How to Save an Airport

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The usual story is all too familiar: The neighbors, complaining of noise and safety concerns, organize to close down an airport, and despite the efforts of a small band of pilots, soon the airfield is the site of yet another suburban subdivision with street names like Aviation Way and Kitty Hawk Lane. But here's a twist: The neighbors, outraged by a threat to close their local airfield, join together and demand that it stay open, because they love it just the way it is. AVweb's News Editor Mary Grady tells the unlikely tale of a tiny airport with a big heart.

The busy brick-and-stone village of Newburyport, Massachusetts, embraces a scenic waterfront on the wide Merrimack River, close to the treacherous shoals where the waters empty into the Atlantic Ocean. Its narrow streets overflow with the seaside ambiance typical of the small towns along the North-of-Boston coast: historic buildings, upscale shops and restaurants, white-steepled churches, art galleries. But follow the winding two-lane road to the east, and the horizon opens up to reveal wide wet expanses of silent green saltmarshes, striped by blue inlets from the sea. And tucked along the roadside, about three miles from the village and just before the bridge to Plum Island proper, is tiny Plum Island Airport an inconspicuous plot of grass that has aroused powerful feelings in this small New England place.

The little airport doesn't look like much at first glance. A shingled office building with a porch overlooks the narrow runway, and nearby sit a couple of rusty hangars and a couple of dozen tiedowns. Along the roadside stretches a mowed field used mainly for banner-towing operations. The view stretches far across the marshes to the south and east, to the beach cottages of Plum Island, about a mile away. The seagrasses glow in the yellow light of late afternoon, as a cool breeze off the ocean fills the two orange windsocks.

There's not a lot to see. Yet if you sit for a while on that porch, with your feet up on the worn wooden railing, and watch as the sky grows bluer, the sun sinks lower, the windsocks sag, suddenly you might realize an hour or two has passed and you're feeling very content. Nothing much has happened a few touch-and-goes squeaked past, a trike pilot took off on a pleasure flight, a Plum Island vacationer stopped by to inquire about scenic rides and stayed to chat until he was late for dinner. But already the airport has revealed its secret: Yes, it's plain and simple and slow, but that is precisely its allure.

The Answer Is 'No'

The Little farmhouse

The future of Plum Island Airport has been in question since late last year. On the far side of the runway is a stand of trees, and beyond those trees lies the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm, owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA). The historical society inherited the farm from the Little family, and along with it got a large chunk of the airport property, including most of the runway, which was leased to Kathy and Dick Hordon. Last December, SPNEA told the Hordons, who operate the airport and own the buildings and part of the land, that the lease they'd held for 30 years would not be renewed when it expires on December 31, 2000. Without that lease for the runway, the Hordons would have no choice but to close the airport.

"SPNEA said having an airport so close to their [historic 1690] farmhouse was a risk," recalls Stephen Lisauskas, who works in the mayor's office in Newburyport. SPNEA also expressed concerns about liability and insurance, and a preference to leave the land as open space. "But that airport is an important part of our economy and our history," says Lisauskas. "People love it. Generations of people have flown out there. The mayor supports it and the community supports it. And the airport's risk to that farmhouse is little or none." When Mayor Lisa Mead heard early this year about the decision to end the lease, she asked for a meeting with SPNEA officials to see if they would reconsider. "She had not expected SPNEA to have responded the way they did, which was 'No,'" Lisauskas told the Newburyport Daily News after that meeting. "There appears to be nothing further that the city can do."

The Public Takes A Stand

Jane McNeal in PJ's variety store

Perhaps the city was stymied, but the people were just getting started. The Daily News cried "Mead's plea for airport is rejected" on page one on March 8. Within two days, Jane McNeal, the owner of PJ's variety store and restaurant on Plum Island and a pilot who learned to fly at the airport 20 years ago began circulating a petition opposing SPNEA's decision and expressing public support for keeping the airport open. "It was a done deal," said McNeal, of SPNEA's position on the lease, but people didn't seem willing to accept that. A lot of pilots come into her place for coffee or a sandwich, and they wanted to do something. "The stories I heard were so heartwarming," she said. Everyone seemed to have fond memories of the airport, and they weren't going to stand silently by and see it close. Soon people were stopping in not to shop or buy lunch, but just to sign the petition.

