Still thought of as a sleepy little airport in the hills of Northern Berkshire, Harriman-and-West Airport may be on the cusp of a catching a strong updraft generated by continued economic investment in the region.
And a nearly complete upgrade to make the airport more compatible with modern navigation and aeronautics technology has made the Harriman-and-West ready to ride that current.
“We’ve been working on the infrastructure for over 16 years in preparation for this day,” said Trevor Gillman, a member of the North Adams Airport Commission and corporate pilot for a number of clients that fly out of Harriman-and-West. “Now, we have traffic coming in that didn’t used to.”
Tree removal, the reconstruction and shift of the 4,300-foot runway and repaving of the taxiways and parking areas all have brought the airport to a point where it can handle the higher traffic count that many are anticipating. Also key was getting the FAA to publish the airport’s coordinates to allow for instrument landings.
All the work was funded by the FAA, using money generated from fees on commercial air travel.
John Werner, a local pilot with a plane housed at Harriman-and-West, said the improvements to the airport have been a vast improvement.
“You couldn’t ask for a better airport,” Werner said. “The new runways are absolutely gorgeous.”
According to figures provided by the FAA, in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, there were a total of 37 aircraft based at Harriman-and-West: 25 single-engine aircraft, four multi-engine planes, one jet and seven gliders. The agency estimates show that there was an average of about 87 landings and departures daily, or 31,755 annually.
As a comparison, the FAA estimates that in 2012, there were roughly 90 flight operations per day at Pittsfield Airport, or 32,850 yearly.
Willard Greenwalt, manager at Harriman-and-West, said the airport now can handle more traffic, not bigger planes. The same class of aircraft will still be coming in — the biggest being the 15-seat corporate jets — there will just more of it. His best guess is about a 10 percent increase over the past few years.
“We’re going to get more people coming in,” Greenwalt said. “And having that access is part of the formula for economic growth. An airport is paramount to attracting new business.”
Airport regulars also have been doing some marketing to the flying public, such as the annual movie night. Greenwalt said the movie typically draws several hundred people, many of whom fly in, park their planes on the grass, and walk across the tarmac to see the movie. It is projected against the white door of the former Sprague Aviation hangar. After the movie, many of those who flew in will camp out overnight under the wings of their panes and leave in the morning.
And there is more to come.
Harriman-and-West officials say that once MassDOT funds the construction of an already-designed $4.2 million administration building, the process will be complete and the airport will become even more of a destination for air travelers and aircraft enthusiasts.
The administration building will have a reception area for incoming and outgoing travelers, a car rental counter, a waiting lounge for pilots and crew, and a restaurant with viewing windows facing the airstrip and an adjacent patio — both of which would be attractive to enthusiasts who like to watch the planes coming and going.
Given the views surrounding the airport, the airport administration building’s eatery “will be one of the nicest restaurant spots in Berkshire County,” Gillman said.
The project has been designed and is shovel ready, with the $200,000 local share donated by local investor and airport patron Harry Patten, owner of Turboprop East, a repair center for business jets on the airport, Greenwalt said.
“We’re just waiting for the state to let us know when they’re going to come through with the money,” he said.
The proposal did not make it through the first round of funding for the current year. Officials are advocating that the project make the list for next year’s allocations.
And the airplane rental and charter business is growing, as is the flying school, Teamflys. And a skydiving school is likely to be established at the airfield in the near future, Gillman said.
“A flight school is the most important thing about the airport, it just encourages more activity,” he said.
There is a waiting list for the flight school, and a waiting list of pilots seeking hanger space for their aircraft, Gillman said.
The impetus for all the interest in the local general aviation airfield comes in the form of a number of high-profile economic development projects in the works for North Adams and Williamstown.
There are a number of multimillion dollar projects in works, including the expansion at Mass MoCA, redevelopment of the Greylock Mill, redevelopment of the Redwood Motel and new development around the motel property, redevelopment of the Blackinton Mill, the final stage of the campus expansion at the Clark Art Institute, and a number of new construction efforts at Williams College.
Then there are two other projects that have been proposed for the area by Thomas Krens, including an art museum just north of the airport proper, and a museum dedicated to model trains proposed for Heritage Park.
According to Stephen Sheppard, professor of economics at Williams College, a local airport can be an important linchpin in facilitating ease of transportation relating to economic investment in the region, especially when there is no nearby highway or train service.
“A local airport is an important part of the transportation infrastructure, and if you have a place where other access can be limited, they do tend to contribute to economic development,” Sheppard said. “And more commerce in the area will generally lead to an unambiguous increase in air traffic.”
Joseph Thompson, director of MASS MoCA in North Adams, has been flying his Grumman Tiger out of Harriman-and-West since the early 1990s, when he moved here to help establish the modern art museum in North Adams.
During the course of his work, he has seen plenty of business associates and artists use the airport as their main access to Northern Berkshire County.
“It’s a really great community asset, an important transportation node,” Thompson said. “And it’s an unusually beautiful airport.”
Often is the case that someone needing to come in on business just can’t spare the three hours it takes to drive from New York, Boston or further away locales.
“For some special visitors, donors and artists on tight schedules, car travel to North County is a practical barrier,” Thompson said. “But a 45-minute flight is not.”
The airport also provides life-saving access for medevac helicopters from time to time, Thompson said.
North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright said the airport is an important source of commerce, and since it is owned by the city, an additional revenue stream.
“We do have a significant amount of commerce there,” Alcombright said. “There are people out there that own planes and don’t think twice about flying to North Adams from Pennsylvania, New York, or Boston. They’re close and convenient to all the assets we have here in Northern Berkshire County.”
Meanwhile, the local aeronautics enthusiasts hang out in the old T-hangar lounge in between flights. Many of them fly classic single-engine trainers or their more modern personal aircraft. They take friends up for leisure flights, occasionally fly out for errands at nearby airports.
But mostly they fly just for the fun of it.
“Flying is relaxing and intensely interesting,” Thompson said. “And you can always get better. It’s always a challenge.”