Leonardo da Vinci was no pilot. But he captured the feelings of those who are when he said: "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return."

For most people, the sky's the limit, another old saying goes, but for those who love aviation, it's home. Ask any pilot why he likes to take that little collection of bolts and steel so high above the earth and you'll hear about the exhilaration of flight, the beauty of that upper world, the sense of adventure and accomplishment that comes from leaving the ground far below.Approximately 6,000 such general aviation pilots can be found in Utah, according to the Utah State Aeronautics Division. And they cover the whole range from recreational fliers to corporate pilots, says Allen McCandless, planning manager for the Salt Lake Airport Authority. There are those who fly only occasionally, those who fly on a regularly scheduled basis and everything in between.

But for whatever reasons people like to fly and however much they feel at home in the sky, these pilots must eventually come back to earth. And that's where the state's general aviation airports come in.

Fifty-one public-use airports fall under the state Aeronautics Division, says Robert Barrett, division director. The division administers federal and state funding and is responsible for licensing and inspecting these airports. There are also a number of private airports in the state, such as the Sky Park airport in west Woods Cross, that don't come under agency administration, says Barrett.

The Salt Lake International Airport Authority has three general aviation airports under its umbrella: the one at the east of the main airport complex where the Executive Terminal is located, Airport II in West Jordan and the Tooele Valley Airport in Erda.

It is rather unusual for a major hub airport to have as much general aviation activity as we do here in Salt Lake City, says Tom Troske, airfield operations superintendent. But, he says, the smaller planes have the same right to the airspace as the larger ones; he and his crew, as well as a lot of others at the airport, have to make sure it all runs as safely and efficiently as possible.

As part of its master plan that will see major expansion and renovation at the commercial terminals, the Airport Authority is currently assessing and studying the long-term needs of the general aviation airports.

"We're looking at how to best address the aviation needs of the whole community," says Brian O'Leary, general aviation manager for the Salt Lake Airport Authority. "There are a whole multitude of things to look at. Each facility is different and meets different needs. We have to be aware of growth challenges and be sensitive to noise issues. Safety, of course, is always paramount."

Meeting aviation needs is an evolutionary process, he says. "Aviation is one of the most fluid environments around. No two days are ever the same. And long-term needs change as the city grows."

And, says Troske, changing technology has to be incorporated into the mix. "We want to have foresight; we want to look down the road. We want to provide good service now and stay ahead. Evaluation takes place continually." And that is true here as well as everywhere else. "All airports in the country face the same issues."

General aviation is not particularly a growth industry in the country right now. "It's been pretty flat for the last couple of decades," says McCandless. Activity decreased from 156,502 operations (essentially takeoffs and landings) in 1975 to 97,605 in 1984. Activity has remained below 90,000 since then; operations in 1994 were 83,787. The average annual change from 1975 to 1994 was minus 3.2 percent. (At the same time, commercial activity has seen steady and dramatic growth, with a 111 percent increase in passengers between 1986 and 1996).

The decline in general aviation is attributed to a lot of factors, says McCandless, including such things as increased purchase and operating costs, luxury taxes, increases in liability exposure, changes in recreational activity, cost-cutting measures among businesses and increased availability of commercial flights.

The Aeronautics Division's Barrett thinks there may have been a slight increase in activity in the last little while, however, particularly on the corporate front. "We've definitely seen some growth in the business area."

Part of that reflects the growth of business in the state. When American Stores came in to build its new office complex, for example, it also arranged to build a corporate hangar at the airport.

In 1911, six years after Orville and Wilbur Wright took their first airplane flight, Salt Lake City had a a cinder-covered landing strip in a marshy pasture called Basque Flats. In the 1920s, "Tailspin Tommy" Thompson sponsored acrobatic airshows, Charles Lindbergh stopped by in his "Spirit of St. Louis" and the famous cowboy philosopher Will Rogers "mailed" himself to California on a Western Air Express plane. So Salt Lake City has a long-standing tradition of general aviation flight.

And Troske doesn't foresee any change in that. "It's something that will always be here," he says. But how much activity and what will be involved are issues that are under consideration. One reason the airport acquired the smaller Airport II and the airfield in Tooele is to provide "reliever" airports to help eliminate congestion.

Pilots sometimes think airport officials don't like general aviation at the main airport, he says. But that's not the case, he says. It's not that they don't like it as much as the fact that laws of physics and nature dictate that accommodating all sizes and kinds of planes at the same airport creates certain challenges, he explains.

