HIGHGATE — It all starts with your first flight.
The comfortable sound-blocking headphones and friendly radio chat, the gentle takeoff and landing, the easy maneuvering, the view – while some may balk at going 115 mph 1,000 feet in the air in a small air plane that bumps with every breeze and heat pocket, others aren’t bothered by it, and are hooked.
George Coy was one of those people. After learning to fly in his college years, the 70-year-old continues his “hobby that got out of control” today as the assistant manager of the Franklin County State Airport in Highgate. Coy was the manager beginning in 1995, though his son Cliff, 44, has since taken over beginning in 2007.
In overseeing the airport’s main building, leasing it from the state and running their aircraft rental, maintenance and repair business “Border Air LTD,” both Coys have noticed a trend with small aircraft flying: it’s taking off.
The Vermont Agency of Transportation State Aeronautics program has also made this observation, and is making efforts to attract and accommodate the growing number of local pilots.
Flying in Franklin County
A number of factors have come together to make flying easier, cheaper, and more in demand across the country, in Vermont, and especially in Franklin County. VTrans State Aeronautics Administrator Guy Rouelle said by e-mail yesterday that general aviation has seen “strong increases” in the state over the past four years.
One reason for this is, planes have gotten lighter.
“Back in 2005, the [Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.)] developed a new type of aircraft,” Cliff said yesterday.
Called Light-Sport, this smaller, lighter, and simpler aircraft requires less gasoline, and therefore is less expensive. “They probably use half the gasoline of a regular small airplane,” he said. “Most of the cost of [training for] a pilot’s license is fuel.”
These planes are also meant for recreation, as opposed to strictly travel. They were developed for the growing number of people interested in learning how to fly for fun – pilots can only use them in daylight hours.
According to Cliff, Franklin County is an especially attractive area for new pilots, where airspace is less crowded, where the ground below is flatter, and where everyone knows everyone – it’s a community.
“The environment in the community is very supportive,” he said. While the airport in Burlington post-9/11 requires a pilot to have a uniform and a badge, Cliff said that Franklin County State Airport relies on knowing everybody else.
“We’re a much more friendly group of people,” he said.
Coy added that flying out of Franklin County is cheaper than in the county’s Canadian counterparts, and it’s also less expensive than other, more populated areas in Vermont, where airport costs have increased.
The Franklin County State Airport already serves almost 100 pilots, and has between seven and eight transient planes come through each day. Cliff said that the Franklin County Airport is getting ready for more by expanding and improving its facilities.
“We’re preparing for that influx of pilots,” said Cliff.
A number of improvements are lined up for over the next few years in accordance with the airport’s master plan, and a few have already been completed in past years. In 2011, a four-bay hangar, owned by the state and operated by Cliff, was completed for parking rental, and in 2012, trees were cleared on the east side of the airport to make way for a Light-Sport aircraft runway.
The airport also has a paved runway and grass runway to the west, but Cliff pointed out that lighter aircraft are moving slower than the other, larger planes. “We wanted to separate the two different kinds of traffic,” he said.
The runway project is still in the finalization process, and Cliff said it should be paved by the end of this year.
An Act 250 minor application was filed by Rouelle in mid-July in order to get permits for four more hangars, paved aprons and a gravel access road. If no one contests the application, the project will be able to move forward beginning August 21.
Three of the hangars are planned to be 60’ by 60’, and one is set up to be 40’ by 135’ – it will replace the building from which the Coys currently operate. Two of the smaller hangars are intended to go in at the north end of the airport’s taxiway, and the other two are intended near the center of the airport. Each hangar will include two parking spaces.
The project is proposed to be done on 2.8 acres of the airport’s 348 acres over a three-year period. The Town of Highgate approved the project on June 12.
The cost, which is estimated to be $500,000 for the new hangars, $110,000 for paving, and $65,000 for utilities, will be covered through the revenue the airport makes by leasing hangar space, leasing state land for private owners to build their own hangars, and fuel sales, said Rouelle.
He added that VTrans is also seeking federal funds to help with the costs.
Future projects are also on the horizon for the Franklin County State Airport. Rouelle said that installation of natural gas to the airport, a taxi lane to the Light-Sport aircraft landing area, new private hangars – Cliff said he has a waiting list of pilots wanting to build their own – a master plan update, and a potential runway extension are all possible.
Call for more pilots
In addition to the airport’s improvements attracting more pilots, both Coys are involved in outreach through local schools, Girl’s and Boy’s Scouts, and sixth, seventh, and eighth graders participating in Rosie’s Girls to encourage more and more people to fly. George Coy said that four students he’s worked with through school programs have become pilots, three of them women and two of them now in the U.S. Air Force.
Coy also generally offers to take most people he meets up in his plane, including this reporter.
The experience, done in a 1970s airplane that Coy assuredly said was taken apart and inspected each year to make sure it’s safe, was a long way from commercial airplane flying. No airport towers, no air traffic control, no separation from pilot and passenger – just other planes, some buffeting breezes, the sky above and the earth below.
In a small plane, there is an uninterrupted view of the landscape from the cockpit: toy houses and barns, ribbons of road, and vast stretches of Lake Champlain dotted by its islands lay below. Farm fields look like green quilts, wrinkled in places by hills. The sky feels much closer.
Flying brings one into a whole other world, one that Coy and his son, Cliff, and the VTrans Aeronautics Program are welcoming more people to experience, and enjoy.