We lost some key “downtown” airports as the 20th Century faded into history. Famous campaigns fought to save them; local politicians with big plans “got” them — Chicago Meigs (10 years ago this month) and Bader Field in Atlantic City, N.J. They represented the height of GA utility. Now, in their absence, have politicians’ airport-killing schemes and dreams worked out?
I returned to Bader Field last fall, just weeks before Hurricane Sandy. The planned minor league baseball stadium had been built, but the team was out of business. (It now hosts an occasional rock concert.) More successful is the new ice rink nearby, but I had the feeling it and the airport could have co-existed nicely.
Did Atlantic City get its money’s worth killing Bader Field? Tough to say. GA traffic is down everywhere, so airport activity wouldn’t have held up. More important, Atlantic City isn’t the draw it was, except for lower-income day-trippers and retirees – those slots-bound bus riders with bags of quarters. New Indian casinos elsewhere are closer to home for some; far away Las Vegas is more attractive for others.
After two frustrating AOPA conventions there during the 1990s, lots of pilots said they didn’t want to see Atlantic City again. And because of the city’s continuing downfall, Bader Field today wouldn’t be the valuable community asset it once was, unless it again hosted its once-impressive commuter airline and “high roller” helicopter services.
As a “Jersey boy” and young GA pilot, I thought Bader Field was great in its time. You and your flying buddy or date could land and walk 10-15 minutes to the famed Boardwalk. It was a “pure play” in GA flying. When you flew in, you really got somewhere — not some airport miles from town.
But nice memories and GA tourism were trumped by struggling city budgets, hoped-for neighborhood redevelopment and local politics.
The political fight was bitter, led by a mayor motivated by a plane crash onto neighboring streets. Then there was the Citationjet that overran into the canal that separates the airport from downtown. The jet’s runaway engine kept it spinning in fearsome, watery circles — and all this at an airport NOTAM’d “NO JETS.” We are sometimes our own worst enemy.
Last fall, finding airport pavement still there but vacant, I had a sneaking suspicion Bader Field was too attractive to be truly dead. Yep, a knowledgeable local confirmed it: The New Jersey governor and some VIPs had landed their helicopters there from time to time. No surprise: The pols and VIPs make rules for everyone but themselves.
The city wants everyone else to land 10 miles away at the big international airport in the middle of Class C airspace. Tip: If you want to fly into an enjoyable New Jersey shore destination, go south to Ocean City — a cleaner, quieter and more friendly resort, even if their great little airport is now hemmed in by new construction.
I don’t think Atlantic City is getting its money’s worth from acres of vacant airport and a derelict baseball stadium. Congratulations on the skating rink, though. Politicians have dreams and we always fault ‘em for doing nothing. Can we blame them for trying? Well here, maybe. That mayor built a “Field of Dreams” but apparently “they didn’t come.”
We’re not coming, either, like we used to.
GA wouldn’t have saved Atlantic City and the airport cost money, I’m sure, but Bader Field was part of a once-attractive collection of municipal assets. So was Meigs Field in Chicago. But such “dream” civic assets are of an older era. Now, General Aviation’s “magic carpet” to these cities is gone, sacrificed to different values and newer dreams — dreams that are yet stillborn.
Top Photo: Sign of the times on the Bader Field ramp (downtown Atlantic City in distant background)