Still a mighty interesting way to run an airport

It’s still going great guns — one of America’s most unusual airports. Complete with Western theme buildings, 28-room on-airport motel and airplane-shaped swimming pool, it’s the recreational center of its community. And this one-time “aeronautical dude ranch” lives on in…wait for it…New Jersey!

Noted for its concept and marketing, Flying W Ranch is now the Flying W Airport Resort. FLying W overview 2013-06-28-14_00_06I remember first seeing it in 1966 after landing a Navion on that old oh-so-short crosswind runway. Taxiing in, a red Piper Aztec under the big tree had “Bob Cummings” emblazoned on its nose. I was impressed. (Did the 1950s TV personality, long an aviation booster, have a financial interest in the place?)

Today, most of the glamour and dude ranch activity is gone. But the bones are there. More important, innovative marketing under owner John Cave keeps the place going — at least the resort.

A friend of Flying W recently noted, “We used to be an airport with a swimming pool. Now, we’re a swimming pool with an airport!” But the pool and resort are healthily busy.

Historical note: I cringed in 1985 when Cessna came out with overblown ad copy claiming “your airport is the local hot spot.” Not recently, guys, not recently! But Flying W is a center of recreation and social life in the farmland that’s suburbanizing fast east of Philadelphia. Folks pay seasonal pool memberships of $425 (single) to $600 (family of four) to enjoy the pool, outdoor pavilion, Tiki bar and Snack Shack.

Special events are big, too, from $1,500 wedding rentals to community fundraiser bashes. Summertime outdoor concerts feature locally popular cover groups like “Kenny Vance and The Planotones.” (Around Philly, ancestral home of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” 1950s rock-and-roll will never die. Dooo-Wop!) Other nights, entertainment includes “Emma Dilemma Karaoke.” Said one local reveler on Twitter, “We had a blast!!! We weren’t expecting so many people….” This is NOT your average airport.

Steketee1Sadly, a nice “white tablecloth” restaurant will not operate this year except for special events. Nor will the adjacent bar — for years wisely marketed to after-softball team gatherings. And just recently, the Runway Café in the flight school/ops lobby closed with the proprietor’s passing.

But the poolside Snack Shack is open to pilots without paying a $10 daily resort fee (unless you want that ramp-side swim.) And the runway-side motel was often a convenient stop for me on many longer trips along the East Coast.

I’ve always admired this diversification and novel marketing combining aviation’s appeals with the interests of non-pilots. Admittedly, the aviation side is down today — but perhaps less than at some airports.

The flight school here also takes a refreshing approach: “At Free Flight Aviation, you’re more than just a Hobbs meter, you’re part of the family.” Their slogan? “Fun, Friends and Freedom.” I like that!

They pitch a “value-oriented flight school and social club.” The value part features eight well-maintained planes (some newer, some newly refurbished) at attractive rates. The social part is their “Free Flight Meet-up Group” that enjoys monthly “Let’s Get to Know Each Other Breakfasts” and fly-outs.

The attractive rental prices and social events impose a $40.50 per month “aviator social club member fee” that helps with fixed costs. Renter’s insurance is also required. Some are deterred but others pay their “dues” happily, as they did at the long-successful Kenmarson Flying Club — value-oriented predecessor to Free Flight. The fee also earns discounts on Flying W motel rates and resort fees.

The place stirs my memories of GA’s 1960s when people who flew were “really sumthin’.” Flying W was not the equal of the tony 1930s Philadelphia Aviation Country Club, but it had a certain cache.

Today it still offers people fun at the airport, even if they’re only rubbing elbows with the aviation lifestyle. Flying W reminds us all we may be missing a few tricks in GA marketing and outreach.

 

© 2013 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

Comments

  1. William C. says:

    The SW Branch of Rancocas Creek runs just east of the airstrip, at the bottom of a 30 to 40 foot deep ravine. When I was a kid, we canoed and tubed that stretch a couple hundred times and there was a big radial engine stuck in the riverbank near the bottom of the ravine. I never knew how it got there, but a friend of mine’s dad told us a plane had crashed there way back when. I’d be curious to know if that engine is still down there.

  2. Not sure if this thread is even alive any longer, but I just revisited it out of curiosity. Again, its interesting….public v. private opinions are clearly stated by a number of readers. I’m sure there are more not expressed. Typical human behavior…one way or the other, bright or dark, polarizing statements demonstrative of our own federal government, unable to move the country forward because of polarizing opinions on opposite ends of the spectrum instead of evidence based progressive actions. Instead of more of the same, what if AOPA and the FAA or some similar sanctioning bodies were allowed to administer a “matching grant” (not like the AIP) or same sort of concept means of funding private airports? So instead of local communities all over attempting to bring private airports into the public domains (thankfully, to a minor degree this is happening and preferable to development ) and then employing people to run them and hope they become financially viable. Instead, let them continue in a sort of quasi public/private relationship so they are still paying taxes, and improving, but also able to fund existence and hopefully growth.

