WEST MILFORD - Tucked up against a wooded ridge in the heart of North Jersey's Highlands, Greenwood Lake Airport seems the typical little country airport.
But looks are deceiving: Thanks to a modernization after being bought by the state, the airstrip has nearly doubled its resident fleet of planes. And it's gaining a vital place in state efforts to relieve pressure on the big, congested airports in the region.
Still undergoing renovations as one of two state-owned airports, Greenwood Lake is trying to attract owners of small aircraft and corporate drop-offs, with immediate plans including a rental car office and maybe a new hangar.
"We've come a long way - in 2003, there were only 50 planes parked here, now we're up to 93," said airport manager Tim Wagner. "There's a waiting list for hangars, and we're trying to build another one."
Meantime, air traffic has picked up considerably, including helicopter shuttles. About 20,000 take-offs and landings occur annually. Enterprise Rental Car is considering opening a satellite office in the lobby.
One recent morning, Derek Jeter, who owns a house in the township, was flown in with two men from New York City to a sport utility vehicle waiting in the parking lot. His walk from chopper to car - a mere two minutes.
It is this type of convenience, plus improvements such as repaving the runway and tarmac and adding runway lights, that state officials and Wagner are hoping will draw more pilots.
The state Department of Transportation has spent $555,000 on the 150-acre site, off Airport Road since it bought it from a private owner in 1999 for $1.8 million. Bart Ritorato, a DOT aeronautical specialist who oversees the airport, said the state purchased the airport and is paying development rights on others such as the one in Lincoln Park to ensure they remain airports.
"The DOT believes these small airports are an important part of transportation, and we're doing what we can to make sure they stay in existence," Ritorato said.
Small-plane pilots who use such airports free up air space for small jets at Teterboro and Morristown. Wagner said his management company, which took over running the hilltop airport in August 2004, has spent about $80,000 on interior renovations. It's a big improvement over the old facility's ramshackle building, dilapidated tarmac and Nairobi Airport moniker.
But still more needs doing. "Connie," a four-engine Lockheed Constellation propeller plane from the 1940s, sits outside the office and lobby building in disrepair after being used years ago as a nightclub and then for a flight school. But Wagner said he's hoping to fix it up and bring in a flight school again.
Even with all the improvements, safety concerns have been an ongoing issue for this airport with no control tower. Since opening in 1960, it has seen five fatal accidents that killed 13 people.
The latest was in 2005, when two men died after their Cessna hit wires soon after takeoff.
The fatality number seems high compared with some of the other small local airports, which lost no more than six flyers in the same time span. But experts say the number doesn't necessarily reflect airport safety. J.P. Tristani, a flight instructor from Ramsey and a former Eastern Airlines pilot, said most crashes are caused by pilot error and other factors in play.
"Pilot errors cause about 90 percent of accidents, but you also have to look at whether other factors contribute to these accidents," Tristani said. "The length of runway. Obstacles near the airport. Is there an overrun on the runway or does it drop off into a cliff? Is the runway well lighted? These are things you have to consider when you look at the number of accidents."
All airports pose their own unique challenges, and with this one sitting about 900 feet above sea level, crosswinds are a bit more of a problem.
It is also framed by trees and a craggy mountain wall on one end, and a 70-foot drop off the other side.
"Greenwood Lake Airport ranks as of one the better airports in the area," said Jim Warden, a West Milford councilman and pilot who flies two planes in and out of the site. "All airports present challenges, but they've made a lot of improvements, such as new lights, and it is a very safe airport."
But safety questions rose to a frenzy after a four-story assisted-living facility was built in the 1990s, just 2,600 feet from the southern end of the runway, in what is considered in the "airport safety zone." Some critics pointed fingers at local officials for approving the housing project.
State officials investigated and eventually decided to shorten the runway, from 4,000 feet to 3,740, by moving the painted markings on the airstrip.
That forces planes to take off sooner and land later.
"This makes the planes get up and clear the safety zone," Ritorato said. "They still have plenty of runway to take off and land."
The strip is still longer than some others nearby, including in Lincoln Park, Sussex and Newton.
It wasn't enough, however, to stop Janet Fletcher, a widow of one of the men killed in the 2005 crash, from filing suit in February against Cessna Aircraft Co. and the DOT, claiming the state agency maintained the airstrip in an "unsafe and dangerous condition." The suit is still in the court system.
Meanwhile, Wagner has overseen interior improvements to the building that houses an office, lobby, banquet hall and café.
The banquet hall is undergoing renovations to be completed this month, and Wagner is looking for a restaurant that would open in the café area next to the lobby.
Besides overseeing daily operations and renovations, Wagner also had to sort out apparently incorrect results from an audit that said he was behind in payments to the DOT by about $24,000. His management firm collects fees from plane owners and then pays the state $16,500 a month.
Sandra Gutarra, a DOT spokeswoman, said Wagner is paid in full but declined to elaborate further on the state audit.
"We're very proud of the airport and the improvements done here," Gutarra said.
Details about area airports (Flight numbers are only estimates. No agency keeps track of the number of planes landing and taking off at small airports.):
20,000 flights annually
5 fatal accidents; 13 people killed*
50,000 flights annually
2 fatal accidents; 6 people killed*
175,000 flights annually
2 fatal accidents; 3 people killed*
30,000 flights annually
2 fatal accidents; 4 people killed*
*1962 to present