Charting a Course

Courting Jets at Frederick Municipal Airport to Fuel Economic Engines

By James Eppard | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 09.11.13 – Feature, People & Places

Kollin Purgason can’t take his eyes off the helicopters buzzing like dragonflies around the control tower at Frederick Municipal Airport.

“Are you ready to go now?” asks Kollin’s grandfather, not sounding quite ready to go himself.

“No,” the 5-year-old says, his eyes trained on the busy airfield. Gordon and Teri Cecil, of Frederick, bring their grandson to the airport’s Airways Inn restaurant almost every Wednesday, when spaghetti is on the menu. Kollin loves the lunch special even more than the framed pictures and sketches on the walls that pay tribute to aviation’s golden era. During their meal, they watch as a sleek jet lands and then takes off. They stare in awe as a pair of military helicopters thunder to life and lift gracefully off the tarmac. Afterwards, Kollin leads his grandparents outside to watch helicopter pilots practice orchestrated aerial maneuvers.

After a few minutes, Teri Cecil knows it would take something really special to pry Kollin from his personal air show.

“Ready to get some ice cream now?” she asks.airport2

For many, the 67-year-old airport on the eastern edge of Frederick might seem like a quaint pair of runways framed by barley and cornfields, where small airplanes come and go at leisure. The family restaurant in the airport’s vintage brick terminal hardly challenges that sentiment. But behind the idyll, those with a more intimate knowledge of the airport say that it is an economic engine that has helped shape the region. And as long-planned improvements come to fruition, the city and surrounding area—along with the businesses that directly support the airport—may benefit well beyond the terminal’s tasty lunch specials and pastoral views.

Foremost among those upgrades is the new 10-story, $5.3 million control tower, which opened last year. The other big development is the long-anticipated $9 million runway extension that officials say, promises to bring in more corporate flights and payloads of revenue, once built.

The calculus is straightforward: A 6,000-foot runway would give today’s preferred corporate jets enough running room to lift off with a belly full of fuel and baggage. In its current state, at 5,220 feet, Frederick’s main runway is just long enough to send a thirsty Gulfstream V or Global Express somewhere else to top off for a long journey. Accommodating more corporate fliers means more fuel sales, more hanger rentals, more on-site maintenance, more jobs and more money spent “outside the fence” in Frederick County’s economy.

It’s a focus of the city’s economic plan, says Richard Griffin, director of the city’s Office of Economic Development, which oversees the airport. “The airport is part of a multi-pronged approach to providing the infrastructure the business community needs to be successful here,” says Griffin.

Mayor Randy McClement goes a step further, envisioning Frederick as the unfettered airport of choice for corporate fliers seeking easy access to the area. “Our goal is to be the number-one executive business airport in the Baltimore-Washington region,” McClement says.

Frederick is already the state’s busiest general aviation airport, with more than 120,000 annual operations, as defined by take-offs and landings. The airport is a designated reliever for BWI and Dulles because its amenities and traffic-handling capacity help ease congestion at the larger, tightly scheduled commercial airports, which can’t absorb general aviation flights. Indeed, Frederick’s sheer volume provided the rationale for the new control tower and was a central argument earlier this year to keep the tower’s federally funded air-traffic controllers on the job in the face of Congressional budget cuts.

“The old saying is a mile of highway will take you a mile. A mile of runway will take you anywhere.” –Bob Calo, pilot

The airport also provides a critical alternate landing pad for presidential helicopters en route to Camp David 20 miles to the north. Though it worked fine in the years before the tower, it seemed to defy logic that the world’s most important cargo would be flying into an uncontrolled airport.

“I think the feds really like that this tower is here,” says Kevin Daugherty, former manager of the airport. The fact that Congress continued to fund the program was good news for the airport and great news for the city, which collects $7 million in annual taxes from airport-related businesses and wants to see the revenues grow. Those businesses include flight schools, aerial photographers, a fleet of charter aircraft and a commercial maintenance facility known as a fixed-base operator. The airport is also home to Trooper 3, one of the Maryland State Police’s fleet of rescue helicopters.

