Seaplane base taking off

Growth: Heavily damaged in Tropical Storm Isabel, the Havre de Grace business plans an extended dock with space for more aircraft.

January 25, 2004|By Sarah Merkey | Sarah Merkey,SUN STAFF

Nature dished out its worst last fall to the Havre de Grace Seaplane Base in the form of Tropical Storm Isabel. Still, manager Bill Matthews insists, "The timing was good."

The base sustained substantial damage to its dock as a result of the storm, but, Matthews said, "It's not going to hurt us too bad. The new dock should be back by June 15. The old one was in shambles."

In October, Gov. Robert L. Ehrilch Jr. approved a $281,160 grant from the Maryland Aviation Administration for the construction of a new dock and improvements to other areas of the base.

"The old dock was 200 feet long; the new one will be 300 feet," Matthews said. Matthews expects the new dock will have space for 11 planes, four more than the previous dock.

"We had a problem with location," Matthews said, referring to the old dock. In the off-season, "ice would rip it up." The new dock will consist of two 150-foot-long pieces that can be contained in the safety of the base's cove during the winter.

"We'll put the dock in and out each year," Matthews said. The new concrete dock will also be without pilings, which can damage planes' wings.

"It will be much more seaplane-friendly," Matthews said.

The base received the improvement grant as part of the Maryland Aid to Private Airports Project, which provides funding for privately owned airports ineligible for federal funding.

The seaplane base is a publicly used base that has been operating for 25 years under owners Arnold and Elsie Stackhouse.

"My husband had been flying a land plane, and he decided, living on the water, why not combine land and sea?" Elsie Stackhouse said.

The base caters to seaplanes and ultralight planes, which have become increasingly popular in recent years. A seaplane is a float-equipped airplane, while an ultralight plane is a small, single person aircraft that weighs less than 254 pounds and carries only 5 gallons of fuel.

Currently, two seaplanes and two ultralight planes are docked at the base. The two seaplanes are antique Taylorcraft planes, dating to the early 1940s.

"We get a lot of transients going up and down the East Coast; they often stop here to eat lunch and refuel. We get a lot going to Florida," Matthews said.

"[They have] migratory routes," said the Rev. John Elledge of St. John's Episcopal Church in Havre de Grace, an ultralight plane enthusiast who keeps his plane at the base. "They fly with the birds."

Elledge has had a lifelong interest in flying: "I guess [I got interested] as a young kid after World War II, when I went to my first air shows. It took me a number of years before I finally got into it."

It took time and a life-changing event before Elledge began to pursue his passion. In 1989, Elledge had open heart surgery. By 1994, he had taken his first lesson.

"I had to sort through the things I really wanted to do," Elledge said. "To me, it's really a spiritual experience."

Elsie Stackhouse enjoys riding in seaplanes as a passenger.

"I like just looking around," she said. "You could be 10 feet above the water or 100 feet, but you can see so much more."

The base is unusual for a number of reasons.

"There are very few seaplane bases left," Matthews said, attributing the disappearance of bases like the one in Havre de Grace to the increasing popularity of ultralight planes, which pilots do not need a license to fly. Seaplanes can also be expensive to own and operate.

"Getting the aircraft to fit your economic status is key," Matthews said. "If you're in a big seaplane, you're a very wealthy person."

The location, at the confluence of the Chesapeake Bay and the Susquehanna River, also sets it apart.

"It is our crowning jewel," Matthews said. "The water is 100 percent freshwater, and it makes a big difference on the equipment." Saltwater is corrosive to seaplanes.

"People do not want to take their airplanes to saltwater; our location is wonderful for that," Matthews said.

"With all the improvements, the town growing the way it has, we are looking for the seaplane base to be a complement to the town as well," Matthews said. He hopes that the growth of the town will encourage tourism.

"There's a lot to do here for visitors," Matthews said. "We're in walking distance of five fine restaurants, a bed and breakfast, and we have a golf course."

Plans for the base include taking advantage of a current tourism trend: staying local.

"We're working with several companies," Matthews said. "We're looking at marketing a weekend getaway for businessmen. Since Sept. 11, a lot of world travelers are staying home, spending their money in the United States."

The base also attracts foreign visitors.

"We see a lot of European tourists. The cost of flying is less here than in Europe," Matthews said.

The base also hopes to find an operator to give flying lessons and to offer sight-seeing tours. Matthews hopes that the base will becomer a place where pilots can get a single-engine sea rating, an add-on to the basic pilot's license.

Over the years, the base has seen some interesting people.

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