  3. Jerry Richardson says:

    Tied down my Cherokee 180 at Flying W in 1968. Got a bill for rent postmarked in Florida. Went out to check, and mine was the only plane on the field. Moved it to Burlington County Airport. Have fond memories of time spent at Flying W. Ultimately went on to own Mountain Flyers Aviation, Inc. in Loveland Colorado right at the end of GA’s good times. Unfortunately, it’s true that if you want to make a small fortune in GA, start with a large fortune.

    • Drew Steketee says:

      Yes, I remember Flying W went through a big down period. Can’t call up the precise timing but by the time I returned to the area, everyone had migrated over to what’s now South Jersey Regional a scant mile or two away. (Watch those traffic patterns!)
      John Cave bought the place and made an investment in “The W,” and some of the salad days returned during the 1990s.

  4. Chuck Christopher says:

    I remember the Bob Cummings plane, but I thought it was a Super Cub, rather than a Piper Aztec. Maybe he had both? I remember a tail-dragger, with the name slanting upward along the rear of fuselage.

  5. Doug Smith says:

    I soloed at the Flying W in 1964 on my 16th birthday in a Piper Colt. That year Piper used the barn as a backdrop for their then-all-new Cherokee ads and brochure. I went back to visit in 2011 and saw a ton of activity. Just great!

  6. Forgot; rumor was in the mid-late 60′s, a balls -z Lear 23 jockey used to fly (short field ) and NO reverse thrust to boot, into Flying W (NJ) with only 3,500 ft of payment!

  7. Doug Rodrigues says:

    In 1967, I was stationed at nearby McGuire AFB and would fly our red and white aero club T-34 into the Flying W Ranch for lunch on weekends. I loved the place! It was great for airplane watching and looking at the homebuilts, factory, and WW-II military planes that often had flown in for the weekend. I haven’t seen any other airport like the Flying W Ranch since, and truly miss that place!

  8. BRUCE BANKS says:

    This brings back memories for me. We used to fly from Asbury Air Terminal in the 60′s (no longer there), to, at that time I believe it was called Flying W Ranch (not sure) I know its the same place. Flew my Dad there for Father’s day I was just 17 at the time. On the way back we had Electric Flaps fail on the 172 and ended up having to do a full flap go around on our grass strip at Asbury AT. Lots of memories of the Jersey Shore and so many airports that are gone forever. Thanks for sharing.

    • Drew Steketee says:

      Bruce: You may or may not know I was a Jersey boy. Glad it brought back memories. Seems yours and mine are remarkably the same — seeing Flying W Ranch, flying Dad at age 17. (Except in my case, my Dad hated it — but suffered through it for his son.)

      Those were Golden Times. I was lucky enough to eventually make a career of it… until 2005, at least. Then, as they say, it wasn’t the long fall — it was the sudden stop! (Old air crash joke)

      We’re all reeling from what’s happened. I look for answered in history, demographics, economics and public opinion. Thanks for reading!

      Best to you.
      Drew Steketee

      • I’ve been enjoying the comments as well as the article, but I have to again say, and not to conflict or take issue, but its less about demographics and history and more about economics.

        I’ve watched as becoming a pilot went from costly to absurdity. I’ve experienced as a career pilot went from being a highly regarded profession to an unreliable costly way to a low paying career with less than wonderful career path outcomes. Owning an airport is just a micro view of all that is difficult in being in business for ones self in real estate, hospitality, independent fuel station operator and so on.

        We’ve made it so much easier, smarter and more secure to work for a big national company that on the surface, today’s working population isn’t willing to take the risk…to work for themselves or to fly themselves or to support those that do. Its a shame, its what really made this nation great.

        The W and places like it are the last bastion of where you can experience GA up close and personal…sort of.

        I’m done, thanks for loaning me a soap box.

  9. Barney Vincelette says:

    I am a nudist. I would not be willing to pay for the use of a pool unless swim suits were optional.

  10. Its been a while since I’ve been to the Flying W, but just seeing the photo’s does my heart good. Seems you missed the Ice Rink they put in to augment winter business.