Different sizes of aircraft have different separation standards, says Susan Cornell, the federal government's air traffic manager for Salt Lake International. That presents challenges in lining up aircraft for takeoff and even more in bringing them into the pattern for landing. "We have special VFR (visual flying rule) routings that keep them out of the mix." But under IFR (instrument flying rule) conditions in bad weather, that can change.

Nor, she says, is it fair to hold up 10 big carriers while one little plane tries something unusual. "But we try to figure out something that will meet all the needs. We have a diverse mix of aircraft at this airport." Different sizes mean they may not all be treated exactly the same. "But we try to be fair. We do everything we can to accommodate them all."

General aviation planes are not assigned a specific runway, although they tend to use the east one more than the other three runways at the airport just because of proximity. But if a pilot requests a specific runway, they will try to work it out, says Cornell.

Add into the diverse mix of aircraft the fact that the terrain at Salt Lake is one of the most challenging in the country - with mountains on three sides and the lake on the other - and the fact that the airport and the valley have seen so much growth, says Cornell, and you begin to see some of the complex issues involved. Still, she says, the airport here is one of the finest in the country, and she's proud of the job the air controllers and ground crews do in managing it all.

General aviation activity is subsidized by other airport operations. Last year, operating expenses were about $1.1 million. There are no landing fees; no tax dollars. The only income comes from leasing hangars and from operating agreements with fixed-base operators, which fill the "service-station" needs of the pilots, and with other agencies based at the airports.

It's a challenge to provide needed repairs and structural changes, says McCandless. Some of the pre-war hangars are getting kind of old. Corporate space is getting tight. "We have to balance what we have now and what we need for the future."

"Are we operating efficiently now?" asks Troske. "Yes. Is there room for improvement? Yes."

It is a beautiful summer morning with hardly a cloud in the sky. Clay Gorton has taken his Starduster Too out for a morning of aerobatics south of the Point of the Mountain. While most people are still eating their breakfast, he has been practicing rolls, loops and Cuban eights.

Gorton got his pilot's license in 1992 at age 69. "I've been wanting to fly all my life. I got a ride in a Waco biplane when I was 9 years old. It was the greatest thrill! I've wanted to fly ever since." But it was not until he retired as a research scientist and served as a mission president for the LDS Church that he decided it was time.

Now he keeps the experimental plane that he and three friends built and share ownership of in a hangar at Airport II. It makes an ideal base for their operations, he says.

In Troske's opinion, Airport II, located in West Jordan, is the best general aviation airport in the state. It's a jewel, he says, that is not as widely known or used as it could be. "It's not just a facility for use by a discrete few."

The central location makes it convenient and practical, and it has potential in other areas, too. It has been used by medical and smaller cargo aircraft when the international airport has been fogged in. It could be used in event of a catastrophe and could also serve as a focal point for small corporate development, says Troske.

The Tooele Valley Airport also has potential in times of emergency. And it may play a big part in the 2002 Olympics, where it could be a center for media, medical, corporate VIP and other aircraft.

Since purchasing that airport, the Salt Lake City Airport Authority has initiated a number of improvements, including repaving the runway, taxiway lights and signs, rehabilitating the fixed base operator building and erecting a maintenance facility. Future plans include a 600-foot extension of the runway, widening the runway to 100 feet, constructing a new airport entrance/acess road, realigning the parallel taxiway, adding an emergency generator and making improvements to the apron, fencing and hangars.

"The FAA, Utah State Division of Aeronautics and the Salt Lake Airport Authority see and understand the obvious need for the Tooele Valley Airport as a `reliever airport' and are willing to invest in this much-needed facility, developing it to its full potential," says Troske.

"This is a nice place to fly," says general aviation manager O'Leary, himself a pilot, who admits to flying "as much as humanly possible." It's a good place to learn to fly because it is less intimidating to students. And there's a lot to see in the immediate vicinity. "You can head over to Wendover for the seafood buffet or look at historical things on the Skull Valley side. You can follow the Pony Express trail. And it's so peaceful out here; it's like stepping back in time."

Those who fly are a pretty nice group, too, says Troske. And they encourage pilots at any of the airports to be good neighbors, to be considerate in chosing flight paths and minimizing noise. The Airport Authority puts out a newsletter once a month to update pilots on activities and information. "We try to assist them in any way we can," he says.

Because, he says, whatever else there is to general aviation, there is passion. "Whether you're a pilot or not, there's something about aviation that is fascinating."

Just ask Leonardo.