Flying the San Francisco Bay Area
Bay Area Airports
Three large airports serve the airliner traffic in the Bay Area: San Francisco International, Oakland International, and San Jose International. In 2011 these three airports together handled over 58 million passengers (down from 60 million in 2007).
Interspersed among the Big 3 are the bustling general aviation airports: Hayward, San Carlos, Palo Alto, and San Jose Reid-Hillview. Although mostly off-limits to civilian aircraft, Moffett Federal Airfield, the former Moffett Naval Air Station, is operated by NASA and serves a variety of military and government aircraft.
Further out from the central area are Half Moon Bay, a non-tower airport on the Pacific coast, nine miles southwest of SFO, and the East Bay airports Concord, Livermore, and Byron.
San Francisco International is ranked #23 in the world by passenger traffic, with nearly 40 million passengers in 2011. It is also ranked #12 in the USA, oddly, just behind Minneapolis-St Paul. Its four runways form an enormous a cross nearly two miles wide, and approach lights extend out into the bay. On fair weather days, airliner big iron can be seen approaching two-by-two to land on the parallel runways 28L and 28R. Although there is a general aviation FBO at SFO, it caters primarily to business aircraft, and levies a steep ramp fees.
Oakland International is really two airports in one, complete with two control towers. Oakland's North Field is the original airport, opened in 1927. It was the departure point for Amelia Eahart's around-the-world flight attempt. Today, the North Field serves a wide variety of aircraft from Cessna 150s to Boeing Business Jets. Also here is the Oakland Automated Flight Service Station, the only remaining FSS in the Bay Area.
Oakand's south complex opened in 1962, and is separated from the North Field by the airline terminal and auto parking areas. Since the arrival of Southwest Airlines in 1989, Oakland has experienced tremendous growth in airline passenger operations.
Mineta San Jose International has experience explosive growth in the past 20 years, paralleling the growth of Silicon Valley. In recent years, a second terminal complex has been built, and two of the three runways lengthened. Although primarily an air carrier airport, SJC hosts general aviation aircraft as well. SJC is an excellent location for pilots to get "big airport" practice. Services for transient aircraft are available at the FBOs, but prices are high, and ramp fees are levied for even brief stops.
Reid-Hillview is one of two GA airport of Silicon Valley. It's two runways, GPS approach, and nearly 700 based aircraft make it one of the busiest in the Bay Area. Although there is no official FBO for servicing transient aircraft, airport staff attend the airport from 7am to 10pm daily. Fuel service is available both from a self-serve fuel island and two vendors with fuel trucks. Maintenance services and pilot supplies are available from airport businesses. The public terminal builing provides restrooms, vending machines, computer weather terminal, and a large meeting/observation room. Picnic tables are available in the grass area next to the terminal.
Palo Alto is the only airport in the Bay Area to have a wait list for tiedown spaces. Its single runway is well-used, often by aircraft doing pattern work in both left and right patterns. Several restaurants and a golf course are within easy walking distance. Bike and walking paths connect to Shoreline Park in Mountain View.
San Carlos is the closest general aviation airport to San Francisco. It features a varity of services including a motel, three restaurants, rental cars, and the Hiller Aviation Museum. The Caltrain station at Holly St. is about 1 mile away, providing transportation to San Francisco and San Jose.
Hawyard is the most business-oriented of the central core airports. Many business jets as well as many TV news and law enforcement helicopters make their home here. Airliners inbound to Oakland pass overhead at 1500 feet, making pattern work interesting.
Separated from the central and south bay airports by the Diablo Range foothills are the Concord, Livermore, and Byron airports. Both Concord and Livermore have control towers, multiple runways, and active instrument approaches. Byron, one of the newest airports in the Bay Area (rebuilt in 1995(?) is active with gliders and skydivers. All three airports are active with both fixed wing and helicopter flight training.
Concord Buchanan Field is a busy GA airport in the East Bay city of Concord. Because of the multiple runways that intersect at small angles, and many taxiways, pilots should carry a current airport diagram and use extra diligence to avoid taxiing mistakes and runway incursions.
Livermore is the only East Bay airport other than Oakland to have an ILS. However, radar coverage ends high above the airport, so use extra caution if executing the ILS approach at night or in IFR conditions.
Byron is the newest Bay Area airport. Opened in October of 1994, it replaced the older Byron Airpark, remnants of which can still be seen along the northeast corner of the new airport. The airport is popular with skydivers and sailplanes. Services are limited to self-serve fuel, and as the airport is far away from any town or other businesses.
Because the airports of the North Bay are beyond the limits of the SFO class C, pilots may think less diligence is needed. However, this is not the case. The North Bay airports are just as busy, not only because of their own based aircraft, but also the North Bay airports have most of the restaurants, so pilots and flying machines from the rest of the Bay Area are attracted to them.
The North Bay Airports are Napa, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Gnoss, Schellville, Sonoma County, and Vacaville (aka Nut Tree)
Many folks living around the Monterey Bay bristle at being considered part of the San Francisco Bay Area. But the overflow of both tech industry workers and businesses from Silicon Valley push the line dividing the Bay Area and the Central Coast ever further south. Some Silicon Valley workers commute from as far as Salinas.
The Monterey Bay airports are often plagued by coastal fog during the summer months when the rest of California sees perpetual sunshine. IFR departures can be made from all four airports during these times, but only the ILS approaches at Salinas and Monterey are you likey to reach a runway through the low-lying fog.
Watsonville is the busiest of the Monterey Bay airports. Proximity to Silicon Valley, a strong EAA community, and Zuniga's Mexican Restaurant all draw pilots to this airport. Each Memorial Day weekend, Watsonville hosts the Watsonville Fly-In.Salinas, while having a control tower, is not as while not as active as Watsonville. But the on-field VOR and multiple instrument approaches, including an ILS, make it a popular Bay Area IFR training destination. An airport restaurant and a new light sport aircarft dealership may spark an increase in activity.
Marina is the former Fritzsche Army Air Field, part of the Fort Ord military base. The base was closed in 1994, and the airport was reopened as a civilian facility. Services here are limited to self-service fuel, pay phone and restroom, although there is an airport restaurant. Marina is the closest Monterey Bay airport to a beach. Click here for an account of the walk of about 3 miles.
Monterey Penninsula is the only Monterey Bay airport having commercial service. This airport is also the closests to some of the more well-known attractions such as Cannery Row, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pebble Beach, and Carmel-by-the-Sea.
Airport Information Sheets
Some operators of Bay Area airports have begun publishing online information sheets about each airport. These documents contain information about airport layouts, businesses, noise abatement procedures, and communications frequencies. They are useful for both local and out-of-area pilots. Links to these documents are collected here for your convenience.
Links are to PDF files unless otherwise noted.
- Concord, Buchanan Field Pilot Guide
- Half Moon Bay Noise Abatement Procedures and Airport Info
- Livermore Airport Diagram
- Livermore Pilot Information Guide
- Oakland International, North Field
- Palo Alto
- San Carlos Noise Abatement Procedures
- San Jose Reid Hillview
- San Martin, South County