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Gillespie Field Expansion Brings Promise And Controversy

— It used to be a racetrack. Now, the ghosts of shouting fans and noisy stock cars going 100 mph in the straightaway haunt these 70 acres of flat, open field in El Cajon. What will become of the place that used to be the El Cajon Speedway? One person suggested we could build the new Chargers' stadium here.

Conversion of the old El Cajon Speedway to aviation use poses the question: What do you do with an airport?

Peter Drinkwater laughs when he hears that.

"Well… the FAA would have a lot to say about that!” he said, referring to the Federal Aviation Administration. “I don't think they would allow another 50-year interim use, like the racetrack, for a Chargers' stadium."

Photo by Tom Fudge

Peter Drinkwater, the director of airports for San Diego County, stands by the 70 blank acres that will be redeveloped to expand Gillespie Field.

Drinkwater is the director of airports for San Diego County, which owns Gillespie Field, which is right next to the old speedway. San Diego’s biggest county-owned airport is about to grow by those 70 acres. Gillespie Field isn't acquiring new land. It's taking over the land it had leased for decades to the racetrack.

The expansion of San Diego’s biggest county-owned airport is making some nearby residents nervous, and it raises the fundamental question: What do you do with an airport?

The name Gillespie Field comes from what used to be Camp Gillespie. It was an old Marine parachute-training base, which the U.S. government gave to San Diego with the understanding that it would be used for aviation. And that, Drinkwater said, will be the goal of redeveloping this 70 acres. The plan includes construction of a new taxiway. But it doesn't involve lengthening runways.

County Supervisor Diane Jacob represents the area. What she imagines sounds more like an industrial park than an airport. Her primary goal is to bring manufacturing to the redeveloped land.

"Building airplanes. Building airplane parts,” she said. “Anything that's aviation-related."

A trip around the existing Gillespie Field shows what kinds of businesses want to be at an airport. Yes... in one hanger there is a small factory that makes airplane parts. There's a shop that restores Czech training airplanes called Yaks. Showtec, a company that produces big corporate presentations, has a hanger where company executives store their small jet.

The planned expansion does not sit well with some people who live near Gillespie Field. A group that goes by the name ASAP fears more room at the airport will mean more air traffic. I asked ASAP member, and Fletcher Hills resident, Sue Strom for her take on the county's plan.

"If it means a continued proliferation of low, repetitive flights by student pilots over neighborhoods, I'm against it," she said.

Gillespie Field has become a magnet for flight schools. There are seven, all told, and many of them train foreign pilots. Some residents of El Cajon and surrounding towns have complained about their touch-and-go flight training and the noise it creates. Flight students don't just take off and get out of town. They circle and return to the airport.

Will the expansion of Gillespie mean more schools and more student flights? The answer is maybe.

“The county has little authority to discriminate against legitimate aircraft businesses in the leasing of Gillespie Field,” said Drinkwater, citing its FAA regulations and grant restrictions. He adds that while the county has a set up recommendations, encouraging noise abatement and flight curfews, federal laws don’t allow local government to regulate air traffic.

Photo by Tom Fudge

A sign also marks the land slated for redevelopment where the El Cajon Speedway once stood.

Tom Hannawa, president of the flight school, American Aviation Academy, tries to reassure local residents by giving his take on expansion.

"I don't think there's going to be more flight schools – no,” he said. “ I think what it's going to be is more charter operations... more of these on-demand, private jet operations."

Drinkwater said last year Gillespie Field had 184,500 flight operations. That's well below its 40-year annual average of 220,000. The largest number of flights to or from Gillespie Field was 346,000 in 1979.

The Gillespie Field expansion is due to begin construction next year. But stock-car fans may still look at this place and see the El Cajon speedway. Jim Custeau worked as a crew chief at the speedway in the 1970s, before he took a job teaching automotive technology at Cuyumaca College. He remembers the day he met, at the speedway, the racing legend Bobby Allison.

"That sticks in my mind like crazy. In fact, somebody took a picture of me and Bobby Allison talking after he drove our car. And I hung that picture in my office here at the college in the automotive department for years," said Custeau.

Today, the speedway is becoming part of an airport. County airports director Peter Drinkwater said San Diego is becoming the classic “aereotropolis,” where urban economies cluster around airports and the high-speed connections they provide.

"We all know the airplane has changed the world," said Drinkwater.

And we'll soon find out just how it will change this part of El Cajon.

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