Connecticut's Smaller Airports Falling Victim to Development

The biggest threat to 12 privately-owned smaller airports is the demand for new housing. With land prices increasing, airport land has become valuable and some private owners have sold to make way for new developments.

When Matthew McConaughey appeared on ESPN to promote his football movie, he didn't fly into Bradley International Airport or ride a limo up from New York City.

Instead, the film star flew by helicopter to tiny Robertson Airport in Plainville, just a few miles from the Bristol headquarters of the sports cable network.

After he landed, McConaughey took a few minutes to visit with the airport staff in the main terminal -- a one-room office with a few chairs -- where he posed for pictures and talked up his movie, ``We Are Marshall.''

``It's cool to see someone in person who you're used to seeing on TV or in the movies,'' said Brian O'Leary, one of the office managers at the airport, ``and he is one of the few who actually came in to talk. Sometimes we don't even know who is here. We just see the helicopter land and the limo drive right up to it.''

Robertson Airport, a privately owned facility, has been seeing a steady stream of celebrities and executives, thanks, in part, to its location inside a busy industrial park only a few miles from ESPN.

O'Leary said the rapper 50 Cent used the airport for himself and his guests before building his own helicopter pad at his palatial home in Farmington. Sports stars such as Walter Payton and Mark McGwire have also flown in for visits to ESPN, and singer-songwriter Carly Simon earlier this year chartered a plane from Plainville for the short flight to her home on Martha's Vineyard, O'Leary said.

But the celebrity visitors, though providing a fun break in the workdays for the six O'Leary family members who operate the airport, have not done much to improve the bottom line. The helicopters are chartered in New York City, so about all the airport makes from the stops is the profit from a fuel refill. And although ESPN has chartered guests through Robertson, they don't regularly use the airport for their own employees, a spokesman said.

Instead, Robertson Airport, known as the oldest operating airport in the state, sticks with its longtime role as a laid-back home to about 50 aircraft and a place to learn to fly or charter a seven-person jet.

The O'Learys have run the airport for 37 years through a company called Interstate Aviation.

Bill O'Leary flies charters, and his wife, Eileen, helps run the office. Their eight adult children have all worked at the field at one time or another, with four remaining there to fly planes, do maintenance or staff the main office. The airport employs about eight others, including airplane mechanics, flight instructors and airplane sales staff.

Robertson Airport, like the 12 other small privately owned, but publicly used airports in the state, faces an uncertain future.

The airport is owned by Tomasso Brothers Inc., which has asked the town whether it will purchase the field. And although Plainville is taking a long and serious look at purchasing the facility to keep it operating, no decision has been made. If the town declines to purchase the airfield, there is concern that it could be sold and turned into housing or a commercial development, as some other small Connecticut airports have.

``We are going in the wrong direction,'' said Phil Worley of New Hartford, who flies in and out of Robertson. He also publishes the Atlantic Flyer, a free aviation publication distributed to 800 airports. ``The number of airplanes being built is increasing when we are rapidly losing our airports, both in Connecticut and across the country.''

Officials at Tomasso Brothers did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment.

Disappearing Airfields

Ten years ago, Connecticut had about 20 small, privately owned, publicly used airports, according to the state Department of Transportation. The most recent to close were Mountain Meadow Airstrip in Burlington and Harwinton in 2004 and, late last year, Griswold Airport in Madison, which was sold to make way for a new housing development.

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