FBO Profile: Northgate Aviation Chico Jet Center

 - July 1, 2022, 8:09 AM
2018's Camp Fire, one of the worst natural disasters in California history, lights up the sky with an unearthly glow in a photo taken from the Northgate Aviation Chico Jet Center hangar. (Photo: Northgate Aviation)

When Star Wars debuted in 1977, few could have imagined that 45 years later it would more popular than ever, having inspired five sequels, three prequels, two stand-alone movies, several animated and live-action series, countless video games, books, toys, and one FBO.

Northgate Aviation Chico Jet Center, the lone service provider at California’s Chico Municipal Airport (KCIC), has been family-owned for the past 17 years. After Alicia Rock’s father became unable to continue managing the day-to-day operations of the facility eight years ago due to health issues, she left her law career and stepped in as COO and general counsel. Quickly bitten by the aviation bug, Rock overhauled the FBO and also decided to imprint her love of the science-fiction epic on the facility, dressing it up with large murals, a huge inflatable Millenium Falcon hanging in the lobby, statues of stormtroopers, and her collection of Star Wars memorabilia displayed in glass cases, which visiting pilots have dubbed the Star Wars museum.

Customers regularly send her care packages containing Star Wars items they picked up in their travels. “Everybody that has come in, even if they’re not Star Wars fans they find it super delightful,” Rock told AIN. “So many times they go into FBOs that are so corporate and de-personalized that there’s genuine joy when they come in here and they see all of this stuff around.” The reputation of the facility is such that the FAA specially named an RNAV waypoint into KCIC as STARW.

While Rock was unhappy with how a mural turned out in the men’s restroom depicting Han Solo, one of the heroes of the series, that displeasure turned to acute embarrassment the day Han Solo himself, actor and pilot Harrison Ford, landed unannounced during a helicopter test flight. After exiting the facility, a bemused Ford informed Rock that while he loved the Star Wars theme, the Han Solo image looked nothing like him. She quickly brought the artist back to fix it to a more representative likeness.

KCIC, with its 6,700-foot main runway, began life like many airports, as a WWII military training facility, and the FBO occupies a vintage 26,000-sq-ft hangar complete with an elaborate truss system holding up the roof. A 1940s-era gantry track formerly used for heavy maintenance remains in place, limiting the height of aircraft that can be sheltered to turboprops and light jets. The terminal part of the hangar occupies 1,700 sq ft and includes a 20-seat a/v-equipped conference room, a passenger lounge, pilot lounge, and crew cars. There are also tables and chairs set up in the hangar, just outside the terminal entrance, for those who want to be close to the aircraft. The facility, which has a staff of 15, is open seven days a week from 7:30 a.m.-to-7 p.m., with after-hours callout available. Catering can be provided through local sources with advance notice.

While the FBO sees its share of business aviation traffic, the airport serves another crucial role as one of Cal Fire’s 13 bases scattered around the state, and one of only three in Northern California that can handle the larger Type 1 fire bombers. Supporting that activity bolsters the Titan Fuels-branded FBO’s volumes, which with last year’s wildfires, totaled nearly 750,000 gallons. “It’s a little bit different to be an FBO at a firebase than it is to just be an FBO at some other place,” Rock said.

There is perhaps no one who understands the vital nature of that operation better than Rock, who recalled seeing the start of California’s infamous Camp Fire as a plume of smoke in the distance from her Butte County home in the early morning of Nov. 8, 2018. Knowing the dry conditions made it a harbinger of heavy activity at the airport, she quickly made some calls to order extra aviation fuel loads, ensuring that the FBO’s three 12,000-gallon jet fuel tanks were full along with its three 5,000-gallon refuelers. Soon ash began to fall, and she marshaled her family and dogs and led a convoy of vehicles out of the immediate danger zone to a friend’s house. She then headed to the FBO, stopping first at a supermarket along the way to stock up on ready-made meals to feed the busy fire crews. Soon the fire shifted, forcing her to go retrieve her family, dogs, and a horse and bring them to the FBO.

That evening Rock received word that her home had burned to the ground in what was to become the deadliest and costliest fire in state history. With more than 33,000 people displaced by the fire and nearly 20,000 homes destroyed, hotel rooms were unavailable in the area, so her family lived in the FBO terminal for the next two and a half weeks, as pilots and crews slept anywhere they could. That period included Thanksgiving, and with scores of crews from state agencies and the National Guard still living out of tents at the airport, Rock was approached by their leadership asking if they could hold a holiday dinner at the FBO. She readily agreed and helped set up the meal for nearly 300 people, all falling under what Rock described simply as customer service.

More recently, with Top Gun: Maverick soaring to box office heights, the FBO played a behind-the-scenes role in the production, serving as a base for the aerial photography aircraft and crews.