The secret life of a Silicon Valley airport

In San Carlos, SQL is code for an aviation ‘cult’ that flies organ donations and rescued pets

By Kali Shiloh

Photos by Philip Wartena

The San Carlos Airport, also known as SQL, is one of about 20 small airports in the Bay Area. (Photo by Philip Wartena)

Bennett Taber steers his small aircraft toward the San Francisco Peninsula at 25,000 feet in the air, keenly aware that he is flying between tragedy and salvation. As he leaves Fresno behind, he carries just one passenger: a small cardboard box containing the freshly harvested heart of a young man, destined for Stanford’s cardiothoracic surgery team. On missions this critical, air traffic control can divert the paths of 747s to make way for his precious cargo. After the handoff, Taber will park his plane at the San Carlos Airport, home to a small colony of remarkable wingless creatures — a generous, tightknit group of local pilots who regard flying as much more than a hobby.

Airport manager Gretchen Kelly (right) and assistant airport manager Christopher St. Peter (Photo by Philip Wartena)

If non-flyers have even heard of SQL (the airport code for San Carlos), it’s most often because of noise complaints lodged by locals under its flight paths. While public perception can cast small airports as harbors of upper-crust interests, that hardly nicks the surface of what SQL offers.

“It’s this whole world we live in that people don’t even know exists,” airport manager Gretchen Kelly says. The 110-acre county-owned property punches above its real estate weight, launching medical and rescue flights, hosting three flight schools and providing space for a total of about 400 planes. Privately owned and chartered planes may dominate public perception of small airports, but the small community of passionate pilots forms the true backbone of SQL.

Clockwise from top: A Flight Center pilot charts a course from the Bay Area; landing and takeoff at SQL. (Photo by Philip Wartena)

“Aviation is just such a lifeblood of — obviously the airport — but also for the community,” says Peter McCutchen. Like many other airport regulars, McCutchen volunteers with the Civil Air Patrol, which offers aerospace education, as well as search and rescue missions in the area. Other volunteer pilots work with Angel Flight to shuttle medical patients and their families for treatment. Yet another program, Pilots N Paws, transports abandoned dogs from kill shelters to rescue organizations or adoptive owners. Chris Piety, a four-year Pilots N Paws veteran, has flown hundreds of miles to bring dogs back to the Bay Area for adoption. “I’ve probably met some of the kindest people in this,” he says. “They have to have big hearts.”

Della Bankert (left) with Mila, the rescued dog that pilot Chris Piety brought back from Lancaster, CA, in early November. (Photo by Kali Shiloh)

The airport’s under-the-radar endeavors rarely make headlines, but it is well known in certain circles as the source of unwanted noise. Residents living under popular flight paths have become involved in well-documented protests and community meetings, and some have even formed grass-roots groups to express their dissatistfaction with the way the noise is handled. In addition to the flights landing in San Carlos, rainy day traffic from the San Jose Airport (sending more than 200 planes a day over some communities) is a constant source of noise for residents living beneath certain flight paths. In light of the perennial tensions it breeds, flight path noise is likely to remain a hot-button local issue for years to come.

Clockwise from top: A rare look from SQL’s control tower; interior views of the cockpit. (Photos by Philip Wartena)

Regardless of SQL’s future, its current pilots are committed to making the most of their modest runway.

“We explicitly make being connected to the community and building a community of pilots [a priority],” says Dan Dyer who founded the San Carlos Flight Center five and a half years ago. “It’s just more fun if you create a place where people hang out and talk and share stories.”

Mechanic and pilot Octavio Valdiosera performs maintenance on one of the Flight Center’s Cessna aircraft. (Photo by Philip Wartena)

SQL isn’t alone in the variety of services it hosts: 90% of the nation’s 5,000 airports are small, meaning that in an emergency the closest place to land or take off is most often one of these local runways.

Taber, the heart-transporting pilot, is by now used to late-night scrambles. “I’m still asleep, right, and it’s like, how fast can you get in the airplane and get to Sacramento? Like, you know, in seconds. How many seconds will it take you? And so you haul ass out of here and you jump in the airplane. I always keep my airplane sufficiently fueled . . . It’s always ready to go.” At times, an entire team of doctors is on board to ensure a body part is harvested correctly. The death of a single organ donor can prompt alerts to multiple pilots and medical teams, all of whom race to small planes.

Dan Dyer (left) is owner of the San Carlos Flight Center; a view of control tower equipment at SQL. (Photos by Philip Wartena)

To help raise the next generation of pilots, Dyer, the Flight Center founder, and some buddies started a scholarship five years ago to put rising high school seniors through an ambitious summerlong aviation program in San Carlos, leading to a pilot’s license as they start the school year. The program was able to get off the ground because of the generosity inherent at the airport: “We had like 80 different pilots donate money,” Dyer explains. “This is a community raising a child — this is a whole bunch of pilots in a local community coming together to spawn off four more pilots.”​

Giles Beebe, now a senior at Menlo-Atherton High School, received his pilot’s license three months ago after being selected for Upwind in April.​ “I literally could not have had a better summer,” he says. “It’s just the greatest thing ever. . . flying GA [general aviation] small airplanes is a huge part of my life now, and I will hopefully orient my career around it.”

That’s exactly what Dyer and almost everyone in the SQL community have done. Whether flying over clouds or fixing engines on the ground, the pilots at the San Carlos Airport express love for what they do.

“I hesitate to use the word cult,” says Dyer, with no apparent hesitation, “but everybody who’s here is passionate about being here . . . it’s the type of industry that nobody makes a lot of money in — it’s like art: everybody’s here because they love it.”

A view of Skyline Boulevard over the Windy Hill Open Space Preserve in Portola Valley. (Photo by Michael Mainiero)

To learn more about the lesser-known airport services and programs at SQL, check out the following links:

​Upwind Summer Scholarship: free flight training for passionate high school juniors

Young Eagles:​ free small plane flights for ​all children 7–17

Pilots N Paws​: volunteer dog rescue flights​

Angel Flight: free flights for medical​ patients and their families

Find general information on the San Carlos Airport Association’s website.

To learn to fly, schedule​ an introductory lesson or learn about tours, try:

The San Carlos Flight Center

JATO Aviation

West Valley Flying Club

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