“Frederick is one of the top-tier airports in the state,” says Ashish Solanki, director of the Office for Regional Aviation Assistance for the Maryland Aviation Administration, which released a report on the economic impact of 35 airports in Maryland earlier this year. According to the report, airport-related activity in Fredericik accounts for more than $110 million in annual revenues, a large portion of which gets poured into the local economy in the form of purchases of food, aircraft parts and fuel.

airport3That’s all good, but what Bob Calo really cares about is flying. The retired Maryland State Police officer hangars his experimental Vans Aircraft kit plane at the airport because it’s so convenient. “The old saying is a mile of highway will take you a mile,” says Calo, who lives in Frederick and spent 10 years building his plane. “A mile of runway will take you anywhere.” Sometimes he and his wife will fly up to Cape May, N.J., for lunch or down to Williamsburg, Va., for pie. They’ve seen a lot of airports and like what they see in Frederick.

They’re not alone in that opinion, judging by the high occupancy rates and wait list for hangars like Calo’s. The hangars cost between $220 and $600 a month, and a tie-down in the outside lots costs $109 a month. The airport takes in about $1 million a year in fees on the 228 aircraft based in Frederick. “This is a beautiful facility,” Calo says. “And it’s a great location. It’s just far enough away from D.C. and Baltimore, but it’s still on the edge of wilderness. So you’ve got the best of both worlds. I’m glad to see it growing.”

Being situated on the edge of wilderness in the post-9/11 era has its advantages. The no-fly zone that blossomed and hardened over Washington, D.C. over the last decade doesn’t reach all the way to Frederick.“Many people know, with our airspace challenges, you can’t fly into an airport close to D.C. unless you fly commercial service,” says Solanki, of the Maryland Aviation Administration. “So many corporate operators both large and small will fly into Frederick and a couple other choice airports around the region. Basically, they know they can fly into Frederick, grab a car, get on [Interstate] 270 and they’re downtown.”

Daugherty, the former airport manager, sees every day without the 6,000-foot runway as a missed opportunity. “For our businesses at the airport and the city it’s a huge loss of revenue for us,” he says.

Plans to extend the runway date back to the mid-1990s. Master plans have been drawn, communities have been heard and nearly a dozen businesses have been bought, moved or shuttered at great expense to make way for the runway extension, which is still contingent on federal funding. In July, the FAA provided a $910,828 grant to help fund the extension. Since the city already forward-funded $14.4 million for the entire project, including corporate hangars, the grant helps the city pay on the debt. Vacant buildings still need to be demolished and 300,000 cubic yards of earth need to be moved, a process that will take years and more federal funds.

“Our two big programs are the air traffic control tower, which is now done—although we’re still fighting for funding—and our runway extension,” says Daugherty. “Our future is dependent on those two projects. I will absolutely tell you that.”

Long gone are the days when recreational fliers carried the airport. Today you’re more likely to see retirees taxiing older aircraft down the runway or groups of people pooling their funds for a share of a plane. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), a trade group representing general aviation pilots and aircraft owners—and also one of the airport’s largest tenants—sees the age gap as a significant challenge. Outreach efforts include simulator rides and free memberships for teens, but it’s hard to fight the reality that flying is inherently expensive.

“They have a lot of alternatives today that when I was a kid we didn’t have, ways to spend their free time and money,” says Tom Haines, an editor at AOPA and a pilot since he was 17. He keeps his six-seat Beechcraft Bonanza at the airport and flies it frequently for work and pleasure.

Haines sees the logic in the airport’s push for corporate clients, saying fuel sales and maintenance are lucrative lines of business. “Most of our lighter airplanes, you buy fuel in the tens of gallons,” Haines says. “When the big jets come in, they’re buying thousands of gallons at a time.”

Daugherty, who is also a pilot, doesn’t discount the crucial role small planes play at the airport. But the financial reality is pretty convincing. “You’ll see all the airports like Frederick moving towards corporate development,” he says. “And that’s not to say we want to kick out the Cessna 150 owners. That is not the case. We want to continue to foster and grow general aviation. But to pay the bills you have to have corporate aircraft.”

Maryland’s Solanki calls airplanes ‘time machines’, whether it’s for getting a CEO to a site visit, getting an organ to a transplant recipient or getting a guy with $150 to $200 to burn every hour on fuel to his favorite diner in New York.

“They afford us time,” Solanki says. “They help us make up time that we would otherwise lose in transportation on the ground.”

For visitors who aren’t in a hurry like Kollin and his grandparents, the sense that time practically stands still here is a good thing.

Blanche Reid of Frederick, a regular at the restaurant for four or five years with her husband Robert, sits and chats with Airways Inn owner Jenny Sewell long after finishing lunch. It’s their favorite restaurant.

“We like the food and we love the people and we like the prices,” she says. “And I love watching the planes come and go, especially since they got the tower and they’re getting more big jets in here.”