Meetings were held, phone calls were made, a group called Friends of Plum Island Airport was formed, and a web site was started. Letters to the editor poured into the Daily News: "[The airport] is as much a piece of Newburyport history as any of the buildings under the SPNEA umbrella." ... "As a young boy of 6 or 7 years, I used to sit... and watch the airplanes ... Please do not let these memories vanish." Many supporters noted the historic nature of the airport itself, which has been in operation since the 1930s, making it one of the oldest airports in New England. SPNEA was criticized for hypocrisy, and for making decisions without considering the wishes of the community. Business people chimed in that they needed the airport, too, and it became clear the airport's constituency spread far beyond a handful of pilots.

A Welcoming Place

On the ramp at Plum Island

Where did all this pro-airport sentiment come from? "Kathy and Dick Hordon have done a lot of things right, for many years encouraging frequent public use of the airport," Glenn Greenhalgh, of Air News New England, wrote in an editorial last summer. Kathy Hordon agrees: "This huge outcry of support there would not be this response if it weren't for the way the airport has been run for the past 35 years... We invite the community in all the time." The Lions Club holds a horse show there; the Boy Scouts, synagogues and high-school graduation classes all host events on the field, and the Hordons offer use of the site for free. Most summers they organize fly-ins, and every year they offer five-cent-a-pound flights during the area's Yankee Homecoming celebration.

Geography has also conspired to keep the airport visible and friendly. It sits right along the edge of the winding Plum Island Turnpike, the main route between downtown Newburyport and the sandy beaches of Plum Island. Plentiful roadside parking and open access invite passing motorists to stop by for a look at the small aircraft. Few houses are found nearby. Across the turnpike to the north is the mouth of the Merrimack River; to the south and east are wetlands and a wildlife refuge. All that open space makes it easier for the pilots to avoid annoying the neighbors though one Plum Island resident complained in a letter to the Daily News about "low-flying planes hot-dogging over our neighborhood."

The Tide Turns

A T-shirt for sale at PJ's

In May, as the petition at PJ's topped 2,500 signatures, SPNEA agreed to meet with a group of interested parties. The society learned about the history of the airport, its economic impact pegged at $3 million annually by the state's aviation agency and they heard that the community likes the airport the way it is, without chain-link fences or development. And SPNEA listened. "We didn't know it was a historic airport," says Michael Lynch, of SPNEA. "We now know better." After that meeting, SPNEA gradually began to reconsider its stand. "After seeing how everybody felt, it opened their eyes a little bit," said McNeal, of PJ's.

SPNEA hired a consultant to assess the safety issues at the airport, and recommend changes. That report was completed late last month, and Lynch seemed reassured by it. "There's nothing in [the consultant's] recommendations that I would see as a deal-breaker," he said. "These are incremental improvements extending a physical barrier along the full length of the runway, better control over access to keep kids and birders away from the runway, cutting down some trees." Lynch now plans to recommend to SPNEA's board later this month that they seek proposals from anyone who might want the runway lease. Already, he said last week, five or six potential operators have expressed interest in the site.

An Airport From The Past, Into The Future

The porch at Plum Island Airport

But since the Hordons own part of the airport, what happens if SPNEA leases its part of it to somebody else? "That is a complicating factor," Lynch acknowledges. He suggested that perhaps the Hordons will submit the best proposal, making the question moot. Or a new operator could negotiate an arrangement with the Hordons, if they're willing. Or theoretically, the runway could be extended, to make it usable without the 420 feet owned by the Hordons. Lynch has heard from people who'd like to build an aviation history museum on the site, and he's intrigued by that idea. But nothing has been decided yet.

"We're committed to making this a public, open process," Lynch said. "We were criticized before for making decisions behind closed doors." Once he has proposals in hand, the next phase will be to invite public discussion. "What kind of airport do people want? How much should we keep it the way it looks now? We'll be looking for input in some kind of public forum." All of this could take some time. Meanwhile, the Hordons wait to see how it will all play out. "We're just in kind of a holding pattern," Kathy Hordon told AVweb. "It's a very unusual situation."

Yes, it's unusual when a small, general aviation, public-use airport is threatened and survives. It's unusual when business, government and residents join together to keep aviation a part of their community. Here's hoping the unusual will prevail, and generations to come will pull off the Plum Island Turnpike on a summer afternoon, put their feet up on that worn wooden railing, and watch or fly along as the wonder of wings, plain and simple, carries on.