Drew Steketee of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) greeted the news that Woodbridge Airport, 20 miles south of Washington on I-95, is threatened by the developer's bulldozer with the words: "Well, it happened again."
Nationwide, the ever-spreading suburbs are crowding out smaller airfields that ring metropolitan areas, leaving general aviators -- who service business travelers as well as pleasure fliers -- worried about where they can store their planes. "In California, there are nights when a visiting pilot cannot find anywhere to park at night," said Steketee, who is GAMA's communications director.
It's a problem made worse by the booming commercial traffic at regional airports, where general aviators must compete with scheduled airlines for space, industry experts say.
"We are being squeezed at both ends," said John H. Winant, president of the National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA).
Since airline deregulation began in 1978, the large, commercially scheduled airlines such as United Air Lines have cut down on the number of stopovers they make per route, Winant explained. Regional airlines operating from regional airports such as the one in Charlotte, N.C., have picked up the slack by running scheduled flights to smaller cities. This has increased the number of planes parked at, and flying in and out of, regional airports, making them more congested. As competition for parking and hangar space grows, prices escalate and the general aviator is pushed out, Winant said.
At the same time, the loss nationwide of smaller airfields has created a dilemma for the general aviator. The problem is worst around rapidly growing cities such as Washington, Houston and Denver, where the demand by businesses for private flights is greatest, Winant said.
Since 1974, the number of airports nationwide has declined by 16 percent, leaving 5,576 by December 1984, according to NBAA figures. In the last five years alone, 408 airports have closed, said E. H. Haupt, NBAA's airports manager. But the number of pilots has not declined, Haupt added.
The Washington area is no exception. Since World War II, nine airports in the metropolitan area have been gobbled up by development, cutting in half the number of airports within a 40-mile radius of the city, said Frank Wilkinson, assistant manager of the Federal Aviation Administration's Washington airports district. The site of Congressional Shopping Center on Rockville Pike in Montgomery Pike once was an airport; so were the sites of Loehmann's Plaza on Route 50 in Fairfax County and Hybla Valley in Alexandria, Wilkinson said.
Escalating real estate prices as the suburbs march outward are not the only reason so many airports are on the auction block, industry experts say. Many airfields are owned by former World War II pilots who are ready to retire and want to sell to gain a comfortable nest egg, Haupt said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has recognized the problem and in 1982 started to free up funds for reliever airports, which are designed to siphon general aviation from regional airports used by commercial airlines.
An FAA study about to be published shows that metropolitan areas nationwide need 66 more of these satellite airports to relieve traffic at the primary commerical airports, according to James V. Mottley, FAA's manager of national planning. There are 227 reliever airports nationwide.
These reliever airports must have a lighted runway that can take jets, and they must have and instrument-landing capability to allow for touchdowns in poor weather, Mottley said.
In the Washington area, the study recommends the creation of one more reliever airport in Northern Virginia. Currently Manassas and Leesburg are designated as relievers.
Maryland also could benefit from another reliever to ease pressure on existing ones at Frederick, Gaithersburg, Indian Head and the Glenn L. Martin Field near Baltimore, Mottley said. A new reliever airport is being discussed for La Plata in St. Charles County, he said.
Federal taxes paid by general aviators are kept in a special trust fund that localities can use to fund studies of the feasibility of new airports in their jurisdiction, he said. The money also can be used to upgrade existing airport facilities. Manassas, for instance, has just used these funds to add a second runway.
"We feel there is a reasonably good road plan in place . . . and at least there is money in the trust fund to deal with the situation," Mottley said.
Though these plans help general aviation, the industry is not convinced that the FAA is doing all it can to ease the crunch. Washington Dulles International Airport, for instance, has 1,000 acres of land but has allocated space for only 200 general aviation planes, Steketee said.
An efficient solution to the space problem would be for the military to consider sharing its facilities with general aviators, Steketee suggested. Davison Field at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County or Tipton at Fort Meade in Maryland, where Steketee reckons only 100 planes are based, would be ideal locations, but the proposal has gotten a cool reception from military officials, he said.
Another solution to the airport shortage is to convince localities of the economic benefits of opening their own airports, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. A study in Ohio showed that counties that opened airports gained an average of 60,000 new jobs and experienced a $250 million increase in personal income in their jurisdictions after four years, AOPA spokeswoman Pamela Weil said.
Citizen opposition frequently is a problem, however. For instance, Prince George's County, graded a field for a new airport in the late 1960s but a local uproar ensued. Citizens threw politicians out of office and rewrote the county's charter in their battle against the airport, Mottley said.
This is the second time that the owner of Woodbridge Airport, Charles D. Benn, has been chased out by development. Until the mid-1960s, Benn ran Washington-Virginia Airport at Bailey's Crossroads in Fairfax County, now the site of the Skyline office and condominium high-rises. After selling out, Benn opened Woodbridge Airport in then-rural Prince William County in 1967. He declined to return telephone calls about whether he plans another airport once Woodbridge is closed.
The Woodbrige facility is an 8 a.m.-to-dusk airport with a 2,246-foot-long paved runway and space for 174 aircraft, but it has no instrument-landing capability. Today it is bordered on three sides by residential development.
The Calvert Co., a Prince William County developer, is proposing to build 820 units for the elderly, 248 town houses and 15 acres of commercial development on the site. Calvert's president, Robert Wilcox, said that he plans a life-care community for the elderly with sheltered housing and nursing facilities.
Not all the air traffic would be lost from eastern Prince William County. Wilcox would like to save one corner of the site for a heliport. And he added that there is discussion about opening another small airport to replace Woodbridge, perhaps this time one stop farther south, in Stafford County.