"It's a critical part of the transportation of Silicon Valley," he said, but many locals don't realize how well used the airport is.
"It's one of the busiest small airports in the country," he added. It's also a "complex" airspace, he said, due to its proximity to other airports including SFO and Moffet Field.
This year's Airport Day comes at a time when definite plans for the future administration of the airport are up in the air. The airport is currently managed by Santa Clara County but that contract expires in 2017, and the City of Palo Alto plans to take over management of the airport within the next few years, according to Mayor Sid Espinosa.
"It's really one of the best-kept secrets" of the area, aviation-enthusiast Espinosa said during a recent tour of the airport. "How fortunate we are to have it."
Espinosa said he is looking forward to the planned city takeover.
"We anticipate it will be profitable and will be making sure over the next year or two that the county turns it over in a good state," he said.
Airport Association President Ralph Britton said the airport brings in about $2 million a year from a variety of sources including rental spaces, fuel delivery and the individual businesses that operate from the airport, such as mechanics' garages, a cafe and flight instructors — businesses many locals may not be aware of.
Around 200 workers are currently employed at the airport (and at least one cat — the mascot of West Valley Aircraft Services, an aircraft-maintenance facility). Aircraft mechanics perform specialized work including engine overhauls and annual inspections.
"It's a center for highly skilled jobs," Hopkins said. Additionally, about 10 Federal Aviation Administration workers are employed in the control tower.
The airport is home to four flying clubs and has between 350-500 parking spots for private planes, ranging from $12,000 used Cessna two-seaters to $5 million Beechcraft jets. It's not only used by recreational pilots or corporate jetsetters, however.
"At least once a day helicopters for Stanford refuel here," Britton said of the Stanford Hospital & Clinics' Life Flight program, which responds to regional emergencies. Flights containing organs for transplants and other medical necessities also come through the airport regularly, he added.
The airport is also a hub for Angel Flights — volunteer-flown trips to transport those in need of medical care. Hopkins is a frequent Angel Flight pilot.
Passengers are unable to travel via commercial flights due to financial or other reasons, he said. One regular Angel Flight recipient is a woman who needs to get to Seattle from southern California for specialized treatment once a week.
Britton flies as a volunteer for LightHawk, an environmental aviation organization that offers flights to conservation groups who need an aerial perspective to monitor protected wildlife areas.
The many uses of the airport will be highlighted at Airport Day, including displays of aircraft from various safety organizations such as the California Highway Patrol and the Coast Guard, experimental-aircraft exhibits, vendors selling aircraft-related goods and control-tower tours. Refreshments will also be sold.
Hopkins said one of the aims of Airport Day is to reach out to local youth, as fewer people are learning to fly these days. To that end, kids ages 8 to 17 can take free flights via the Young Eagles Program. Docents from the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo will also be bringing some live birds of prey and teaching about their flying skills.
Britton is especially looking forward to a contribution from NASA — the space agency's SIERRA (Systems Integration Evaluation Remote Research Aircraft), a high-tech unmanned aircraft system built for missions in inaccessible areas, will be displayed at one of the airport's hangars.
"That's pretty cool," he said.
Hopkins said he hopes Airport Day will give the public a sense of the airport's importance to the region, and shared some of the reasons why flying means so much to him and other local pilots.
"I love the technical accomplishment. I love that it gets you above (Highway) 101 rather than on it, the speed of travel. I love the freedom," he said.
The Palo Alto Airport is located at 1925 Embarcadero Road. More information on Airport Day is available at http://n.paloaltoairport.aero/paad/.
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