Ask any local residents about airports in the Washington area, and they probably will name three: Washington National Airport, Dulles International and Baltimore/Washington International.
But more than a dozen others fall within the same perimeter and a couple more are just beyond, most of them open to the public.
Some, such as Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg and Harry P. Davis Field in Manassas, are owned by local governments. Half a dozen are privately owned, even family owned, such as Freeway Airport in Mitchellville, Md., owned by the Rodenhauser family, or Arthur C. Hyde's Hyde Field in Clinton, Md., an airport straight out of a 1940s movie set.
A couple of other nearby airports, such as Davison Army Air Field at Fort Belvoir, Va., are owned by the U.S. government and used exclusively--so far, at least--by the military.
Then there's Beltsville USDA Airport, in Beltsville, Md., an airport that used to be, and might be yet, except for an intergovernmental turf dispute. Despite the pleas of former Federal Aviation Administrator Langhorne Bond to save the site as an airport, its two former runways are now being ripped up to be replaced by manufacturing plants.
Except for the U.S.-owned military airports, the others in the area are used generally by that vast group labeled "general aviation." GA, as the category is abbreviated, includes all flying that isn't done by the airlines and the military: personal flying, corporate and business transport, pipeline patrol, search and rescue, pilot training.
The small, local airports that dot this area and the nation -- 14,000 in all -- can and do serve to divert much of the private aircraft traffic away from the major "air carrier" fields such as National, Dulles and BWI, but they can't accommodate nearly enough flights. Many of them are filled to capacity with no hopes of expanding because of zoning, land costs or local political opposition. Many of them -- most of them, probably -- lack the sophisticated navigational aids and other all-weather facilities to qualify them as genuinely attractive alternatives for the hundreds of private aircraft that fly in and out of the larger fields every day.
Also, many of the nation's small airports have fallen victim to the "march of progress" and are being plowed under, their valuable land converted to residential and commercial uses. Not all that long ago, for instance, there was an airport at Baileys Crossroads where Skyline Towers and other buildings now stand; another airport was sacrificed to make way for Congressional Shopping Center in Rockville. round Washington and the rest of the country, there are no new major, or minor, airports being built to replace them. "The problem is a very simple one: There aren't too many people who want a new or expanded airport in their backyard," says Robert J. Aaronson, former FAA associate administrator for airports, who is now director of aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
At the same time, general aviation represents an enormous and growing segment of the aviation community; there are nearly 250,000 airplanes in this private sector already, while the nation's airlines in toto have 2,500 planes.
While this large private sector uses the smaller airports, and uses them heavily -- Davis Field in Manassas handles 240,000 takeoffs and landings a year -- GA also uses the air-carrier airports.
For the 12 months ending in July 1981, general aviation accounted for 97,456 takeoffs and landings at Washington National, almost 28 percent of the total operations there; GA accounted for 110,307 operations, almost 70 percent of the total, at Dulles during the same period.
Even with flying limits imposed as a result of the strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, according to preliminary government figures, there were more than 6,168 private-aviation takeoffs and landings at National in September, almost a fourth of the total, and 8,755 landings and takeoffs at Dulles, almost 68 percent of all Dulles activity. ome of this traffic would go elsewhere if it could, according to officials of the groups that represent the private-flying sector. Although they generally want the "right" to land at National, most of them contend that traffic would be diverted away from that busy airport if there were alternatives. "If there are suitable well-equipped airports, there is less need to resort to major air carrier airports in bad weather; that's it pure and simple," says Drew Steketee, a spokesman for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and a private pilot himself.
What counts as well-equipped? Long enough and strong enough runways, radio navigational aids for landing in bad weather, adequate ground facilities and ground transportation are the features usually named.
A tour of some of this area's smaller airports finds that the best-equipped are the military fields and those most distant from Washington. Of the public nonair-carrier airports, for example, only Frederick Municipal in Frederick, Md., has the sophisticated Instrument Landing System, the precision approach that can bring pilots down as close as 200 feet of the runway for a landing in bad weather.
Not surprisingly, the airports farthest from Washington are also those with the best expansion possibilities.
"Washington just does not have a well-developed reliever-airport system," says Richard G. Dinning, a USAir official who is spending half his time on a new reliever-airport project put together by the Air Transport Association, the scheduled airlines' trade group; the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, the makers of GA aircraft; and the National Business Aircraft Association, which represents the operators of business aircraft.
After he took a group of business pilots on an aerial tour of the dozen local GA airports this spring, Dinning recalls, he asked them where they thought they would like to land if they were flying a corporate aircraft into the Washington area. "National Airport," they all said. Where next? he asked. "Dulles," they replied.
"Well, you know the problems," Dinning says. "We're not in as good shape here as we'd like. Washington is in need of good reliever-airport capability."
Dinning's project -- to try to improve the nation's reliever airport system -- is concentrating on Washington and 14 other cities that have been identified as needing improvement; nearly half of all air traffic delays take place at those 15. The project will attempt to help communities retain and improve present reliever facilities, start new ones and obtain joint use of military airfields for reliever purposes.
The government also is involved. Following a tragic 1978 collision of a passenger airliner and a single-engine plane at the only well-equipped airport near San Diego, Calif., then-FAA Administrator Bond put major emphasis on the need for reliever airports. FAA was able to put better navigational aids at some of the smaller airports and extend public use of some airports that locals wanted to close. It also was able to arrange for the civilian use of some formerly military airports, something the FAA would like to do in this area.
Despite the progress, Capitol Hill sources contend the reliever program has been and continues to be significantly underfunded because of each administration's budget-cutting. In fiscal 1981, just $22 million of a $450 million pot was spent on the relievers, and the Reagan administration wants to cut that to $284 million in fiscal 1982.
The concept of reliever airports appears to have the strong backing of both FAA Administrator J. Lynn Helms and William F. Shea, the FAA's new associate administrator for airports. "If you've got the same kind of equipment at relievers, pilots will go there," Shea says. Even though it lacks traffic control and instrument approaches, Shea parks his own plane at Woodbridge Airport in Woodbridge, Va.
Shea also cites his experience as aviation director for the Port of Portland, Ore., where, he says, all the private aircraft fly into two nearby, well-equipped reliever airports, leaving Portland International solely to the airlines.
"We just have to hang in there and work with local and state governments to save every piece of runway available in this country," Shea says.