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Family Ties That Fly
October 12, 2010
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  • Gaithersburg airpark to celebrate 50 years aloft
    by Sharon Allen Gilder

    On the wall of Sandy Poe’s office hangs a framed photograph of herself, age 9 months, perched on the wing of a plane with the words, “Born to fly.”

    Poe is a pilot and president of Freestate Aviation, which sublets the Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg.

    Aviation is in her DNA.

    Fifty years ago, her grandfather, the late Silver Spring developer William E. Richardson, built the 115-acre airpark with $750,000 in private funding on a 388-acre tract described in a news story as “park-like” when it opened in 1960.

    Poe’s father, James Richardson, and Richard Kreuzburg, both pilots and flight instructors, were the airpark’s original operators. Kreuzburg taught the Richardsons to fly.

    With the airpark’s 50-year anniversary celebration set for Saturday, reminiscing about its birth comes easily to the threesome.

    An idea with wings

    The closing of Rockville‘s Congressional Airport in 1959 gave flight to the elder Richardson‘s vision.

    “One thing led to another,” he wrote in a 1970 journal entry, “and finally, being a developer and knowing the need for a county airport in Montgomery, I began to investigate the possibilities of a public airport.”

    William Richardson also figured out a way to finance his plan.

    “My father thought it was a good opportunity for a new airport,” James Richardson said, “and [the way] to build it economically was to have an industrial park surrounding it to support the construction of the airport.”

    The idea took off. Companies that used planes began to buy adjoining property. The airpark was deeded to the Montgomery County Revenue Authority to guarantee its use as a public airport; Montgomery County Airpark, LLC took back a 99-year operational lease. In 1962, the first industrial building was built and leased to Airflow, Inc., an air conditioning company.

    Montgomery County Airpark LLC, doing business as Freestate Aviation, is responsible for 38 acres including hangars, plane parking and the fueling station.

    The county maintains and funds the rest of the airpark, including the runway, taxiway, parking lot, terminal and grassy areas.

    Costs have soared in the last five decades.

    Eight hangars built in 1960 for $25,000 each, will cost between $180,000 and $200,000 apiece to upgrade under current plans for privately-funded renovations.

    The airpark was built with one paved 3,150-foot runway. In the late 1960s, it was expanded to 4,200 feet to accommodate larger corporate aircraft. A $2.1 million runway resurfacing in 1997 was 90 percent federally funded, with the remaining 10 percent split between the state and the county.

    The county’s revenue authority has lost money on the airport in the past two years – about $292,000 in fiscal 2009 and $370,000 in fiscal 2010 – according to a budget on the authority’s website. The fiscal 2011 budget projects about $182,000 in revenues and $459,000 in expenses, with other income of -$38,000, for a loss of about $314,000.

    Changing times

    In the 1960s, a pilot could come to the airpark, hop in a plane and take off, Kreuzburg said. “There weren’t the restrictions there are now, especially since 9/11. Pilots were free to go and come as they please,” he said. “Now it’s time-consuming because they have to contact air traffic control and get clearance for their flight plan.”

    Flight technology has also evolved with the advent of devices such as NAVAIDS (aviation GPS). “What was all ground-based navigation is transitioning to air-based being more of the dominant system,” Poe said.

    According to airpark manager John Luke, a county employee, 180 planes, including three jets, and four helicopters are based at the airpark. Of those aircraft, 70 percent are used for recreation and 30 percent for business, flight-training or charters.

    In the mid-1990s, when airpark traffic was at its peak, a Federal Aviation Administration study counted 146,000 flights per year, Luke said. That number has decreased to about 95,000. The airpark lost 20 percent of its base business when flights were restricted after 9/11.

    The recent downturn in the national economy and increasing fuel costs have further reduced pleasure flying, he said. Airplane fuel, which cost 45 cents a gallon in 1960, now runs about $5 per gallon.

    The Montgomery County Council established an Airpark Liaison Committee in the late 1980s to work with residents of the surrounding community. To increase safety and minimize noise, airpark officials increased traffic pattern altitudes in February 2005 from 800 feet above ground level to 1,000 feet.

    “The county could have been more protective of the airpark with zoning,” Richardson said. “As a result, what it is is what it is.”

    Over the past 50 years, celebrities flying in and out the airpark have run the gamut from performers such as Conway Twitty and Crosby Stills Nash & Young to golfers Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, Nascar driver Mark Martin, and “The Donald” himself in his Trump helicopter.

    “Every thriving community should have a local airport,” Luke said. “Aviation is ten percent of the nation’s gross national product. It also provides beneficial services when it comes to search, rescue and mobile airlift command with volunteer organizations such as Angel Flight.”

    Based at the airpark, the more than 40 volunteer pilots of Angel Flight transport patients who need distant medical care but cannot pay for a private plane.

    The airpark employs 25-30 people, both full and part time, Luke said, as well as boosting economic development and launching careers.

    Easing congestion on the county’s roads is another plus, he said.

    “I can leave in my plane on a Friday afternoon for Deep Creek Lake and look down at the traffic and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ll be there in one hour. See you in three.'”

    What: Montgomery County Airpark 50th Anniversary Celebration & Open House

    When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday


    7940 Airpark Drive, Gaithersburg

    Details: Free admission, airpark history presentation, flight demonstrations, free airplane rides, children’s activities and games, World War II aircraft on display, food and beverages for sale at the Airport CafŽ.

    THE GAZETTE2010-10-06false