By Shirley Lee
Roger Griffiths, manager of Gillespie Field Airport in San Diego (SEE), says many changes are in store.
“We just repaved and repaired two primary runways,” he said. “Next, we’re going to start work on our cross-wind runway. During 2006, we hope to start looking at some dust abatement.”
The redevelopment of a 70-acre parcel of land is another big project on the horizon for Gillespie Field, the oldest and largest of San Diego County’s eight airports.
“We haven’t yet decided exactly what that will be,” Griffiths said. “This land already belongs to the airport, but it was previously occupied by a long-term tenant. Now we’ll have to make a choice regarding it.”
In 2004, Griffiths left his position as assistant manager of McClellan-Palomar Airport for his current position at Gillespie Field. He says that the priority for any airport manager is safe and efficient operation.
“Every airport has its own unique issues,” he said. “But the basics of understanding the process, working with the FAA, the guys in the tower, tenants and the pilots around the airport are what’s needed to make the place run.”
Born and raised in Great Britain, Griffiths first became interested in aviation while spending family holidays in Switzerland.
“Watching the Swiss air force fly Hawker Hunters through the Alps caught my attention,” he said. “Watching those things whiz around got me interested in what was on the other side of those fences. It evolved into an interest in airplanes, primarily military aviation.”
Griffiths later attended University Air Squadron, similar to America’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. After graduating in 1991, he joined the Royal Air Force as an operations officer.
“I did eight years in the RAF and traveled all over the world,” he said. “I played a role in the humanitarian airlift into Sarajevo in the mid-1990s, with Royal Air Force C-130s. I’ve been all over Europe and also had operations in Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malaysia and Borneo.”
Griffiths met his future wife while doing some work at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in the United States. He left the military in 1999, and returned to the U.S. to get married. The couple settled in San Diego.
In 2000, Griffiths became an airport operations coordinator at McClellan-Palomar Airport, 30 miles north of downtown San Diego. During the next couple of years, he also spent time performing the same job at Gillespie Field.
“The operations coordinator runs the day-to-day operations of the airport in terms of the ground fixtures and fittings,” Griffiths explained. “That means anything that takes place on the ground–the runways, taxiways or lighting systems. It also includes escorting contractors and workers onto airport property. In order to avoid accidents, we must make sure they stay in the proper areas.”
Griffiths was later promoted to assistant manager of McClellan-Palomar Airport. A world of difference exists between Palomar and Gillespie Field, which is a mere 10 miles from downtown San Diego. Although McClellan-Palomar (named for Gerald McClellan, an aviator and local community leader) is a single-runway airport, Griffiths says a lot of high-tech industry is in the area, supporting a large amount of business jet activity. In addition, world-class resorts are just minutes from Palomar. Fine beaches, Oceanside Harbor–with shops, yachts and fishing boats–and Legoland are all nearby.
Palomar covers only 487 acres, while Gillespie Field covers 775. Palomar’s based aircraft number 426 to Gillespie’s 790. But Palomar is a commercial airport. America West Express and United Express provide nonstop service to Phoenix and Los Angeles, with connections to destinations all over the world. Its facilities include two terminal buildings, one for commercial airlines and their passengers, and one housing a rental car agency and airport administration.
Gillespie Field is a general aviation airport. It boasts three runways, a tower and terminal, as well as two business parks that provide more than 2,000 jobs in El Cajon and a $40 million boost to the local economy. The business parks are home to flight schools, helicopter training, repair and maintenance shops, aircraft storage, food and beverage services, instrument and avionics shops, rental cars, fuel and aircraft sales and rental services.
The vast majority of aircraft at Gillespie are small GA aircraft.
“We do have a small number of corporate jet aircraft, some law enforcement helicopters and medical evacuation helicopters,” Griffiths said.
Griffiths’ new post differs from the old one in many ways.
“At Palomar, passengers are coming and going throughout the day, and there’s only one runway and one taxiway,” he said. “In operational terms, it makes things much more stringent. If you have a problem on that airfield, you’ve really got a problem. If you close a taxiway or a runway, you have no other options. Here at Gillespie, we have considerably more airplanes, with more people flying, but I also have more runways. So, operationally, we have more flexibility here than they do at Palomar.”
On the other hand, he said Palomar has the benefit of an instrument landing system, which Gillespie doesn’t.
“We only have a localizer approach,” he said.
Griffiths’ staff includes an operations coordinator and an eight-person maintenance team that works for all of San Diego County’s eight airports.
“We have other resources we can use,” he said. “The division that oversees all eight airports is based here, so those people are available to us if we need them. At Palomar, there’s an airport manager, an assistant airport manager, a secretary, an environmental officer, two operations coordinators and two maintenance people.”
Griffiths said neither Gillespie nor Palomar has to follow noise abatement procedures.
“But we do ask people to adhere to courtesy measures,” he said. “We ask them not to fly touch and go in the middle of the night. We also discourage jet operators from taking off late at night. But we can’t demand any of those things. No mandatory noise abatement procedures exist here.”
Gillespie Field had its beginning in 1942, when it was commissioned as a Marine Corps parachutists’ facility. Bearing the name of Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie, Camp Gillespie served in that capacity until Marine parachute units were phased out in 1944. San Diego County leased Gillespie Field in 1946 and converted it to a public airport. In 1952, the federal government granted ownership of the facility to the county.
In 1971, the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department stationed their law enforcement aviation section, Aerial Support to Regional Enforcement Agencies, at Gillespie Field. ASTREA remains there today.
“They have a very nice facility,” remarked Griffiths. “They fly McDonald Douglas 500 helicopters and they also have a couple of Bell 412 firefighting helicopters.”
The San Diego Aerospace Museum has had an annex at Gillespie since 1993. Here, aircraft are restored and displayed. Featured aircraft include a number of large jets, an F-14 Tomcat, an F-8 Crusader and a MiG-21 from Hungary.
Part of Griffiths’ job is also to oversee three smaller airports in the vicinity.
“They’re unmanned desert strips east of San Diego,” Griffiths said. “We check them twice a month. Ocotillo Wells is a dry lakebed, Jacumba is a graded dirt strip and Agua Caliente has some asphalt covering. Local people, including park rangers and citizens, help us out and keep us informed about their condition. There’s no air traffic control out there and all three get used mostly during the winter months.”
Griffiths said he’d like more people to know about those airports.
“At Ocotillo, people could come out, operate off a dry lakebed, enjoy a desert destination and get their ‘hundred dollar hamburger’ at a restaurant called the Desert Rose,” he said.
Agua Caliente is located in a state park, which boasts walking trails, a warm water spa and campground.
“There are no real attractions at Jacumba, which is right on the border of Mexico, but I think some people use it for practice now and then,” Griffiths said.
As for Griffiths, he says one of these days he hopes to get back to doing some flying himself.
“It’s a busy job running an airport,” he says.