Small airfield awaits developer's landing

Demise: C. Earle Mace turned a dirt strip into a bustling airpark. The planes are likely to be replaced soon by houses.

April 07, 1999|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

It's not as if C. Earle Mace is going to get all sentimental or anything.

Yes, developers have unveiled a plan to build nearly 150 houses at his Baltimore Airpark, the small landing strip passed daily by thousands of commuters on Interstate 95 in White Marsh. Yes, the neighborhood's main drag would trace the path of the runway he paved and maintained for decades.

Earle Mace turned a dirt, country landing strip into a once-thriving airport where amateur pilots flew off in search of business and pleasure. But ask him about its likely demise, and the 72-year-old snorts a little laugh.

He doesn't give a hoot. Or something like that. Sometimes, his language is a little spicy.

Maybe this relaxed attitude is a luxury he can afford -- literally. If all goes as planned, Mace will sell his 60 acres for what could be a seven-figure payday.

Another reason to shrug off the end of an era: Built decades ago, small rural airstrips are becoming far more valuable for development. Even as fewer planes are taking off, the planned community of Honeygo is moving closer to Mace's airport.

A small band of his neighbors, after traveling to Towson last week for their first look at the proposal to build 148 homes, acknowledge that the plan is virtually certain to gain approval.

"If it's done right, and they have their own access roads and they have upscale houses and not apartments or townhouses, that's the best we can hope for," says Ed Hardesty, who's lived on nearby Bangert Avenue for 35 years.

Neighbor Al Krebs adds: "Earle wants to get everything out of it he can, and you can't hate him for that."

A possible, though unlikely, deal would bring a sky ambulance service to the airpark, at least delaying the closing of the field, maybe saving it. But the end of Baltimore Airpark seems to be a matter of time.

"That's life, that's all," Mace says. "There's no use fighting it."

`Like a beehive'

A decade ago, Mace felt torn by the big-money offers and his love for the airstrip. Then, his memories were vivid of the bustling days at an airport that he virtually built by hand.

"It was like a beehive," recalls his wife, Betsy. In the earliest days of the airport, which opened in 1968, the two of them worked 15-hour days, selling fuel, organizing flying lessons and renting airplane "tie-downs" and hangar space. She would drive the dirt road from the airstrip to their home, prepare dinner, then return to the office to replace her husband and allow him to go home to eat.

Earle Mace recalls meeting his pilot friends Sunday mornings with a box of doughnuts. They would line up and take off on day trips to Cumberland, or New York, or Virginia.

A love for aviation

Even now, as he leads a visitor around the airport, Mace's love for aviation is obvious. As a student flier executes a series of awkward takeoffs and landings, Mace offers a running critique.

"All he had to do was S-turn the damn thing and he could have landed on the end of the runway," he says. The student touches down a good 300 feet past the start of the strip. "The runway you leave behind don't do you any good," Mace adds.

He learned to fly in the 1950s. In 1967, he bought the airport, paying about $130,000 for the dirt strip in the woods.

The former merchant marine and retired electrician points to the hangars he built. "Put every nail in that by myself," he says of a nearby office building.

He's wiry, with a working man's calloused hands.

In recent years, he's leased the airport business to a company that offers flight lessons and manages the fuel concession and hangar rentals. He works to keep up the place, whether painting fresh lines on the runway or cutting acres of grass.

Charles Schaefer, an owner of Phoenix Aviation, which runs the airport, says Mace is an irrepressible worker. Recently, the first flakes of snow were enough to spur Mace into action.

"He's got this great big grader, and here he comes over the hill," Schaefer recalls. "Of course, there wasn't a flake on the runway."

The airport shows small signs of age. Letters are missing from the sign that greets runway-bound pilots, and paint is peeling from the airstrip's wind tee.

Schaefer says he hopes the airport can be saved, but he knows that trends suggest otherwise. Across the country, small airports have closed at a rate of one a week over the past 15 years, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Airports suffered not only because of growing pressures from developers but because planes became more expensive and interest waned in flying light aircraft.

On top of that, Baltimore Airpark's runway is too short to handle corporate jets. Schaefer and Mace say the facility also suffers from competition from the state-owned Martin State Airport in Middle River.

No replacement

"What's happening here is a real shame, because once this airport goes away we won't have another one to replace it," Schaefer says.

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