Back in March, a small plane crash near Santa Monica Airport in California was widely reported by TV news stations and social media platforms across the country. What made the story so newsworthy was the aircraft was piloted by the actor Harrison Ford. It was reported he masterfully crash-landed his vintage WWII aircraft on a nearby golf course. The landing was masterful because Mr. Ford did it all by the book and inflicted no harm to anyone but himself and to his aircraft.
The Sky is Falling, The Sky is Falling
This accident comes at a time when Santa Monica Airport has been under attack by factions within the neighboring community who want to close the airport due to fear of a plane falling out of the sky or skidding off a runway. The usual battle cry is the airport is too noisy and too dangerous to be in such proximity to so densely a populated area.
Truth is, Santa Monica Airport (and many like it) was built well before the land around it was developed. Santa Monica, originally Clover field, dates back to the 1920s and was for many years the home of the Douglas Aircraft Company, which produced thousands of aircraft, including one of the most popular commercial aircraft of all time, the DC-3.
Despite long-standing agreements between the city of Santa Monica and the FAA, the voters have put the future of the field in the hands of the City Council. As is the case in many municipalities, the airport is in a prime location and is valuable property that is ripe for development. With the decision left to politicians, the outcome will most likely be in the best interest of aviation, or the overall economic interest of the region. Considering the airport was once part of a thriving aerospace industry in Southern California and its contributions to the nation in both war and peacetime are incalculable, this is a sad state of affairs.
Note: Since the Harrison Ford accident, the Santa Monica City Council has begun limiting lease terms for certain airport tenants, some for as little as 3 years, others on a month-by-month basis. The City Council hasn’t banned jet traffic or closed the airport outright, but they are taking measures to control its use.
Can you keep it down please! We’re trying to put you out of business.
These days, however, you don’t have to close an airport to cause significant harm; you can also handcuff it with municipal ordinances – as is the case of Southampton Heliport on Long Island. Residents there have asked the municipality to restrict helicopter flights because of the continual low approaches at all hours of the day and night. When Southampton Heliport was built it was on the edge of the sleepy Long Island town. Now it is in the backyard of the rich and famous.
Note: The proposed noise restrictions at the South Hampton Heliport are the direct result of similar restrictions proposed for the airport in nearby East Hampton. Village officials at South Hampton are concerned if East Hampton limits helicopter flights, more helicopter traffic would come to the South Hampton facility.
Everyone to shut down the airport! The Terrorists are coming!
Many community airports across the country were built years before the age of terrorism fenced them in. Take Meigs field in downtown Chicago. It was closed right after 911 when Mayor Daley sent bulldozers in the cloak of darkness to wreck the runways and taxiways. Mayor Daley, who long wanted to close the airport, used the excuse of a possible terrorist threat that may take down the Sears Tower, to close the airport without warning or public debate.
In another time, before urban and suburban sprawl overtook the towns and villages that once harbored small community airports, the airports and the aircraft they cradled were new and exciting marvels of technology. Today, flying has become commonplace, aeronautics isn’t the mystery it once was, and the accommodating airport has become just another noisy, irritating neighbor.
The Way We Were.
Before we go on to explain how vital community airports are to the nation at large, and how every one we lose is a deficit to the U.S. economy, let’s talk about something else that’s being lost along the way – the sense of intimacy communities once had with their local airfields and with aviation.
At one time, there was a grand old lady of an airfield called Zahns airport. Zahns was located in North Amityville, Long Island and for a time in the late Fifties and early Sixties, it was one of the busiest General Aviation Airports on the East Coast with two flight schools, an Air National Guard station, and a Civil Air Patrol squadron.
Legions of soldiers returning from the Korean War flocked to Zahns to learn to fly using the GI Bill to finance their passion for aviation. They learned at Zahns in J3 cubs that were so worn and patched from so many flights, the students lovingly referred to them as “the yellow peril.” Still, the students were not deterred and the airfield thrived.
