Are You Open To The Public?

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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;]..!

Good, cat.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Paul, my 74 year old flying machine lives at a facility with a 7000 foot concrete runway, but she does have her own favorite patch of grass somewhere adjacent to the concrete patch. We’d both rather be based at your kind of place, 353 ft tower on not. Glad you lost the tower but sorry for the inconvenience you had to endure to lose it. Hope my machine meets yours someday, both a bit stuck up with their noses in high the air.

  2. Will there be any accompanying federally-mandated compliance items appearing with the disappearance of (PVT) from the charts? At the very least it’s probably a good thing the feds have instituted a unisex restroom policy.

  3. A good point was made of which I think most pilots/public are not aware. That is..the FAA neither approves or disapproves any building of radio towers and such. As an FAAer for years, I took an Obstruction Evaluation course about 25 years ago. So between my memory and possibly changing rules since then, grain of salt here.

    However, to build a tower, or any structure that will be sticking up in the sky, the proponent must submit their intent to the FAA. The FAA OE office will then look it over and issue several possible conclusions regarding the project. The two that affect airspace are the determinations that it is either an “obstruction” or a “hazard”. If its under 200 ft, and not located within a certain distance of airports, etc, it is a “who cares”. That is why most cell towers are 199 ft tall. Even with those the proponent is expected to furnish the FAA info on it when completed so it can be charted. Over 200′, or within certain distances of airports, approach paths, etc, it is then defined as an “obstruction”. That is not necessarily bad under some circumstances. Anything over 500′, or located in critical flight areas, is defined as a “hazard”.

    Now here’s the deal. The FAA only determines this, gives this information to the proponent, and will offer suggestions as to what to do with it. That can be info on markings, lighting, relocating it, and so forth. But with the FAA, it ends there. The FAA cannot stop the construction if the proponent wishes to proceed. No authority with the FAA. And….until this class, I never knew that!

    However, as Paul pointed out, approval is still needed to build from somebody almost every time. That will probably be requiring a permit to build from either a local, county, or state government. Assuming their building permit department is knowledgeable, they will know that the FAA has passed judgement on this project. They will then, if they are smart and liability conscious, use the FAA’s judgement and recommendations to approve or deny the permit. And additionally, most structures require insurance. Same thing for that. Most companies will not issue a policy if the FAA frowns on the project. And last thing, (more than you ever wanted to know), if the structure is going to have a radio transmitter on top of it, the FCC will not issue a license to transmit if the FAA has frowned. Soooo, FAA can’t act directly, but their opinion does carry a lot of weight. And, don’t go build based on my 25 year old memory here.

  4. Paul,

    It was a pleasure to read your article, both for the content and the style. Write again. You have a sense of wry that’s often missing in aviation writing.

  5. I ALSO appreciate your style of writing. I once mentioned to the OTHER Paul B. that I appreciated his “insouciant style of writing.” He replied “Where I grew up, we just called it “smart-a*s!” Both of you are great authors–but the other Paul gets all of the video time. Ask for equal time!

    “Willkommen, Bieinvenu, Welcome.” There is a line in Blazing Saddles for every social occasion! In times like these, we appreciate the humor!

    • … which Mel Brooks blatantly stole from “Cabaret”. Not that your point isn’t totally true.

      “Where ya goin’, cowboy?”
      “Nowhere special.”
      “Nowhere special. I’ve always wanted to go there…”

  6. Paul, I too live in a private (public use) airpark with 2298′ paved and turf runways. The FAA sends us notices about structures to be built. Last one is 8 or 10 miles away and 80′ MSL. Makes one wonder what kind of flying pilots do on Cape Cod.
    Loved your article. You do have a sense of humor.

  7. Thanks for another great article, Paul! Towers of any kind and any height intimidate me. Glad to hear that your airport’s pushback was a success!

  8. Not sure why my comment was deleted.
    If you try and stop a tower by being part of the system then you will lose your independence.
    You will now be required to have security, handicapped access, and all the rest.
    It was a bad decision to give up everything because of a minor inconvenience, IMHO.

    • Mark, since you are wondering about your deleted comment, I’ll offer you my take on that. It was so totally lacking in public decorum let alone good aeronautical sense that I wondered if the author had been too much under the influence of some substance. I for one was not at all surprised to see that your comment had vanished into what I assume was some great recycle bin in the sky.

      My personal airplane is based at an airport theatis “part of the system”. Our security is our common sense and doesn’t include fences, gates, check points – none of that. I must admit however, we do have handicapped access, not because it is required which it very well may be, but simply out of a sense of wanting to accommodate our fellow human beings for the greater common good. I as a tenant have not lost any independence.

      From Paul Berge’s account, he and his fellow airstrip dwellers are still the happy welcoming bunch they have always been and they expect to remain so. And what’s really important is the Paul’s cat Quimby is walking over his keyboard helping him write. Life doesn’t get better than that, especially for those of us who occasionally need to chill out once in a while. We are the beneficiaries of Paul’s and Quimby’s writing. That includes you even you may not realize it.

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