Airfield fading into past

Pilots: Just before Christmas, the 30 fliers who keep their aircraft at Essex Skypark learned it will likely close.

January 07, 2001|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

In the rollicking, dashing days of the Essex Skypark in eastern Baltimore County, the hangars were full, the sky was always blue and a pilot who had just survived a dicey landing could retire to the airport bar for a liquid tranquilizer.

At one time, more than 100 pilots called the tiny airstrip on Back River home. They were crop-dusters, daredevils, airborne traffic reporters and traveling salesmen. But none was more noted than Charles "Buddy" Gnau Sr.

Distinctive in his bearskin leather jacket and helmet, goggles and red silk scarf, Gnau flew his 1941 Stearman biplane under the Bay Bridge, accidentally drop- ped a banner on the White House lawn in 1969 that read "Kill the Commies in North Vietnam" and towed advertising banners, which kept him in fuel.

"Dad didn't mean to drop it," said his son, Chip Gnau, who also earns a living flying planes. "But Army helicopters followed Dad all the way back to Essex. He had some explaining to do."

Buddy's gone now - he died three years ago of cancer. So is the bar. The runway needs to be repaved. And the main telephone has been disconnected.

But just before Christmas, the most serious blow of all was delivered. The 30 fliers who keep their aircraft at the tiny airfield - a part of the rich, colorful east-side fabric since 1946 - learned it will likely close.

On Thursday, that probability moved closer to reality. The property on which the skypark is situated, owned by the I.D. Shapiro family of Baltimore, was sold for $2.1 million to Baltimore County.

The 588-acre waterfront parcel will be added to Maryland's Rural Legacy Program, another step aimed at conserving land on the margins of the Chesapeake Bay.

Officials have given lukewarm assurances that the county will continue to operate the skypark and allow horseback riders to use a network of trails on the property. For the time being, boaters will continue using the property's shoreline as a landing. The area is home to an abundant wildlife population - from deer and foxes to eagles and snakes.

But other uses are being discussed. The Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary might use the area for wildlife rehabilitation. And the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County are considering the site for environmental research.

Indeed, things are gloomy around the old airfield, composed of some weathered hangars, a couple of unused fuel trucks and the scarred runway.

"The property owner isn't interested, the county isn't interested and we haven't received any government help to keep the place going," said Chuck Young, 76, a Navy pilot in the Pacific during World War II who has called Essex Skypark home for 30 years. "It's a very sad state of affairs. Where will the pilots and their planes go?"

Dark clouds are gathering above the 5,500 small airports around the country - 29 of them in Maryland. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association laments that community airports are closing at the rate of one a week.

Officials say low profit margins and soaring property values are turning places such as Essex Skypark and Baltimore Airpark - a small landing strip along Interstate 95 in White Marsh that will be converted into a housing development - into an endangered species.

"They just want us to go away," said Don Crouse, a pilot and retired engineer who leases the skypark from the Shapiro family and operates it. Aircraft owners who park their planes there pay monthly fees of $45 for a tie-down and $80 for hangar space.

Crouse said he has leased the airpark since 1980, "and we haven't turned a profit yet. We've been losing about $6,000 every year."

Several years ago, Crouse got an estimate of $50,000 to repave the 2,090-foot runway. At that point, pilots knew that patching would continue.

Federally subsidized loans for small airports, issued through the state, are available, Crouse said, but there must be a guarantee of a 10-year lease and borrowers must throw in matching funds.

"It's just a matter of time," Crouse said of the closing. He is scheduled to sign a new one-year lease to keep the airport open until the new tenants move in.

When the skypark opened, there were four pole barns that served as hangars for planes. Over the years, slightly more sophisticated hangars were built along with a small terminal.

In 1987 and 1990, fires believed started by arsonists destroyed two hangars and ravaged seven aircraft, including an expensive stunt plane. Firefighters, Crouse said, were hampered by the lack of fire hydrants and public water. The hangars were not insured, but the skypark had them rebuilt - at great cost to Crouse and others.

In the last several years, Diffendall Road, the out-of-the-way thoroughfare that connects the airfield and Back River Neck Road, has become a dumping ground for trash. In December 1999, detectives found the body of a 16-year-old shooting victim in a clump of bushes not far from the runway.

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