    Have you ever checked out Seminole Lake Airport in Florida? They market themselves more as a “gliderport” than an airport, but they are in fact both. Not as “resort” oriented either, but they have the airstrip side pool, bar and camp sites as well as a few rooms available. Its absolutely beautiful there. Dreamed of buying it, but missed the opportunity. There are still a few other friendly, quaint resort or resort like airports out there. I don’t get why there aren’t more either. Its been a long running dream to create one….but we all know how dreams go. Airports are such a perfect place for so much. Yes, I get it that GA can’t currently support itself straight up, as demonstrated by the closing of a wonderful eatery at the Flying W, but that was also a $25 to $35/entree kinda place…lots of them closing off airport too. But a private airport, with nice rooms, a B&B, a good eatery, and perhaps a pub, with entertainment….does it get better than this? Yes it can, drive in movies off hours, off tarmac, how about the annual airshow….just one won’t do it you say….how about a airshow one month, a Wine and Balloon Fest another month, and Ultralights and LSA another month…..well you take it from there. There are so many aspects of GA that its really sad that lack of combined effort. How do we expect the rest of the world to be open to us, let alone support us, if we can’t even do it amongst ourselves? Fly-in, Drive in theater anyone? If anyone knows of a GA privately owned airport that is available with the potential for this sort of enhancement, please let me know. Fly safe all.

    • Drew Steketee says:

      Matt:
      Thanks for the suggestion! I’ve heard of Seminole Lake Gliderport and now you’ve given me a reason to get over there. I could use the trip. Thanks! Drew Steketee

    • The fly-in drive in theater, We do that at our private strip. Only had a few fly in and the movies are for the neighborhood, but on an 18′ screen in the hangar door it works. Wish I could have convinced the local public airports but “economics” and POLITICS, oh well. Give people a reason to be there and they may start to question themselves as to “why not start flying”. The destination needs to end up being the flight it’s self, for recreational flying to survive and recreational flying is the majority, in numbers not economics. You don’t normally buy a boat for transportation but the airplane is expected to be “useful” as transportation. We need to change the mind-set and places like the Flying W could help do that. Stay at the resort and take a flight, para-sail or flight training it does not matter just get people in the air.

  11. Didn’t Wings Field, made famous by GA evangelist, the late Frank Kingston Smith, also have an airplane shaped pool? In any event, according to Google Maps it’s gone now.

    • Drew Steketee says:

      Jack: I think you’re right. Last few times I was at Wings Field’s Aviation Country Club (for AOPA, which was founded there in the second floor Boardroom), they were doing some upgrades. Didn’t they put in a new tennis court? Perhaps its where the pool used to be? Not sure.

    • I was interested to see that so, I looked it up at a great site I use a lot: http://www.historicaerials.com and I searched thru the years and did not see an airplane shaped pool there if you are talking about Wings Field in PA, where AOPA was given birth. I have to say that I have spent a lot of time flying in and out of Flying “W” for breakfast, lunch, dinners and air shows for the past 29 years and always a great place to spend time with fellow aviators and aviation enthusiast. When the Caves had purchased the airport, they really spruced it up and gave it a rebirth and it is still a great place to fly in and experience yesteryear.

  12. see my airnav comment below
    From Drew Gillett on 04-Jan-2013

    This place has great potential but has really fallen down. I have stopped by there twice for fuel, rest stop, coffee and have been dissapointed. First time they ended up totally closed during their stated business hours. Second time xmas eve they were closing early (2 pm, no notice), no coffee, disinterested staff, plane not topped off as requested and not Phillips fuel which they won’t correct on the services. Also the VASI is set so low u scrape the trees. Too bad.

    • Drew Steketee says:

      Yup, like almost every airport today, it’s not what it used to be…. I was writing about “The W’s” healthy diversification and the success of its resort amenities and concerts/facility rentals (heavily attended in the summer season.) The closing of the restaurants and the bar is truly disappointing, however. Hope they can come back someday.

  13. Kent Misegades says:

    Note that this is a PRIVATE airport, and as such, it needs to pay its own way. If all our airports were private, just imagine the creativity among their owners to promote flying and support the needs, and wants, of pilots. Another such example of a great private airport worth a visit is Gillam-McConnell (5NC3) in Carthage, NC. Hewn from a pine forest, this airfield is the creation of Roland Gilliam, a living icon of aviation in North Carolina. Stop in for great BBQ at the Pik ‘n Pig based there.

    • Peri Worrell says:

      Kent, you have hit the nail right on the head! Doing something like this at a publicly-funded airport would run into so much red tape it would never happen and would end in frustration for all involved!

    • Kent; Respectfully, IF all the airports (GA) were “private” – you must be kidding!
      Private airports, at least here in New Jersey, just don’t work financially, with the exception of Sky Manor, Princeton and Blairstown. From about the mid 60′s, Totowa -Wayne (where I instructed in the summer of 66′), Red Bank, Hadley, Colts Neck, Asbury (mentioned earlier), Bader, Marlboro, and more recently, Twin Pine, have gone the way of low volume aviation use to “best use” real estate development – ALL privately owned!. GA airports, which depend on recreational aviation users “spending”, will and MUST be supported by a government entity municipal, county or otherwise. Just look at the history of GA airport “failures – it speaks for itself.

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