Easy landing places Airstrips: As the number of small airports dwindles, private airstrips are becoming ever more appealing to general aviation pilots.

November 30, 1997|By Joanne E. Morvay | Joanne E. Morvay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When he moved to his 112-acre farm outside Mount Airy 18 years ago, Don Walters bought enough property to build the one amenity his newfound home had to have.

Two years later, Walters took his first flight from his own private airstrip, mere yards from his front door.

A former commercial airline pilot who spent 23 years with US Airways (formerly USAir and Allegheny Airlines) after learning to fly in the Air Force, Walters, 68, said he had long dreamed of having his single-engine, turboprop airplane "parked right outside your house like your car."

For Ed Primoff, of Woodbine, a private airstrip was the proverbial good idea right under his nose -- which Primoff never considered until he saw someone else's airstrip. A commercial lender who splits his time between an office in his Carroll County home and a location in Palm Beach, Fla., Primoff flies himself and his wife, Sue, to Palm Beach on business a half-dozen times a year. The couple also take a number of pleasure trips in the Cessna Centurion and Cessna 150 they own.

The Primoffs were keeping the airplanes at local airports until late in the summer, when county officials granted a zoning variance and Ed Primoff began marking off his own 1,900-foot grass strip.

As the number of small airports dwindles in Maryland and across the country and the expense of owning, maintaining and storing a single-engine aircraft continues to rise, private airstrips are becoming much more appealing to general aviation pilots.

Though airstrips can't easily be established in well-developed and well-populated areas such as Baltimore, they remain a viable alternative for airplane owners living in Howard, Harford, Carroll and other nearby counties.

Bruce Mundie, director of Regional Aviation Assistance for the Maryland Aviation Administration, said there now are 92 privately owned, private-use airstrips in the state. Airports -- in many cases, also privately owned but available for public use -- number 35, including Baltimore-Washington International.

Harford County didn't even have zoning regulations when Fred Mills and a few friends decided to establish a grass strip on Mills' dairy farm in Fallston. In 1955, Mills put the strip up for a commercial zoning designation so the group could get a permit to put in an aviation gas tank.

Today, the cows are gone and the original 1,800-foot grass strip has been expanded to 2,200 feet and paved so it better serves the 38 pilots who keep their planes at what is now the Fallston Airport.

Mills and his family continue to operate the airport on a 30-acre parcel of the family farm, though it is not as busy now as it was 25 years ago when 75 planes routinely flew out of Fallston, Mills recalled.

The peak interest in general aviation was likely reached in the late 1960s, Mills and Mundie said. By the late 1980s, the cost of owning a small airplane -- like so many other hobbies involving vehicles and machines -- was only within easy reach of those who could afford $2 a gallon for av-gas and skyrocketing maintenance, insurance and liability costs.

During his 10 years with state aviation, Mundie said, the requests the agency receives to help establish a private airstrip have dwindled to two or three a year.

According to Jay Hull, an Eldersburg-based Realtor, and Dave Sclair, founder of the Living With Your Plane Association, private airstrips and residential air parks -- where homes and hangars are built around an airstrip much like houses are built along a golf course in a golf community -- continue to appeal to a specialized, niche market of general aviation pilots.

Warren Morningstar, spokesman for the Airline Owners and Pilots Association, a national group whose headquarters is in Frederick, said that last year the group sent out 430 information packets on establishing an airstrip to pilots across the country.

Hull, a Realtor since 1989 and now with Re/Max Advantage Realty, marketed an airstrip and related land in Keymar, in far northwestern Carroll County, for 18 months before it sold. The property -- owned by an elderly couple who could no longer maintain the strip -- had been on the market for two years before that with other agents, but languished because it was overpriced, Hull said.

The 1,975-foot grass strip plus 16 acres settled for "$140,000 and change," he said. It went to a couple from nearby Frederick County who had expressed occasional interest in the property, but were waiting for their own property to sell.

After several months, however, Hull had also tracked down a general aviation trade magazine, Trade A Plane, and placed advertisements in it. He is confident the strip would have sold through those advertisements were it not for the local couple. "We really picked up a lot of possible buyers that way." he said. "I talked to people from New York, New Jersey and California. I must have talked to 50 different people who were interested in the airstrip."

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