Nostalgia and Growth
Deer Valley Airport is gearing up for an influx in corporate jet traffic
By Jimmy Magahern
Photos by Pablo Robles
It’s shortly after sunrise on any given Sunday when the regulars start filing into the Deer Valley Airport Restaurant for its breakfast buffet.
The oldest are first to arrive, grabbing the closest parking spaces in the airport’s single wide parking lot, itself a throwback to the golden age of air travel. Old timers missing Sky Harbor’s Terminal 1 clearly find it here: The two-story, 20,800-square-foot Deer Valley Airport terminal, built in 1975 and not significantly remodeled since 1998, still offers a public observation deck on its rooftop, where families often venture after brunch in the restaurant below.
On this particular Sunday, the first elderly couple arrives in their Sunday best attire, and the two snag a table by one of the Spanish Colonial arched windows, where diners have a clear view of the runway. Over scrambled eggs, hash browns and sausage patties, they watch the small planes take off and land and happily reminisce about vacation travel in simpler times, before TSA lines and crowded baggage carousels.
Ed Faron, the airport’s manager, is well aware of the facility’s nostalgic appeal. The son of a naval aviator who graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in aeronautics and aviation before working in various positions at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Faron understands why visitors go for the Wings-like small airport vibe at Deer Valley, a City of Phoenix-owned reliever airport for Sky Harbor’s non-commercial traffic which goes by the airport code DVT.
“I just love being immersed in aviation, and you definitely find that here at Deer Valley,” Faron says, adding that it’s not just visitors but airplane owners, too, who enjoy flying in and out of DVT. “We still get that generation of pilots who’ve been at Deer Valley since the 1970s.”
That’s partially why Deer Valley has been deliberately slow to make changes, even as it’s steadily evolved into the busiest general aviation airport in the country, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). “It’s not as though we’ve ever done anything to change the airport drastically overnight,” Faron says. “When the city of Phoenix bought Deer Valley Airport in 1971, it was a fairly slow airport, and the growth has been extremely gradual over time.”
Nevertheless, DVT is about to undergo significant changes, and Faron has been bracing the community, through a series of newsletters, city council meetings and media interviews, for the increase in hangar construction set to begin in January and likely to continue throughout 2019.
Although the bulk of changes involve accommodating the influx of corporate aircraft resulting from the industrial real estate boom in the Deer Valley area (in the last three years, more than 2 million square feet of new industrial properties have been built around the airport, including projects like Desert Gateway, Cave Creek II and TTR Industrial Park), Faron doesn’t expect DVT to follow the path of Scottsdale Airport, which in 2017 demolished its 48-year-old terminal to make room for two 30,000-square-foot corporate hangars.
“I don’t think our business models look like Scottsdale Airport’s,” he says. “They truly cater to the business traveler in the business jet type of aircraft they deal with, whereas at Deer Valley, I see us having the ability to cater to both the corporate traveler as well that smaller propeller-driven type of aircraft we’ve always seen, especially in the flight training.” DVT’s two flight schools, Westwind and AeroGuard, are expected to stay put, along with Hot Air Expeditions’ balloon rides.
So what’s changing? Faron breaks down the main things to watch for:
The first stage in DVT’s upgrade happened by accident – literally.
“One of the signs at the entrance to the airport was damaged by a vehicle that went off the road,” Faron says. “So we saw that as an opportunity to create an entirely new sign designed with the modern styling.” The new marker, an aluminum and concrete structure bearing a DVT logo similar to the PHX signage used around Sky Harbor, is under construction now, along with some educational signage that will be installed on the observation deck.
“The educational signage will present visitors with an opportunity to learn about some of the things they see here,” Faron says. “One of the sign panels will contain a panoramic view of the airport with little call-outs about some of the sights. They’ll learn about runways, taxiways, even some information about the windsock – that orange thing out in the middle of the airport. We’ll have another sign panel that will educate visitors on some of the aircraft that they’ll see, along with some of the aircraft traffic patterns. It’ll be a wonderful opportunity to educate the visitors who come here to enjoy the sights and sounds of the airport.”
Deer Valley Aviation Park
Perhaps the most ambitious project in the works is the Deer Valley Aviation Park, a 5-acre complex planned for the southeast corner of the airport that will represent the first significant new building construction on airpark grounds in approximately 17 years.
“We don’t have a precise project schedule for it yet – that’ll be up to the developer to determine,” Faron says. “But I can tell you that the developer hopes to break ground shortly after the first of the year and they’re looking at probably a 9- to 12-month construction period. It will be primarily hangars – about 80,000 square feet of hangar space, subdivided into five individual hangars – and then each hangar will have its own attached office space, for use by the tenant. There is a shortage of hangar space for corporate aircraft regionally, so this will be a much-needed addition. It will be exclusively for corporate aircrafts, and I expect the vast majority of that will be jets.”
Cutter Aviation hangar
Since acquiring Atlantic Aviation’s facility in late 2015, Cutter Aviation has been the sole FBO, or fixed-base operator, at Deer Valley Airport. The term refers to any airstrip-adjacent business operation that provides fueling, hangar space, aircraft maintenance, taxiing and more to the aircraft owners – all the services a larger commercial airport provides but that come extra at a general aviation airport. The Phoenix-based Cutter, which also operates FBOs at airports in Albuquerque, Colorado Springs and El Paso in addition to Sky Harbor, plans to build its own corporate hangar structure adjacent to its current building at Deer Valley, which has been in operation since 1997.
“It’s expected to be large enough to house at least 12 corporate aircraft,” Faron says, although he doesn’t have any more details at present (Cutter representatives did not respond to requests for an update). In an interview last December with then-councilwoman (now interim Phoenix mayor) Thelda Williams, Faron mentioned that some California-based jet owners actually store their aircraft at Deer Valley because it’s cheaper than paying for FBO services locally. “Somehow financially, it makes more sense for the aircraft owners to base their aircraft here at Deer Valley and when it comes time to fly, they will fly their flight crew out commercially, they will pick up the corporate aircraft, fly back to pick up the aircraft owner, and then fly off to their destination,” Faron said. “And that is more financially feasible than actually basing their aircraft in California.”
Handling future growth
Thanks to the increase in private flyers and corporate jet travel in the North Valley, Deer Valley Airport is in the midst of the busiest era in its history.
“If we keep up the pace that we’ve kept up for the first 10 months of the year, it looks like we’re going to exceed 400,000 takeoffs and landings for calendar year 2018,” Faron says. “That would make it a record year for us.”
To handle the increase in demand, DVT is already taking steps to accommodate the boost in traffic. “We’ve got a number of grant-funded projects scheduled within the next five years or so to ensure that the airfield itself can meet the demand that we’re seeing and expect to see into the future. So for example, we’ll be constructing a brand new taxiway in 2020. Beyond that, we’ll be reconstructing or reconfiguring a number of taxiway connectors throughout the airfield. We’ll be strengthening one of our runways to handle heavier aircraft, and we’ll also be strengthening one of our taxiways for the same reason.”
Faron calls the current state of the airport “extremely fast-paced,” but insists he’s still loving every minute of his job. “No two days are alike for me at the airport. There’s such a wide variety of things that need to be done here to handle not only the day-to-day operations but also the long-range planning. But I’ve always been an aviation person,” he adds, with a smile. “It’s in my blood.”