October 1, 2007
By Julie Summers Walker
Initiative. It's a word AOPA embraces. And of all the powerful and creative initiatives undertaken by the association in its 68-year history, one of the most recent — a grass-roots effort to protect general aviation airports across the country — resonates with all of us.
In survey after survey, and in every Pilot Town Meeting and every AOPA Expo where members voice their needs and opinions, protecting our airports is a top concern. But how does an organization protect airports that cover a vast and diverse nation, one that stretches from sea to shining sea? We can highlight airport activities online in our calendar of aviation events, we can feature the stories of individual airports in our publications (see " A Day in the Life of America's Airports," August Pilot), and we can address individual concerns in our Pilot Information Center and through our member services department.
You may remember a highly publicized incident in October 2005 in which a Cessna Citation VII jet was stolen from St. Augustine Airport in Florida and flown to Gwinnett County-Briscoe Field in Lawrenceville, Georgia. But what you might not know about were the efforts of the AOPA ASN volunteers who had been trying to establish AOPA's Airport Watch program at both airports.
Prior to the incident, both airports' management teams had been reluctant to embrace Airport Watch when approached by the ASN volunteers. After news of the stolen jet spread nationwide, ASN volunteers Robert "Mike" Thompson at St. Augustine and Emory Geiger at Gwinnett County-Briscoe Field sprang into action, obtaining a large supply of Airport Watch materials from AOPA and meeting with the airport management, tenants, and users to promote local airport security awareness. AOPA has sent Airport Watch materials and signs to all 5,300 public-use airports across the country and to all ASN volunteers.
AOPA's Airport Watch, established in 2003, is simple yet effective: Make sure the aircraft you just finished flying is properly locked, and look out for suspicious activity at the airport. You'll be able to tell immediately if someone or something seems out of the ordinary. You can tell your flight instructor or the fixed-base operator, or call the hotline (866-GA-SECURE). For more information on Airport Watch, visit the Web site. — JSW
But it's the AOPA members in the field who can help the most and who AOPA can support the most effectively. To that end, 10 years ago at AOPA Expo 1997, President Phil Boyer announced the AOPA Airport Support Network (ASN) and its goal to have one volunteer at every public-use airport in the United States. At the time it was estimated that we were losing one GA airport a week. In 1969, there were 6,700 public-use airports; by 1997, there were 5,100. Today, we're happy to report, there are 5,204. We have stopped the attrition and are building our infrastructure.
The beauty of the ASN program is in its simplicity: One volunteer becoming the eyes and ears of his or her local airport, reporting to AOPA headquarters periodically via the Internet, and personally interacting with our talented team in the AOPA Government Affairs Division. Airport closures happen for a variety of reasons, from noise complaints to nearby noncompatible development. When AOPA initiated the ASN, it realized that too often the association was the last to know that an airport closure was imminent — it had not heard through its traditional channels of membership, its regional representatives, or the news media. Frequently AOPA was called in at the eleventh hour, and then even its best efforts could not save an airport when developers or neighbors had sunk their hooks into an issue.
Advocacy is a powerful thing on any side of an issue. So if a developer or an anti-airport group had begun its lobbying far ahead of a response from airport supporters, it was often a no-win situation for the airport and AOPA. An early warning system was needed. Now, with constant updates from ASN volunteers in the field, AOPA is no longer caught unaware.
At its first anniversary in 1998, the ASN had nearly 400 volunteers. That number has increased by more than 500 percent. That's a lot of volunteers across this vast nation, and on the pages that follow you'll meet five volunteers and read of their battles to save their local airports. Of course these five are just a microcosm of the ASN program; each hour of each day there is a volunteer fighting small battles — and large ones — at his or her airport, and AOPA is responding with its collective voice of more than 413,000 members. With ASN, a day in the life of America's airports is a good one.
We all know how it happens when you agree to come to a meeting and you somehow end up elected its leader. That's what happened to David B. Evans when he learned that the previous ASN volunteer at Concord, California's Buchanan Field was retiring. But that was OK with Evans; a manager of software teams, Evans is used to getting people to work together.
