt, a student at San Jose State University’s aviation program, which operates out of Reid-Hillview. “I don’t know if they want to make it more difficult. Maybe it’s just a polite way to kick them out.”
Since the ban on the sale of leaded aircraft gas at Reid-Hillview and San Martin airports on Jan. 1, the province has allowed only unleaded fuel to be pumped at both airports. The specialty fuel, known as UL 94, first became available in August and can be used in about 80% of the aircraft at Reid-Hillview, according to Walt Gyger, owner of Trade Winds Aviation’s flying school.
Those planes tend to be the smaller, less performing planes used for flight training at Reid-Hillview. Two of the four flight schools operating there use the new fuel.
As for the 20% of pilots whose planes only use leaded gas, but want to continue flying from county airports, will need to refuel at airports in Watsonville, Palo Alto, Hayward, Livermore, Hollister and Vacaville.
Paul Marshall, who uses San Martin Airport, is one of those pilots and he now plans to refuel his Bonanza A36 at Hollister Municipal Airport, although that means more gas fumes are being emitted these days.
“The starting phase is intensive (on gas consumption),” he said. “It dumps 50 to 80 percent extra fuel. And that, of course, is leaded fuel. Really, it would be more ecologically efficient to fuel those planes in San Martin.”
Marshall said that while he applauds the county for encouraging the use of unleaded fuel, it has not been done properly.
“Aviation really needs to switch,” he said. “It’s a good thing. But I don’t agree with the way they’re doing it. They’re a bit early at the start. They stand out in that regard.”
But if Santa Clara County’s goal is to discourage pilots from using Reid-Hillview, the strategy may work.
Sean Moran, who oversees Livermore Municipal Airport, about 30 miles away, said he’s been getting calls from Reid-Hillview pilots wanting to move their planes since the leaded fuel ban was announced.
“As someone said, they are basically pushed out,” Moran said. “They have no other place to work at Reid-Hillview.”
What the county should have done differently, pilots say, is to make both leaded and unleaded fuel available at provincial airports, such as Wastonville Municipal Airport. That would have enabled pilots to make the eventual transition to UL 100, an unleaded fuel still under development that should work in all piston-engined aircraft.
Meanwhile, the county now has to import unleaded gas all the way from Indiana by rail because Swift Fuels is the only company in the United States currently making unleaded jet fuel. Unleaded and unleaded aviation gas costs about the same — $5.50 to $6 a gallon — according to airnav.org, a website that tracks fuel prices at airports across the country.
The ban at the San Jose and San Martin airports was sparked by a report released in August that concluded that children living near Reid-Hillview were exposed to high levels of lead. Commissioned by the Board of Trustees in 2020, the study analyzed 17,000 blood samples between 2011 and 2020 from children under 18 who live within a mile of the airport.
The report gave provincial officials and local residents who have long advocated the closure of the San Jose airport some ammunition. She and others say Reid-Hillview must be shut down for health reasons and operations transferred to the San Martin airport. Some have also suggested that the San Jose site could be better used for much-needed housing.
“Honestly, it’s a political statement that we care about the health of our neighbors,” said Gyger of Trade Winds Aviation. Because the province still needs to allow planes using lead gas to take off and land at the airport, lead is still emitted there, he added.
While cars made the switch to unleaded fuel from the 1970s onward, the aviation community has not seen the same changes. Leaded fuel for reciprocating aircraft, such as those flying out of Reid-Hillview and San Martin, is still widely used across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that leaded aviation gas is the “largest remaining source of lead emissions to the air” and announced this month it would evaluate the extent to which the fuel poses a health risk to the general public.
Eric Peterson, the director of the county’s provincial airports, acknowledged the rapid transition to unleaded fuel.
“I suppose that could be a quick change,” he said of the January 1 date provided to pilots. But Peterson defended the county’s decision, saying the overall environmental impact of not having planes that use leaded fuel will have consequences.
“If the flight schools represent a significant portion of the operations at an airport, and you have two of the flight schools transitioning to (lead-free), then you have a positive impact on the lead levels in the air,” Peterson said.
As for the pilots going to other airports to refuel, he said the province had considered that.
“I think the province understands that there is a small group of planes that cannot use (unleaded) fuel,” he said. “The expectation is that these people will have to get that fuel at another airport.”
“All around us are airports that have that fuel,” he said. “It’s not like we’re living in a desert with the nearest airport 100 miles away.”