Cumberland airport's life struggle

Viability: Autocross races this weekend are part of the regional facility's efforts to survive.

May 01, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

CUMBERLAND - Weeds and dandelions sprout through the cracks in the taxiway of this city's tiny airport, where about a dozen planes take off and land on a typical day.

Touring the grounds in a golf cart on a recent afternoon, auto race organizer John Felten spied the weeds and laughed. "We'll take care of those," he said. "There won't be any left."

They'll be burned off this weekend when Greater Cumberland Regional Airport becomes Cumberland Speedway. Its taxiways will be shut down and turned over to race cars - part of the struggling airport's bid to stay aloft and prove its relevance after losing scheduled air service last year.

"People think it's just pilots with a lot of money here - that it's a toy," says Cindy Pyles, chairwoman of the airport authority. "But it's not. It's economic development. And bringing people here will help them understand what happens here."

What will be happening at the airport this weekend is something called autocross. About 100 drivers will each take four turns racing through a milelong obstacle course designed to test car-handling skills. Each run is solo; the drivers are racing against the clock.

Anyone can enter with any car they wish, from formula race cars to Honda Civics, as long as they pay the $30-a-day entry fee. There is no prize money. Felten will be racing in his garage-stored 1986 Corvette with 9,000 miles on it. "It's an affordable form of motor sports," he says. "This is ... about having fun."

But the Federal Aviation Administration is not so keen on the idea. In several letters over the past year, the FAA sternly warned the airport and Allegany County: "The purpose of the airport land is for aeronautical activities." The FAA also said the races could jeopardize millions in federal money the airport is due for runway repair.

But by combining an aeronautical activity with the auto race, organizers believe they will be able to keep their funding. Besides the race, pilots will be taking children up for brief - and free - plane rides. While two taxiways will be shut down, the runways will remain open.

The airport got in trouble with the FAA last year for holding an auto race. About $12,000 in airport money was spent advertising the event, with the promise that money would be recouped in ticket sales. Just $600 in tickets were purchased.

The difference this year, officials say, is that the airport isn't using its own money to support the races, and race organizers are paying a rent of $1,000 for each of the four race weekends, the first being today and tomorrow. The others are June 5-6, August 14-15 and Oct. 30-31. Admission is free to spectators.

Felten and airport officials say they're trying to re-create the excitement of the auto races the airport held from 1953 to 1971, when the Sports Car Club of America sponsored the events.

"Everybody got their first sunburn of the season sitting up on that hillside," says Felten, 51, an official with CSX Corp. "It was huge for the community."

The Cumberland airport, which is actually across the Potomac River in Wiley Ford, W.Va., has not had commercial flights since last summer, when Boston-Maine Airways pulled out because its state subsidy ended. The state gave the airline $2.25 million to fly from Cumberland to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Before that, US Airways ran flights to Pittsburgh, but it pulled out in September 2001 because it was reducing its turboprop fleet. And the reduction in business travel after the 9/11 attacks hasn't helped convince airlines they can make money in Cumberland, a town of 23,000.

The airport isn't unused. Private pilots fly in and out regularly. A FedEx plane was on the tarmac during a recent visit. Maryland and West Virginia fly inmates in for transport to nearby prisons. A Maryland State Police MedEvac helicopter is based there. And television talker Larry King recently flew in to interview a prisoner.

But if Cumberland is to thrive, it must have commercial air service, officials say. Visitors to the airport terminal, built in 1998, are greeted by this sign on a black felt board: "Until further notice CBE has no airline service. Sorry. Maybe soon."

"It's important that you have an airport and that you have [commercial] service," says Mayor Jay Fiedler, "because the type of business we're looking for is small businesses and home businesses where people need to be able to travel and have people visit them."

Dave Summerfield, a member of the airport board and former charter pilot, said the autocross will show the airport off to business owners and others who might not have known it existed. He said some may choose to keep their planes at the airport, and others may consider moving businesses to Cumberland.

"Those guys have got money," Summerfield says. "They come here, and we treat them right, and they spread the word."

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