Forks Township airfield could close next month, but group says decision is short-sighted.
Braden Airpark could be shut down this summer, but the pilots who use it say they’re not going down without a fight.
Nearly two dozen small plane advocates Tuesday protested a Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority proposal to close the 75-year-old Forks Township airfield. While some circulated a petition urging the plan be killed, members of the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association asked for a chance to find a buyer that would allow the 80-acre property to remain an airfield.
Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority board members agreed not to act on Braden until next month, but airport Executive Director Charles Everett Jr. already knows where he stands. He recommended it be closed, saying Braden needs $2.6 million in improvements the authority can’t afford, plus a yearly subsidy of $1,000 apiece for its 38 pilots.
“We are not in a position to keep open an operation that is projected to continue losing money,” Everett said. “We cannot afford to invest in Braden, and we can’t subsidize the pilots who use it.”
That, according to a member of the local General Aviation Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association, is short-sighted.
“It’s a unique, precious asset that a lot of communities would love to have,” pilot Robert Brown of Easton told the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority board at Tuesday’s meeting. “Once you close it, you can never get it back. Please don’t close Braden Airpark.”
The airfield has a single 1,956-foot runway and was opened in 1938 as Easton Airport by packaged-meat seller Edwin Braden. The Braden family sold it to the airport authority for $2.4 million in 1999, when it was renamed Braden Airpark. The Rev. Paul Braden, pastor of a church in Easton, said his family took less money to sell the airport to the authority back then so it could remain an airfield.
With a flight school and maintenance center, over the past seven decades it was a place where thousands of people learned to fly, practiced their hobby or based the plane they used for transportation.
The authority oversees the Lehigh Valley International Airport, which faces declining passenger traffic, and must repay millions to settle a court judgment for taking a developer’s land in the 1990s.
That debt has caused the LVIA board to evaluate its assets, and Everett made it clear Tuesday his staff’s assessment of Braden is that it be closed. According to Everett, Braden’s hangars and terminal buildings badly need repairs costing $2.6 million over five years. Meanwhile, the authority pays $160,000 in annual debt service from when it was purchased.
Even without those big expenses, the airport’s day-to-day operating expenses are projected to outpace revenues by $39,000 per year — meaning the airport would be subsidizing each pilot by more than $1,000 per year.
“Investing capital into a facility that has a negative rate of return?” authority board member Dean Browning said. “That makes no sense.”
Neither do the numbers from Everett’s evaluation, pilots say. They argue that the only reason revenues at Braden’s are so low is because the authority refused to renew the lease of Moyer Aviation, which had been paying a $56,000-a-year lease fee to run airport flying and maintenance operations.
Vern Moyer’s 18-member staff pumped the fuel, ran the flight school and fixed the planes for 16 years, but when the authority wanted him to work on a month-to-month lease while its assets were being evaluated, he moved Moyer Aviation to Pocono Mountain Municipal Airport in Monroe County.
“It’s like poisoning your wife and then complaining that you are single,” Paul Braden told the board. “Please consider the long-term affects of doing this, compared to the short-term gain.”
Clarissa MacIntosh, an officer with the Lehigh Valley General Aviation Association, asked the board to delay its vote long enough for the association to find a private buyer for the airport.
“How long do you need?” asked Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, an authority board member.
“About a year,” MacIntosh said.
“A year?” Pawlowski said. “Maybe if you had said a few weeks. But not a year.”
Everett said his staff has already considered the options of finding a new airport operator to do what Moyer did, or a private buyer to take it over. Neither is viable, he said: The airport simply needs too much work to justify keeping it open.
The authority could vote on the matter as early as its June 25 meeting. From there, Everett said he’d need 60 to 90 days to transfer the planes at Braden to LVIA or Queen City Airport.