The virtual airport and its pilot’s lounge came into being when I started writing this column almost exactly 20 years ago. (There’s a partial index of the columns hereand here.) The airport, the lounge and the characters who brought their wisdom to the discussions reported in the columns were, and are, an amalgam of airports where I’ve spent time and people I’ve been fortunate enough to know over the years. The airport is modeled on the one in Jefferson, Iowa, because it always felt to me to be the right size for a general aviation airport populated by people who like to fly little airplanes and it has one grass runway—something I consider of great value for fun flying.
The lounge is a combination of pilot-friendly airport lounges, lobbies and offices I’ve enjoyed, notably at the Michigan Flyers (flying club) on the Ann Arbor, Michigan, airport, Northwoods Aviation (FBO) on the Cadillac, Michigan, airport and the airport office and lounge (I don’t recall who the operator was) on the Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, airport where I made a stop back in the summer of 2000 to avoid flying through a nasty line of thunderstorms.
My columns have come from an imaginary airport that welcomes pilots, encourages them to socialize and pass along information that other pilots will hopefully find valuable.
Eighteen months ago, life followed art—I was faced with the opportunity and challenge of finding a real-world welcoming airport. My wife and I had decided to figure out where we wanted to live when we retired and to move to the location well before it is time to retire. One of the reasons for moving was that getting to the general aviation airport nearest where we lived involved a minimum drive time of an hour through increasingly heavy traffic. I wanted to do more flying and more flight instructing, but two hours of time in the car to do so was a major disincentive.
My wife and I drew up a list of things that were important to us for a place to live. High on the list was a short drive to a general aviation airport that was alive and well. The increasing lack of aircraft rental and maintenance services on little airports proved to make the search for the right place to live more difficult than we had expected. We rejected a lot of locations because there either wasn’t an airport nearby or the one that was had no aircraft rental (not even a flying club) or maintenance on the field.
Our search soon centered on North Idaho. We traveled to Sandpoint, Idaho, where we met with the realtor (who is a pilot) and started looking at homes and property that she thought had potential. Long story short, there wasn’t anything for sale on the local residential airports and we liked some property near the community of Bonners Ferry (named after a ferry across the Kootenai River established in 1864 during a gold rush in British Columbia, Canada). It was 12 minutes from the Boundary County airport. That was a hopeful sign.
Searching For a Welcoming Airport
Hoping I’d find a welcoming airport, my wife and I drove into the parking lot of the FBO, Northern Air. The first thing I saw was a sign saying that ice cream was for sale inside the FBO. That was completely unexpected and felt like a friendly touch.
Inside, we walked past a good-sized classroom/meeting room, two clean restrooms and down a hall lined with more than 10 years of photos of pilots who had soloed, gotten a new rating or a tailwheel, high-performance or complex airplane endorsement. This airport celebrated the success of its pilots. Things were feeling better and better even though I was undergoing the usual feelings we all have when going into a strange new place. I suddenly thought how incredibly brave anyone is who walks into an FBO to ask about learning to fly.
Once in the lobby—with big windows facing the 4,000-foot runway—we were greeted by the office manager, Katherine Boger. She had that rare ability to make you feel as if you were the most interesting person she’d met all week. I explained that we were considering a move to the area and asked about the airport, aircraft rentals and maintenance in case we decided to buy an airplane.
Katherine—a pilot knowledgeable in the questions pilots new to an area ask—told us that the FBO had an active flight school and a rental fleet that consisted of two Cessna 172s, a Citabria 7KCAB and a Piper Comanche 250. Tailwheel checkouts and aerobatic instruction in the Citabria were available as were backcountry and mountain checkouts.
I asked Katherine about the possibility of instructing in the flight school. She said there was a good possibility because the pilot shortage was affecting them, and they had more student demand than they had instructors. She excused herself for a moment, went into the office and asked the gentleman working at a computer in there to come out. She introduced me to David Parker, airport manager and FBO proprietor as well as—I found out later—high-time backcountry, fire patrol and wilderness pilot.
Dave and I talked, and I learned that the FBO had a substantial maintenance operation, did a great deal of work doing fire spotting with two Cessna P337s and a bunch of wilderness flying tracking wildlife in a Cessna 182. This place was too cool for words. As we chatted, I found that my application to instruct on a part-time basis would probably be treated favorably and that the only thing that might be less than favorable on the airport was that there was not always hangar space available although the county—which owned the airport—looked favorably on leasing land to folks who wanted to build a hangar.