Zahns was built in 1936 and maintained its rustic nature right through the early sixties. It was so much an old fashioned airfield that it was chosen as the departure field in the film the Spirit of St. Louis because at the time the film was being made the field Lindberg original departed from, Roosevelt field, was well on its way to becoming a shopping center. Zahns with its gritty and sometimes muddy taxiways and graveling runways fit the moviemaker’s idea of aviation in the 1920s.
Fifty years or so ago, there was no airport fence at Zahns, but there was an airport log, conveniently placed a few hundred feet from the end of the runway so kids could watch the constant aerial ballet in progress at Zahns airfield on humid, breezy, summer days. For some dreamers, it was better than baseball.
If you were an airplane geek, you were in airplane heaven because no more than a mile away from Zahns was the then Republic Airfield where many storied World War II and Korean era aircraft were built and tested.
Zahns was torn down in 1980, victim of a bad 1970s economy and because it could not compete with Republic which had become a private airport with modern hangers and paved runways and, of course, a serious security fence.
The good news is Zahns lives on as an add on for X-plane simulators thanks largely to something called the Zahns project. If you think an airport cannot still be loved and cherished, go to www.zahnsairport.com and check out the site and the comments from the many aviators who learned to fly there.
Back to the Future…of local airports.
The last few decades have not been good for small GA airfields around the country. Many have closed due to lack of interest and the ability to run profitably. When an airport closes many other businesses also close such as flight schools, maintenance facilities FBOs and even restaurants; and, as mentioned earlier, many communities have grown to the point where they encroach on airport runway aprons. The situation is serious enough to have the attention of the FAA, AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), the NBAA (National Business Aircraft Association) and even the Wall Street Journal.
Here’s where U.S. aviation stands right now:
- 19,000 airports, heliports, seaplane bases in total in U.S.
- 5,200 public use airports
- 3,330 are included in FAA National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIHS)
- There are 378 primary airports plus another 2,952 landing facilities (2903 are airports, 10 heliports, 39 seaplane bases)
- 121 of these smaller airfield facilities support limited air service and across the system serve from 2500 to 10,000 passengers a year
Why we need our local airports and aviation in general.
- General Aviation supports nearly 1.3 million jobs across the United States
- GA provides almost $150 billion in total economic activity annually
- Smaller airports serve as bases for many vital community services including medical airlifts, firefighting, survey work, traffic reporting, weather reporting and parcel delivery
- An estimated 65% of general aviation flights are conducted for business and public services that need transportation more flexible than the airlines
In AOPA’s Guide to Airport Noise and Compatible Land Use, airport owners and mangers can find lots of useful information that will assist them with zoning issues, noise compliance issues and more. All of this is of course helpful, but it still doesn’t address the underlying issue – the general public’s enmity and/or fear of General Aviation and their complete lack of understanding of its financial impact.
A threat from within.
Despite all the efforts to keep community airports open, there are other factors endangering them – and they’re actually coming from within the aviation community. The changes in the number of hours a pilot needs to qualify for a right seat on a commuter airline (now 1500) has caused a shortage in pilots at this entry-level position. The lack of pilots, also due in large part to lousy pay, has caused many small airlines to cancel service to many smaller airports. The trickle down effect is dramatic.
Fewer or no flights mean less economic opportunity. Some communities have no access to airline air travel without these commuter airline services. The revenue stream not only cuts off to the airport, but it also negatively impacts the business economy of the region. If business cannot efficiently and economically travel by air to those regions, it will look elsewhere to seek customers and revenue.
Nothing happens in the vacuum. The aviation community needs to make a concerted effort to communicate the value of General Aviation to the public. Many members of Congress understand the value of GA and the importance of community airports. Most CEOs and senior business executives understand it as well.
We need to grow awareness of the importance of our local airports for our communities throughout our country. Funding from government can only do so much. Active support needs to come at a grass roots level.
Maybe what we need even more is a new place for those kids who used to sit on the log at the local airport. We need a sanctuary where we can encourage our young and the young-at-heart to again look up in wonder at what is one of the greatest miracles of our time – flight!