Fields of Dreams: Not its ‘old self,’ but going strong

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As pilots now of a “certain” age, we look back on airports that were part of our lives. This is the third of a three-part series.

“Recession? What recession?” So said Mike Gilbert, Gold Seal CFI for Aviation Adventures at Leesburg Municipal (excuse me, Executive) Airport. Yep, they changed the name and, perhaps, for good reason. “JYO” is a successful non-towered GA airport in affluent, fast-growing Loudoun County, Virginia, 35 miles northwest of the nation’s capital. One reason: You can still get to it. It’s possible to drive out there with nary a traffic light from DC and its Virginia inner suburbs. Past Dulles International, it’s just 14 miles to Leesburg via the new 65-mph toll road. Those last 14 miles are not cheap ($4.50 one-way) or rush hour-free. Yet for traffic-choked Washington, JYO is at the end of a (mostly) functional road system and a most affluent corridor. For such lucky customers, $120-$145 Skyhawks plus $54/hour CFIs at Av-Ed Flight School are OK with them.

A friend at Landmark Aviation reports avgas sales are strong this summer, even as business jet fueling is still down. Aviation Adventures says they’ve got as many students as they can handle. They just expanded to Warrenton, Virginia, the newest of their three exurban locations offering 30 aircraft, 11 at JYO.

The secret? It’s the economic power of Washington. Employment is more stable here. Income levels and “housing wealth” held up better. People fly for business. Aviation Adventures’ four Cessna 400 Corvalis speed demons are so busy, one leaseback owner had his plane flown back from out West just for the rental business.

Av-Ed, Dr. Don Robb’s exemplary JYO flight school, offers an eye-opener, too. Their impressive Redbird FMX-1000 simulator sits behind glass in Leesburg’s new terminal looking like big airline hardware. At $75 an hour, it seems a bargain. And AV-ED’s many other marketing innovations have June business up 24% year-over-year.

Down about the state of GA? Not here. In fact, I recently learned my 20-something “barista” at Starbucks is taking lessons at JYO, 15 hours thus far in a 172!

Sadly, this is far from universal. In fact, Gilbert sees the proof giving cross-country dual. “You get 100-150 miles from Washington and places are dead.” Again, Washington is NOT the real world.

What bothers me: Leesburg is not the airport it once was, either, and now can’t be. These former country towns are now Washington exurbs inundated with housing, traffic and “amenities.” Once a little 3,000-foot paved strip on land donated by radio/TV star Arthur Godfrey, JYO now hosts G-IVs, Citations, high-performance singles in modern hangars and speedy, efficient new trainers on the ramp. Tie-downs still hold the older Wichita/Vero iron but the interesting taildraggers, classics, warbirds and their associated “characters” are now few.

“The guys” don’t seem to hang out here anymore. Ol’ Taylorcraft curmudgeon Merton Meade is long gone from his ramshackle office in the old “tin hangars.” A few EAA guys have a hangar-full of RVs and such on the north end but the down-home spirit of even five years ago seems gone. Or is it me?

Perhaps it all went with the tall, barb-topped security fence or the SFRA and No-Fly Zone around DC. Despite FAA’s new entry-exit corridor northwest of JYO, Sept. 11 killed the utility of slow, cheap old airplanes out of DC that otherwise still work around the close-knit Northeast.

But hey, instructors say new pilots think reading back a TRACON clearance to the RCO before a simple VFR departure is “normal.” And at least they’re flying. Gilbert, however, finally admitted one worry: “We haven’t seen as many kids here in the past few years. At the Open House, it’s people in their 50s.”

No young people? No surprise. Kids have new, digital interests. Generations X and Y have generally lower incomes and hefty college loans. And it’s been a long time since World War II.

“I realize how lucky I am when I visit other airports,” says Gilbert. No kidding. When the economy recovers, I pray that more than just the well-established and well-employed can again fly. It may depend on LSAs, restored old classics, re-sale of numerous depreciated trainers, novel new product concepts and renewed investment in nationwide marketing.

Our future will also turn on community-connected airports. Pray they are still there when better times return… and that they still have a soul to connect them with the newly devoted.

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA, and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Story and photos © Drew Steketee 2010 All Rights Reserved

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