How quickly life can change was brought home not by a glitzy virus that resembles Mardi Gras decorations in a New Orleans cat house … not that I’ve ever been in New Orleans or a cat house. Although, I do have a cat named for Harriet Quimby, first woman to fly the English Channel in 1912, the same year she crashed and died while not flying the Channel. No, I’m referring to how my home airport was threatened by a paperwork anomaly few anticipated. The pilots based here own and operate the airport. Yeah, inmates took over the asylum. But it seemed to work. It’s a private, open-to-the-public grass strip in central Iowa. That “open to the public” bit is more of a zoning thing than an invitation and came about through a misunderstanding with the FAA.
For decades, we operated in “private” obscurity until a communications firm proposed erecting a 353-foot tower one mile south of Runway 18. Doing the obstacle clearance math of climbing at the TERPS minimum gradient of 200 feet per nautical mile, we concluded that an overloaded Ercoupe departing that runway would prang the tower 155 feet below the topmost flashing bulb, possibly disrupting Domino’s Pizza Tracking Service (DPTS). Appalled by this threat to national readiness, we asked the FAA why it had greenlighted the project without notifying us. The response: “You’re a cornfield.”
Gotta tell ya, having grown up in New Jersey, I’ve been called worse. The FAA explainer said that since we were a private field that wasn’t open to the public, we received the same obstacle clearance consideration as a cornfield, which is none. To paraphrase the FAA’s consigliere, Tom Hagen, “It’s like we never existed,” despite having been in operation since 1972. In response to this existential threat, we changed our airport status from “private” (but friendly) to “open to the public” (outwardly friendlier). A whiff of paperwork, and corn administratively turned to air at this Iowa field, making its owners once again happy. The corporate tower people were not so pleased and complained that we’d caused them to waste many thousands of dollars, emphasizing their displeasure with a collective, “Harrumph!” We suggested that next time they wanted to build a tower, perhaps they should consult an area map. The tower was relocated to a nearby state park, which pissed off a whole different citizenry, but our problem disappeared. Almost.
The airport status change from private to public-use now forces the FAA to consider our airport as a part of the National Airspace System (NAS) when opining about future tall structure projects. The FAA doesn’t approve or forbid such projects, but does warn if building something close to an airport is just stupid. In our case, it was the county supervisors who wielded ultimate approval authority, and upon discovering there was an airport in their domain that paid taxes, they disapproved the tower construction.
Private to public necessitated a CTAF change. Two-way comm is not required at most U.S. airports. Our field is an elbow-bump away from a Class C ring, but sits beneath 1200 feet of Class G—Good—airspace, requiring one-mile visibility and clear-of-clouds to stay legal (if not alive) in fixed-wing, daytime VFR flight. While most airplanes operating here have radios, and many pilots even use them, it’s common to find some jasper in my yellow Champ grinding around the pattern in CTAF silence. It’s not that I think pilots talk too much on CTAF and don’t really communicate—I do, and they don’t—my silence is usually due to the radio’s dead battery. That aside, our change from private to public mandated the CTAF change, because we’d irritated another federal agency.
Decades back, we changed our CTAF from 122.9 to 122.7 (MULTICOM to UNICOM), because 122.9 was congested with blather from neighboring airports where pilots apparently believe that the mic button keeps the wings on. Forget to push it twelve times around the pattern, and you die. Without parental approval, we changed our CTAF, and all was bliss until we morphed from private to public use, triggering the FAA to request a copy of our UNICOM radio license. Awkward. We didn’t have one so ignored the query. As a retired FAAer, I know that many government requests can be ignored. Not this one. Without a ground station and associated license, we had to change back to 122.9.
So, after all this administrative folderol little has changed, the sign of a successful government endeavor. The question becomes, how friendly is “open to the public,” really? To any pilot able to handle a 2000-foot grass strip that always has a crosswind, is often muddy and edged with runway lights that get clipped whenever I mow, we say, “Willkommen, Bieinvenu, Welcome.” Likewise, non-pilots who like to sit in the parking area, nursing a Dr. Pepper while watching the three operations per VFR day, are also welcome.
The airfield has limited commercial draw, despite the presence of two maintenance shops and six CFIs without rental airplanes. There’s no FBO, no tiedowns. We have fuel but for liability reasons, can’t sell to strangers. No courtesy car and the men’s room is a strip of dead grass behind my hangar. Don’t walk there barefoot. A public-use outhouse is available but utilize at your own risk and check the seat for wasp nests before committing.
Ours is an isolated private airport where I’ve been dodging reality for 36 years. We’ve always been open to strangers, just not the legally defined public. We are now. When my hangar’s open, it, too, welcomes the wayfarer, pilot or not. Inside is my 74-year-old flying machine that for over half its life has taken me above inconvenient realities. Private airfields like ours receive no public funding or tax breaks, but harbor impossible dreamers willing to take up the Don Quixote quest of tilting at windmills and towers that threaten to change life as we’ve flown it. There’s more, but Quimby is walking across my keyboard … CapsLockSDVVK;]..!