After springing for ice cream and taking too much of Dave’s time, my wife and I departed. In the car she asked me for my thoughts. I admit that I responded enthusiastically.
Making the Move
More long story short—because the area checked virtually all the boxes in our “where we want to live” checklist, and the airport felt just plain good, we made an offer on the property we’d liked. After the usual back and forth of a real estate purchase, we became owners of some heavily wooded land with great mountain views and started building a house.
Shortly after that, I made my next sojourn to the Boundary County Airport and Northern Air. I approached Dave Parker and formally asked if I could instruct. He sent me out to fly in the Citabria with Wayne Sommers, a guy with impressive flight experience. He did years and thousands of hours as a tailwheel freight dog. I got into the Citabria hoping not to embarrass myself. We did the requisite airwork involving steep turns, slow flight, stalls and spins and then landed at one of the funkiest airports I’ve ever flown into—1S1, Eckhart International Airport in Porthill, Idaho. It’s a grass runway international airport because you can taxi off of the north end of the runway to Customs. OK, I’m a rube coming to a new area of our country, but what the folks here take for granted blew me away.
Bottom line—I had a great flight with a superb instructor who has tailwheel chops that don’t quit. After that flight and one more once we had made the move north, Wayne and Dave were kind enough to approve me to instruct.
So, here’s the deal. My wife and I have made the move. I’m having a ball instructing on a part-time basis at one of the coolest FBOs I’ve ever run across.
I’m also still doing a lot of work as an attorney on airport access issues under federal law and the FARs. I’ve spent decades fighting airport owners/management over stupid/unreasonable airport rules and restrictions designed to keep general aviation off of airports. I’ve dealt with airport managers seeking to keep piston-engine airplanes, ultralights and skydivers from basing on his airport because the airport council/committee/owner/sponsor is convinced that by doing so the airport will make a fortune attracting turbine airplanes and their mega-buck owners. The big-money-for-airport concept may sound good if you say it fast, but the reality is that once the airport powers that be drive off the piston-engine crowd, their traffic count goes into the toilet and they wind up scratching their heads over why getting federal airport aid money is suddenly so much harder.
After years of fighting bad airport management and now being fortunate enough to fly from a welcoming airport, let’s talk about what makes a welcoming airport.
When you walk it to the main airport office—no matter whether it’s an FBO or terminal building—you should be greeted by someone who is enthusiastic that you’re there. After all, general aviation is contracting at an ever-increasing rate—we need to reach out to every single person who walks slowly by the door. If there are the usual bunch of hangers-on sitting around the lobby complaining, airport management either needs to keep them away from potential customers or train them to step up and welcome each new face who walks in the door.
Aircraft Rental/Flight School
The pilot shortage has created a boom for flight schools. I recognize that for many small airports, a flight school by itself, may not be self-sustaining. However, for a welcoming airport that wants to keep alive and attract people to the community, I think there has to be a viable way to learn to fly with rental airplanes (some of them not plain vanilla) available to customers once they get rated. Yes, I know, customers tend to bend tailwheel airplanes, so having anything other than plain vanilla is challenging.
There is a pilot shortage; however, there are a lot of retired professional pilots who might be interested in instructing if the pay is right. They are a source of knowledge that welcoming airports can tap for everything from primary instruction through flight reviews to mentoring of pilots who want to get advanced ratings or simply up their game. Plus, if a renter demonstrates a bit of shortcoming in the judgement or skill end of things, having a high-time CFI around to have a low-key chat can work wonders.
There is an undercurrent in the world of general aviation aircraft ownership that a pilot isn’t a real pilot if he can’t maintain his own airplane. The reality is that most pilots who can afford to own an airplane have to spend time making the money necessary to keep it running, so they can’t even do even the minor stuff, such as oil changes, on their own. They need a good maintenance shop on the airport.
An EAA Chapter
One of the first things I did when I moved to Bonners Ferry was to join the local EAA Chapter. It meets monthly and has working evenings. I was made welcome at the first meeting and I’ve greatly enjoyed the pilots I’ve met through the Chapter 757.
I immediately learned of a very cool activity undertaken by Chapter 757—it puts on a huckleberry pancake breakfast on the last Saturday morning of each summer month. There are posters all over town and it generally attracts over 200 people and keeps attention on the airport. The money raised from the breakfasts goes to fund scholarships for young people who want to learn to fly.
