Sky's the limit for airstrip Baltimore Airpark makes strides BALTIMORE COUNTY

February 10, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

It was 1927 when George A. Levis learned to fly -- the same year Charles A. Lindbergh flew alone across the Atlantic.

Mr. Levis was only 17 that year -- eight years younger than Lindbergh, and no cheering throngs met him when he landed.

Today Mr. Levis is 83, and he's still flying.

He looks only 63 and still gets about 50 hours of flight time a year, firing up his 115 horsepower 1946 Piper Super Cruiser and climbing into the skies above White Marsh.

He is one of a comradely band of aviators who fly regularly out of Baltimore Airpark, the tiny airstrip that motorists glimpse on their right as they zip south on Interstate 95 just north of White Marsh.

A native of Dublin, Ireland, Mr. Levis got the flying bug in 1918, when the U.S. Navy built a seaplane base in Bantry, County Cork.

"There was a young pilot who took a liking to my father, who was a chemist, and he taught me to build model airplanes," he recalled.

After he came to America in 1926 and learned to fly, he worked on an aircraft assembly line and later as an aircraft demonstrator pilot. He still works as a manufacturer's representative, selling industrial cooling fans and aircraft components. And, he imports Irish products from the Old Sod.

"I've been flying here [at Baltimore Airpark] since 1950," Mr. Levis said.

Once a dirt runway in the woods known as Quinn Field, the airpark now offers pilots a single 2,200-foot asphalt runway; hangar space for 16 small planes and tie-downs for more; a flight school; and fueling and flight services for pilots of the mostly single-engine planes able to use the field.

Another airpark regular is Albert R. Anglin, 70, an energetic former Navy aviator who got his wings flying Wildcat and Hellcat fighters during World War II.

In 1970, he could no longer contain his love affair with flying, which began with a ride in an open-cockpit plane at age 9.

He went out and bought a plane, a 1969 Piper Arrow, and started flying again. "My wife got tired of me going out and patting airplanes," he said. He gets in about 100 hours of flying each year.

The engine that drives the Baltimore Airpark today is Jay N. Gathmann, owner of Baltimore Airpark Inc., the company that provides flight training, fueling and other services.

Silver-haired, burly and affable, Mr. Gathmann, 55, is an industrial sales representative who, in a little more than a year, has managed to turn a lifelong love of flying into a $200,000 sideline that now absorbs 40 percent of his time.

"If there were really money to be made in this, I'd never work again," he said. "I love it." He is a partner in the business with Al Parsons, owner of Coco Lane Restaurant in Ellicott City, and also a flying enthusiast.

Profits last year were "marginal," Mr. Gathmann said. But "this year we'll probably do extremely well."

Since they took over what had been a barely visible ground operation at Baltimore Airpark in November 1991, Mr. Gathmann and Mr. Parsons have added seven aircraft to their original fleet -- a single Cessna 150.

The flight school now has 40 active students and two full-time instructors. About 20 people, some former students, now regularly rent aircraft at the field. Last month, Mr. Gathmann and a former Eastern airlines pilot began offering air charter services.

Mr. Gathmann also brokers airplane sales for other people, and he has an exclusive contract to market a Czech-built airplane -- the two-seat Moravan Zlin 242 -- in the United States. The deal is now mired in Czech red tape and litigation, but may one day offer Americans a relatively affordable ($100,000 or less) small plane.

"We've grown a lot," he said, "and we will probably continue to grow."

That promise has led them to a decision to move their flight school and ground services north at the end of this month, to the privately owned Harford County Airpark in Aldino.

The Baltimore Airpark, after all, has only one runway, hemmed in by Interstate 95, trees and a sparse necklace of homes whose owners sometimes complain about the noise.

Harford County Airpark, on the other hand, offers two intersecting runways, and larger buildings. It also is close to Harford Community College, where Mr. Gathmann would like to work flight training into the curriculum.

The decision's consequences for aviators who use Baltimore Airpark remain uncertain. Mr. Gathmann said he may continue to offer flight services at Baltimore Airpark as a sort of satellite operation. But he's made no decision.

Earl Mace, who bought the 60-acre property in 1956 and now leases it to Mr. Gathmann, expressed no qualms about the future. "I got people who want to move in. That's no problem," he said.

He also is building a new structure to house an aircraft maintenance operation, which the airfield now lacks.

Mr. Mace is a flying enthusiast who ran the place himself until the mid-1980s.

Before the state bought Martin State Airport and "went into competition with us," he said, "I used to have 10 airplanes going all time, and nine instructors."

The airfield has not been that busy since.

Mr. Gathmann would clearly rather be flying. He has accumulated four small planes of his own, including a bright yellow Taylor J-2 built in 1936, one of only 12 in the world. Powered by a 37-horsepower engine, the two-seater flies at just 55 mph and weighs barely 630 pounds -- "What you'd call your basic airplane," he said.

He also takes any opportunity he can to preach the importance of general aviation, and to bemoan the negligible government support it receives in Maryland beyond Martin State Airport, five miles south of the airpark.

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