Connecticut's Smaller Airports Falling Victim to Development

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.

Simsbury is considering purchasing the Simsbury Tri-Town Airport.

``Municipalities and states don't seem to recognize the value of these airports,'' Worley said. ``And from a pilot's perspective, places like Robertson are nice airports. They are easy in and out, Robertson has an excellent maintenance facility and flight school, and it's centrally located.''

The biggest threat to 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. In Madison, where median home sale prices passed $500,000 last year, the out-of-state owners of Griswold Airport sold the 42-acre shoreline property to make way for a proposed 127-unit development for people 55 and older.

Some state lawmakers, concerned about the declining number of small airports, are looking to help the rest stay afloat. One bill before the legislature would give the state the first right to buy any of the 12 remaining airports before they are offered for sale.

Richard Jaworski, head of the state Department of Transportation's Bureau of Aviation and Ports, said each of the small airports in Connecticut not only plays a critical role in the state's transportation system, but also serves an important economic role.

``These small airports aren't just for recreation, but all have an economic benefit to their communities and are a tremendous resource,'' Jaworski said, pointing to the businesses on or near the airports, from small restaurants to charter operators.

The small airports also provide safe landing areas for emergency craft, such as medical helicopters, and help alleviate crowding and delays at the state's larger airports, he said.

There has been little opposition, so far, to Plainville's consideration of purchasing Robertson Airport. In March, the town council authorized a study that includes appraisals of the property's value. The study is required by the federal government, which would pay for 95 percent of the cost of buying Robertson. A previous study showed that the town would break even if it bought the airport and could make money if it invested in the facility.

``The town council feels Robertson Airport, being the oldest operating airport in Connecticut, has a lot of history behind it, and they want to make sure it remains an airport,'' said Robert Lee, Plainville's town manager. ``One way to do that is to own it yourself.''

Connecticut has 22 airports that are publicly or privately owned and open for public use. Six are owned by the state, including Bradley International Airport and Brainard Airport in Hartford. Four are owned by municipalities, and 12 are privately owned, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Connecticut has an additional 38 ``aviation landing areas,'' which means they are small airports -- sometimes only grass landing strips -- that are for private use only.

Of the 12 privately owned, but publicly used airports, Robertson is considered well developed, according to a study conducted for Plainville. Services include advanced flight training, aircraft sales, airframe and powerplant repair, fuel, and plane rentals, as well as charter flights. The O'Learys have worked hard to establish and maintain their reputation.

The airport, which does not have a control tower, is open 24 hours a day, weather permitting. The number of planes arriving or taking off also varies according to the weather. On a sunny day, as many as 50 airplanes might land there; on a rainy or snowy day, none.

Brian O'Leary said it's sometimes tough working for your dad and alongside your brother or sister, especially when a disagreement follows you home. But there are advantages, too, such as bringing a close-knit feeling of family into the office. And if you have to call in sick, there's usually another brother or sister available to fill in.

``Even if you aren't family, you get treated like it here,'' said Barry Alexander, the aircraft sales manager at Robertson. ``And it's low-key here. It's not all business. It's all fun.''



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