For years it seemed like Deer Park Airport's biggest draw was gravity. It was simply impossible for cross-country pilots to make it over the Rockies en route to the coast without landing to refuel and use the bathroom.
There, pilots found a rough-planked toolshed of a building with an ever-evaporating pot of Folgers perched on a card table and a use-if -you-dare commode tucked behind a suspect partition. This place was charitably referred to as "The Lounge."
Fuel was at the other end of the taxi lane.
What's happened in the past five years has plowed those days under. A good 45 minutes north of Spokane by car, the airport is booming, says Penni Loomis, who manages the municipal landing strip. At least 16 hangars have been built in the past five years, and Loomis expects 20 more by the end of 2008.
That pace of growth at an airport with fewer than 70 buildings is exponential, however not exclusive. Inland Northwest community airports are rapidly changing largely because of noncommercial flights, which thrust some like Deer Park into the real estate market of leisure hangars, and others, like Coeur d'Alene Airport/ Pappy Boyington Field, into the jet age.
"I've never seen growth like we have right now," Loomis said.
The pilot shack has been spruced up, with better coffee, trendy snacks and real furniture. Lots are ready to for lease at a rate of roughly 14.7 cents a square foot, which doesn't sound like much until airport use fees are factored in.
Deer Park Airport is making money for the city, Loomis says. And the airport guest book is filled with comments by pilots who seemingly are as enamored with the West as their grounded and rapidly relocating cousins.
"Is this the pilots' shack or the Hilton?" wrote one visitor. The comments come from as far as Wichita, Texas.
Wide open spaces are the one of the reasons behind community airports' popularity. Deer Park has a freakishly long runway at 6,100 linear feet, not to mention 1,800 acres of open land.
That's enough airport to accommodate a bomber, which is what the U.S. Army had in mind when it completed the airport in 1944 as part of its World War II infrastructure. A year later the war was over, and the airport became Deer Park's.
Other local airports share those military roots.
Coeur d'Alene has a similar military connection. Felts Field in east Spokane was the city's first municipal airport but also did a tour with Uncle Sam.
All three are growing, each a little differently. And Sandpoint Airport might upstage all others.
Local flights at Felts Field, that is flights beginning and ending at Spokane's very first airport, are up more than 8 percent, says Todd Woodard, who tracks statistics for both Felts and Spokane International Airport.
Part of that increase is likely attributed to Moody Aviation, the flight school based at Felts Field and operated by Moody Bible Institute. Moody is driving up traffic in Deer Park too, because new pilots like the safety of the long landing strips and few tall buildings.
The only noncommercial airport with a tower locally is Felts Field. The University of North Dakota flight school also uses Deer Park for takeoffs and landings.
Felts too, has seen interest in hangars take off this year, Woodard says. The airport offered roughly 15 new leases for hangar parcels this year, and these were quickly spoken for.
Sandpoint Airport expects to draw a wealthier demographic. There, on private land adjoining the airport, work has begun on a luxury subdivision of 44 airplane hangars with living quarters upstairs and a taxiway to Sandpoint Airport, owned by Bonner County. Some will be timeshare units.
Developers of SilverWing at Sandpoint completed taxiway work this fall and plan to sell lots next year for a price that hasn't been disclosed. Pictures of what the hangars might look like, as well as a layout of the subdivision can be found online at silverwindatsandpoint.com.
In Coeur d'Alene, the new trend is private jets, and many of those are also timeshare, says Greg Delavan, airport manager Coeur d'Alene Airport/Pappy Boyington Field.
"There's so many jets we hardly notice them anymore," says Delavan, "Sometimes I look up, but we've become so accustomed to them."
Delavan pegs the annual landings and takeoffs for all aircraft at his airport at 337 daily, a number that has been fairly stable since it was reported in 2004 by airport tracker Airnav.com. Private jet traffic, on the other hand, has been rising, though hard numbers to that effect are nonexistent.
Unlike larger airports with control towers that monitor the comings and goings of every plane, community airports lacking towers aren't required to record their activity. There are roughly a dozen locally owned corporate jets, like the one owned by Stimson Lumber Co., which flies in and out of Coeur d'Alene regularly, Delavan says. But a growing contributor to jet traffic is relatively new to aviation, jets that are fractionally owned, or "interval ownership" jets, as Delavan calls the craft.
"It's like timeshare for corporate jets," Delavan says. "Used to be it cost $5 million to $50 million to get into corporate jet travel. Now you buy a share. They're professionally operated aircraft. It's a little more affordable at $500,000."
Four different companies offer jet timeshares.
NetJets, owned by Omaha billionaire Warren E. Buffett, is the largest and one of the companies seen taking off and landing at Coeur d'Alene Airport. Bombardier, manufacturer of Challenger and Learjets, offers fractional ownership as small as a sixteenth share and lands in Coeur d'Alene, as well.
The other two companies on the national scene are Citation Shares and Flight Options; the latter is owned by defense contractor Raytheon.
Delavan says he knows of a local physician's wife who calls often on the couple's timeshare jet, though he won't blow her cover. The jets aren't based in Coeur d'Alene.
Rather, they fly in to pick up customers and take them wherever they want. A one-sixteenth ownership gives a person roughly 50 hours of fly time, which does not include fly costs, which run more than $1,500 an hour.
There also are monthly fees that cost $6,000 or more.
If a $500,000 buy in is too pricey, there are also "flight cards," good for fixed amounts of time in the sky. This year, NetJet offered flight cards for as little as $115,990.
Nationally, timeshare jet ownership began growing by about a thousand shares a year in 2001, according to the National Business Aviation Association. A decade earlier, there were only 71 shares in the industry.
Long security lines and ever-increasing flight delays after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made timeshare jets attractive to people who could afford it.
"9/11 really seemed to kick them into high gear," says Larry Booher, of Southfield Aviation. Southfield is one of two companies Coeur d'Alene Airport fueling small jets.
There's some local timeshare ownership, as well as jet owners with second or third homes on Lake Coeur d'Alene, that contribute to increased jet traffic, Booher says.
"We had a load of guys in a Gulfstream. All they do is go to various golf courses," Booher says. "We see some of that."