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Private Airports

The Lore And The Lowdown

We all know what they look like on charts, but not many of us have ever really seen them. For most pilots, they are nothing more than forbidding magenta circles, tiny little Rs that suggest transient aircraft are not readily admitted and may even be unwelcome. As students, most of us are taught to stay away from these outposts unless an emergency demands otherwise. We are talking about private airstrips.

But are private airports really such an exclusive community that the rest of us are banned? Just who owns and builds these private airports and why? And how can those of us who aren't privileged to possess a backyard airstrip sample private airport flying? Oh, the questions evoked by those little magenta dots.

The prevailing rule about private airports is that there is no prevailing rule. These scattered rectangular plots are as varied as the people who own them. More than 13,000 of these facilities dot the U.S. landscape, and each has a story. Whether it's a ribbon of dirt used by a lone crop duster or a well-manicured green owned by a community of flyers or even a single family's paved runway, the private strip is a thing of individual creation born of a specific objective.

Ken Kellogg puts a face to at least one reason for building a private airfield. Kellogg, a retired Army aviator, considers the runway in his rural Illinois neighborhood to be a fairly typical one. The quest for that runway is a personal endeavor that began some 17 years ago. Like so many pilots, Kellogg wanted to have his airplane near his home, so he gathered together a group of pilots and surveyed lots as possible sites for a fly-in community. The group eventually bought a swath of grassland and zoned it into residential lots plus a 2,200-foot sod airstrip. Slowly, the group organized itself into a homeowners association and submitted its plan to the state. After quelling the fears of nonflying neighbors and waiting on the ruling of county assessors, the group was recognized as a ratified flying community and allowed to grade the land for the airstrip.

Today, Kellogg reflects on this labor of love with almost paternal satisfaction. He strolls the runway, proudly considering the grass and testing its health. This living, breathing patch of land is the manifestation of a dream for Kellogg and his fellow homeowners - the dream of freedom. They care for and maintain the strip, and neighborhood children provide mowing services. Kellogg doesn't fly as often as he imagined he would, but he's still pleased with his decision to create a fly-in community. When asked if the investment was worth the payoff, Kellogg's answer tells the story of many fly-in neighborhoods. "We haven't done what you'd call a cost-benefit analysis, but if it means having my airplane nearby, then I wouldn't have it any other way," he says.

Keeping an airplane within convenient reach isn't always the motivator for maintaining one's own airstrip. Robert Pfiester is a bush pilot who has spent most of his adult life ferrying hunters through the wilds of the Northwest. Nowadays, his permanent address is a private grass airstrip in the rugged forests near Elk River, Idaho. He no longer owns an aircraft, but he is content to be the caretaker of the L.A. Foster Memorial Airstrip. "I logged a lot of hours on this runway, and now I'm happy to give back," he says. Keeping alive the airstrip, which is owned by a fire protection association, has become something of a calling for Pfiester. He works on the strip year-round, clearing snow in the winter and mowing in the summer.

Pfiester, Kellogg, and thousands like them operate under differing degrees of scrutiny from airport authorities, primarily because no single agency exercises responsibility over private-use airports. While you might imagine that the FAA would oversee the operation of these fields, this is only partially true. Through Part 157 of the federal aviation regulations, the government mandates that anyone establishing, altering, or permanently closing an airfield notify the government. This requirement enables the FAA to maintain a central database of airport information - useful for identifying and resolving potential airspace problems. Beyond this self-reporting system, however, the federal government does little to regulate or police private facilities. That duty is left to state transportation authorities, and each state's requirements differ.

In Florida, for example, Ray Bradshaw's private runway is inspected every year. A fly-in camping community at the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest, Bradshaw Farm is a popular facility lying amid 70 privately owned acres of southern pines. "They didn't even have the regulations when I started this," Bradshaw says. "Now they come out here every year to make sure I'm compliant."

Kansas, however, operates under an altogether different code. With more than 200 registered private-use airports within its borders, the state takes a hands-off approach to compliance. Kansas has no inspection program and makes no apologies for allowing private airport owners to operate free of bureaucracy. "We in Kansas love the sound of aviation," says Mike Armour of the Kansas Department of Transportation. "Perhaps it's for that very reason we respect the rights of the private owner."

Kansas joins Washington, West Virginia, Mississippi, and North Dakota, among others, in freeing private-use airports from administrative burdens. While all these states encourage airport owners to register with and report changes to the FAA according to federal regulations, they don't enforce ongoing state inspection programs.

While private airports in many states enjoy a good deal of latitude, that freedom does not imply anarchy. Most states maintain a middle ground when it comes to monitoring private airstrips, placing limitations on what these facilities can and can't do. For example, Illinois law places a cap on the number of airplanes that Kellogg can permanently park, and flight instruction is prohibited at his airstrip. Such measures are enacted both for safety and fairness. After all, private airports that offer too much may compete with more heavily regulated public airports, signaling an economic upset for FBOs everywhere.

So, if private airports are so private, why do their owners choose to have them depicted on sectional charts? Again, the reasons vary, but most owners seem to be motivated by altruism. Pilots want other pilots to have options when they fly, especially in the event of an emergency. That's why many airport owners say they have their fields charted. While agreeing to have a private airport charted does not guar- antee that the airfield will be depicted on a chart, it does provide cartographers with alternatives. Working from the FAA's National Flight Data Digest (NFDD, affectionately pronounced "Nifty"), mapmakers can see data on all of the country's known private airports and chart them as space allows. In remote areas, mapmakers often chart as many private fields as possible for safety's sake. Private airports make ideal emergency landing sites in inhospitable terrain.

Now that you know a little more about these landmarks on your sectional chart, perhaps your curiosity has been piqued and you are considering exploring the runways of the private sector. After all, the owners are most likely pilots who might happily accommodate the occasional winged visitor. Right? Yes and no. While some private airports do allow visitors, protocol, and often regulations, require that no guest arrive unannounced. In the Airport/Facility Directory under the heading "Aircraft Landing Restrictions" you will find a statement warning that pilots who land on private property without prior permission may be breaking the law.

There are a variety of reasons why pilots must get prior permission to land at a private field. For one thing, it's unsafe to land at any facility where conditions are unknown. "You never know who or what might be on the runway," says Kellogg, who employs neighborhood kids to mow his strip. "A phone call ahead of time keeps everyone out of trouble."

And don't forget the issue of personal liability. Private-use airports are not typically insured to accommodate drop-in guests. Bill Moore, a Kansas farmer with his own grass runway, says that while he's intimately familiar with the terrain of his field, others aren't. "I've got a badger who likes to dig holes. I can't be responsible for a guy who flies in and doesn't know that," he says. Moore doesn't necessarily prohibit guests, but he does insist on prior permission for visitors.

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