Ground Clutter

March 8, 2005
Regs and Rights

Alabama's Hazel Green Airport (3M5), is a privately owned, public-use airport just north of Huntsville, licensed by the state as an airport since the mid-1960s. (Before then it was a dragstrip.) AOPA's online directory says it is paved, lighted, and 2,670 feet long by 40 feet wide. There lies the problem. The state says it should be 60 feet wide. That's a
simplification, of course, and, like most aviation simplifications, the more you dig, the fuzzier it gets.

A group called the Hazel Green Flyers owns 3M5. Basically speaking, they base their airplanes there, allow access to others, sell fuel to themselves and again, according to AOPA, operate "irregular" hours. It is not a thriving place.

Dr. John Eagerton, Chief, Aero-nautics Board, Alabama DOT, provides the state's viewpoint on 3M5. (Dr. Eagerton is an accomplished pilot himself and one of those few who really did start his aviation career by washing airplanes at Montgomery Aviation when I was working there in the 1970s.) Sincere and dedicated when it comes to aviation safety, he points out that most if not all public airport standards call for 60 feet as a minimum width. 3M5, he says, needs at least that much because it has only an east/west (7/25) runway in an area where the prevailing winds (and all other paved airports) run north/south.

Two owner/members of the Hazel Green Flyers, Al Berisford and Pat Frierson, counter that while the prevailing winds are north/south, the strongest winds tend to be from the west. My memory agrees, but as my wife reminds me, my memory ain't what it was. Pat and Al both point out that many pilots choose Hazel Green as an alternate to other local airports when the winds are strong out of the west, and that is indeed true.

They also claim a good record for 3M5. Al says that according to AOPA information, the airport is mentioned in only two accidents. One aircraft ran out of gas after leaving 3M5, the other had a gear problem.

Unless the DOT gives 3M5 a waiver, the owners could widen the runway -- costly because of swampy ground on the sides -- or change it to a personal-use airport. Dr. Eagerton says that would prohibit use of the airport by other than the owners and their families. (I just have to disagree with that definition of personal use. It flies in the face of everything I ever believed about property rights.)

Yes, a public-use airport has great responsibilities, and I have come to agree that states need the right to regulate them. But I also believe owners should have the right to put Xs on the ends, remove the airport from the charts, and then let friends come in by permission.

Let me quickly add that the 3M5 owners have not expressed a desire to do that, and that they and Dr. Eagerton are handling this whole matter in a very civilized and courteous manner (although both groups may be mad at me after they read this column). I'll let you know how this comes out.