Plans taking flight for Tipton Airport

April 03, 2005|By Phillip McGowan | Phillip McGowan,SUN STAFF

Pilots such as Eric Flamino love to jump into their small planes and fly, to the Eastern Shore, to locales along the Eastern Seaboard. They go for weekend jaunts or a bite to eat before coming back to where they started, Tipton Airport.

Flamino, who lives in Piney Orchard, recently flew to Rehoboth Beach, Del., to catch up with a friend over breakfast.

"It's a great way to keep in touch," said Flamino, president of the Tipton Airport Pilots' Association. "And you get to see a beautiful sunny morning crossing over the bay."

Tipton Airport in western Anne Arundel County is growing to serve more than a local legion of recreational pilots. A deserted Fort Meade airfield that the county acquired nearly six years ago, the 366-acre facility is living up to the vision of Anne Arundel leaders as a general-aviation airport that's sparking economic development.

The airport has emerged from post-Sept. 11 air restrictions to become financially self-sufficient this year for the first time, and officials hope that its centralized location in the Baltimore-Washington region and an array of amenities will lure more regional travelers and aviation business.

The airport is seeking $300,000 from the state and the county to keep the redevelopment momentum going.

"There's just so much potential there," said County Executive Janet S. Owens, who has overseen the airport's transformation since the county assumed control in 1999.

County stewardship of the airfield has its origin in the Base Realignment and Closure Act of 1988, which led to the Army turning over about 8,000 acres that were part of Fort Meade. Of that, 7,600 acres were designated as the Patuxent Research Refuge, which is part of the national wildlife refuge system.

One company at the airport that has flourished is Capitol Air, a flight school that operates out of Tipton and Bay Bridge Airport in Queen Anne's County. Over the past 18 months, the company has instructed some 100 Naval Academy students elected to become Navy pilots, with about one-third being trained at Tipton. The midshipmen must complete 25 hours of flying in 100 days to be eligible to continue training at Navy installations.

"We are a screening process," said Andrew Kostic, assistant corporate manager for Capitol Air, which has purchased five planes since it began the training.

An estimated 50,000 takeoffs or landings occur annually on Tipton's 3,000-foot runway. Most are recreational. But a growing number of business executives are bypassing larger area airports, such as Baltimore-Washington International, and landing private aircraft at Tipton to get to meetings in the region.

Airport officials say the airfield can handle that volume and more.

"We can do twice the number [of takeoffs and landings], and that still won't tax the facility," said Dennis McCoy, chairman of the Tipton Airport Authority.

Among the airport's amenities are its four large hangars, which the Army built decades ago to house helicopters. The airfield was used for training in the Vietnam era. Now the hangars provide shelter for private aircraft and space for businesses.

The airport is home to 115 aircraft, including helicopters owned by the county police, the regional hospital system MedStar and a few local TV stations. Airport officials say demand for new shelters is sky-high.

Tipton officials are working to lease 9 acres on the east side of the airport to a private contractor who would build up to 50 single-aircraft hangars. McCoy hopes these T-shaped structures will be available by the end of the year. Toward that end, McCoy said the airport authority has asked the county for $200,000 to sweep the parcel for unexploded ordnance, a concern stemming from its past military use. The area has been closed since 1995.

Some of the county money would go to develop a fifth large hangar on the airport's west side, McCoy said. A rare plant discovered on the proposed site in 2000 delayed that plan. But the Maryland Department of the Environment recently gave the airport permission to move the plant - the spiky thistle Juncus polycephalus - to another part of the field.

The airport authority wants to land a business tenant, an aviation-service company or a manufacturer to occupy the hangar, McCoy said.

"We wouldn't want to do it until we can find a tenant to use it," he said.

The airport authority also is seeking $100,000 from the state, in the form of a bond bill sponsored by Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr., a Laurel Democrat, to renovate a defunct five-story tower. The structure would serve as office space for pilot associations and provide a vantage point from the observation deck for school groups to watch planes take off and land. The bill is pending in the legislature.

"An economy in this day and age needs a strong aviation component, and this will help to spark this interest," said Michael Wassel, Tipton's general manager.

A series of improvements has also boosted the airport's stature. The taxi area and runway were resurfaced last year. The Maryland Aviation Administration in June approved a $90,000 grant to renovate one of the large hangars. And improved runway lighting will be installed by this summer, Wassel said.

Airport and county officials hope the new amenities will further improve the profile of a once-decrepit airport and create a more corporate presence.

Flamino, of the pilots' association, and other local fliers hope the development will lead to the addition of a restaurant. Eateries draw pilots to other regional airports such as Cambridge, Easton and Gaithersburg.

"It would definitely be a benefit," Flamino said. "Those are the things that attract pilots."

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