Based on personal observation, an active EAA chapter is an integral part of a welcoming airport.
I don’t envy the person who has to make the decisions regarding hangar rental prices, whether the airport should build and rent hangars and under what terms airport owners will lease land for tenants to build hangars. I heartily congratulate those airport managers and airport councils that put manage to read the tea leaves correctly and put together an airport master plan (required by the FAA in order to get federal airport funds) that sets aside an adequate area for hangars, arranges to have sufficient available hangar space, writes land leases that encourage building hangars while protecting the airport from the things that can go wrong when hangar owners prove to be irresponsible while not confiscating the hangar after the lease ends.
In my opinion, a welcoming airport has hangar space available for rent. Rates should reflect the realities of the cost of capital for their construction and the cost of maintenance that must be carried out by the airport. Figuring out what is an appropriate rental rate should involve the airport users. I recognize that pilots can be notorious tightwads who whine no matter what the rates are—but if aircraft owners are leaving the airport for other ones or simply selling their airplanes, something is badly wrong.
A welcoming airport, in my opinion, allows hangar tenants to make their hangars comfortable with such things as sofas, refrigerators, TVs, grills and the other things that draw the users to the airport on a nice day. So long as the primary purpose of the use of the hangar is storage of an airplane and it’s not blocked from getting in and out, the FAA’s guidance to airports is to let the tenants fix up their places.
When the atmosphere around the hangars is pleasant, pilots are much more likely to come out to the airport on a nice day and go flying, boosting fuel sales and the aircraft movement count—positives for the airport.
The FAA has long made it clear that airports have to allow aircraft owners to obtain their own fuel for their airplanes. That is established law. At the same time, the airport can impose reasonable safety rules—hangar fires are rare but when they happen the fuel in the wings of the airplanes can make them serious. Still, there is little risk from three or four standard, five-gallon gas containers used by an owner to fuel his Cessna 150 with auto fuel. Those have been in garages across the country for years and often survive a house fire intact. Rules prohibiting such containers are, in my opinion, petty and just a backhanded effort by the airport to force pilots to buy fuel from the airport—which is illegal. Just don’t fuel the airplane inside the hangar.
At the same time, much of the financial underpinning of an airport is fuel sales—so it can require that owners who self-fuel pay a flowage fee on the fuel they bring onto the airport and put into their airplanes. Some airports do so. I’ve observed that the rate is usually less than 10 cents per gallon and the self-fueling owner has to keep fuel receipts to show the airport how much fuel is going into the wing. While owners don’t like the paperwork, it seems to me to be a reasonable compromise because the airport needs money to stay alive—to be there for the owner in the first place—and if the owner is not going to buy fuel from the airport, she or he should be paying something to offset the airport’s loss of revenue. Robert Heinlein said it best, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
Welcome All Users
Putting it bluntly, the rate of contraction of general aviation is approaching crisis. In my opinion, it’s just plain stupid for an airport to try and keep some types of users away because the established users (fixed-wing pilots) don’t like them. First, the number of established users is probably going down. Second, there are growing areas within general aviation, notably ultralights and, especially, skydiving. Federal law says that airports have to make themselves available to all users unless a particular use or user is unsafe—and the safety decision is to be made by the FAA, not the airport. Airports with mixes of gliders, fixed-wing aircraft, rotorcraft, skydivers, ultralights and balloons have been operating safely for years. Interestingly enough, from my observation, those tend to be the ones that are the most healthy. I’ve spoken with airport managers whose airports were operating in the red financially and who had reached out to a skydiving operator. Once skydiving started up, fuel sales ratcheted up dramatically (in some cases it doubled) and the airport finances became healthy. A side effect was that local motels and restaurants got more business because the skydiving operator attracted customers who would come for the weekend to jump and bring their families.
We’ve long known that a certain percentage of businesses won’t locate in a community without easy airport access. An airport is an integral part of any community’s disaster plan—it may be the sole connection to the outside world for some time following an earthquake that drops bridges or a flood that blocks roads or a hurricane or tornado that blocks highways. On a very basic level, having a viable community airport may be a matter of life and death for people in that community. On happier level, a viable, welcoming airport not only benefits the community financially, it is a part of the community’s overall network of recreational areas such as parks, bike trails and tennis courts. A welcoming airport provides needed recreation and is a source of pleasure to all of us.
Rick Durden is a CFII, holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation and is the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing it, Vols. 1 & 2.