Late in 2003 the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors proposed closing Buchanan Field; transferring aviation activities to Byron Airport; and developing Buchanan's 600 acres into a mix of uses including homes, parks, commercial sites, and offices. Back in 1942, the new airfield at Concord was quickly caught up in World War II-era activities and during the war years was called the Concord Army Air Base. In 1946 it was renamed for longtime county supervisor William J. Buchanan and reverted to civilian use.
By 1977 Buchanan Field was one of the busiest airports in the country, ranked sixteenth in the nation. Commercial aviation left the field in the 1980s and by 1994 Byron Airport in the eastern part of the county had opened as a reliever for Buchanan.
Situated in the center of the city of Concord, Buchanan Field is today a major reliever airport for the San Francisco Bay area and is the forty-fifth busiest GA airport in the country with more than 580 based aircraft and some 157,000 annual flight operations.
Because the airport is located in the city center — and the area is a fast-growing suburb of San Francisco — noise complaints became an issue, which by 1987 was such a concern that a group calling itself People Over Planes organized to fight activity at Buchanan. Noise-abatement procedures were put in place, and the community and airport users agreed to get along — at least until the proposed development plan cropped up in 2003.
By this time the airport boasted a diverse group of people both a part of and in conflict with the field. There were social groups, private flying clubs, an EAA chapter, and the People Over Planes group. Evans realized he had to get those groups — all with different agendas for the airport — to come to a consensus to save the airport. "We formed an airport coalition, a super group, one organization that allows each to maintain their own identity, but coordinate our actions," says Evans. "The result was a lot of diverse groups that may have worked against each other came together."
Evans says that with the proposed development in 2003, a pall came over the field. It suffered economically and people and businesses began to move from the field. But as the Friends of Concord Airport Coalition came together and worked together, things began to change. "We realized we had to work together for all of us to survive," says Evans.
That coming together, says Evans, is his contribution to the effort that saved the airport. And now the county supervisor who once led the charge for development says he thinks the board needs to get back to "being re-energized about the existing airport and making it as good as it can be."
New construction is underway at Buchanan Field in the form of a new jet center. "It's the first new construction in 20 years," says Evans. "If you learn how your airport operates — and work together — you will be successful."
In an irony that can be explained only by lack of communication, a society formed to preserve history once attempted to close down the oldest airport in New England. The Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), now Historic New England, was bequeathed the land on which Plum Island Airport, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, is situated. Not knowing the history of the airport and believing the airport threatened the preservation of the historic Little Farm (circa 1690), which SPNEA owns in addition to the airport land, the society decided not to renew the lease on the airport.
Sadly, the reaction from the then-lessee was to shut down, and the airport where biplanes once were tested and early airmail runs took place was shuttered and Xs were placed on the runway. Plum Island Airport, which dates to 1910 and has stood at its current location in picturesque coastal New England since 1934, seemed doomed. For 10 months it stopped all operations and languished.
Enter AOPA ASN volunteer Robert G. Walton. He organized pilots in the area and helped with the formation of the Friends of Plum Island Airport, now Plum Island Community Airfield, Inc. (PICA). The group was lobbying furiously in the community when a notam was issued to close the airport permanently. Undaunted, Walton stepped up his efforts.
"We could not look at the interests of others [such as SPNEA] and see them as the enemy," Walton says. "We had to address each concern. That's the job I took on."
In addition to the SPNEA, Plum Island Airport's neighbors also include a wildlife refuge and Audubon Society land. "We established good communication with these other special interests and got them talking about their concerns and needs," says Walton. This communication was often as simple as notifying the other organizations of planned events, scheduling in coordination with one another, and, in one case, taking a member flying.
Most interesting is that once the SPNEA heard of the airport's past, it began its own research into the history of the airport. Now the small museum on the field has expanded, the local FBO manager — he's a Newburyport native — runs a restoration business from one of the hangars that's open to the public, and school children take tours of the property.
"I get a call from a SPNEA member every month. Recently he called and said, 'Are you still flying out there?' and when I said, 'Yes, why?' he said he hasn't had any complaints," says Walton.
ASN volunteer Alex Hasapis continues Walton's work; Walton had a heart attack and needed to slow down. "We've really turned the place around," says Hasapis. "This airport is a nice place to hang out."
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
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