Living A Dream

Sept. 8, 2002

Living A Dream

By Jodi Prill, Associate Editor

September 2002

Private pilots join forces and show what can be achieved through shared love of flight.
West Chester, PA — Dave Nelson retired as manager of the Brandywine Airport June 1, 2002. But with Young Eagles bustling about him and others in and out of the airport all stopping to talk and ask questions, it’s obvious "retirement" is a very loose term. Nelson is also a pilot owner of the airport, along with about 100 other of his fellow aviators. This small group made its desire to save its local airport a reality — a successful reality.

Twenty miles west of Philadelphia lies Brandywine Airport. In 1997 it was in danger of being sold to a developer not interested in keeping it operational as an airport. The Brandywine Airport Pilots Association, made up of local GA pilots, didn’t want to see its airport dismantled, so it came up with a plan: The club’s members would purchase the airport and operate it as a non-profit entity. More than five years later, the airport has expanded to include a terminal building, hangars, and an elongated runway. The pilots of the New Brandywine Airport Club are living their dream — to own an airport.
Nelson explains he bought into the project with his brother. The two developed an early passion for flying with the help of their father who was a flight instructor. Nelson previously worked in education, and then in banking. Originally, he agreed to help out at the airport on Mondays and Fridays, just to keep things running smoothly. That lasted nine months before everyone realized it had become a full-time job and the Club agreed to officially hire him as manager in 1997.

This Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey Prototype No. 3 is on display at The American Helicopter Museum, across the runway from Brandywine Airport, West Chester, PA.

Nelson says Brandywine Airport began operations in 1939 and was a grass field with only a maintenance shop until the mid-1980s when the terminal building was constructed. In 1997, the owner at the time, Bill Wilson, put the airport up for sale and had a verbal agreement with a developer to make the property an industrial park.
"That’s when the pilots got together and decided to chip in money to buy the airport," Nelson explains. "We didn’t want to be at the whim of big business or an industrial park."
Not having any models to follow, Brandywine Airport Club mailed a brochure to all its members and other pilots in the local area in order to garner the $2.5 million it would take to purchase the airport. It stated, "Live your dream to own an airport. Fulfill our dream to save one of the Philadelphia area’s premiere general aviation airports."
The Club’s plan included purchasing the airport from Wilson, and building 35 T-hangars and 10 corporate hangars. "It was a gold rush," Nelson says. "We pre-sold the whole project." The Club actually had to add 15 more T-hangars to meet the demand and interest that was created through the venture.
Fortunately, the Club had all the right things to make the business arrangement work:
• a dedicated group willing to devote the necessary time and energy,
• a reasonable purchase price,
• a cooperative seller (Wilson, who was also a pilot, loved the idea),
• something to induce people to invest, "With us, it was the hangars," Nelson says.
The Club held an informational meeting and asked prospective "owners" to make an initial deposit of $2,000. "People were practically running up to the table and saying ’Here, take my money,’" Nelson says.
Each pilot was then required to purchase two shares for a T-hangar and four shares for a corporate hangar at $10,000 per share, as well as cover the construction cost of the hangar space. "It’s like a condo association," Nelson explains. "The pilots bought the right to occupy a hangar and own shares in the airport."

Brandywine Airport sports a 3,350-foot long runway, with about 1,300 feet extending onto property not owned by the Club. An easement onto the property next to the airport allowed for the expansion.
The terminal building houses a flight school, which serves as a source of income for the airport. The maintenance shop, fuel sales, office, and hangar space also help generate money for the airport. After four years of negotiations, the University of Pennsylvania Health System reached an agreement with the airport and began renting space from which it operates one of its PENNSTAR medical helicopters. Nelson says the airport is an ideal location because of the office and maintenance space it offers, as well as the convenience of 24-hour facilities. According to Nelson the airport generates about $10,000 per month in building space rental fees, $2,000 per month for hangar rental, and $500,000 annually in fuel sales, which support daily operations.
So far, the airport has been completely self-funded, with no state or federal aid, which Nelson describes as unique and something the pilot owners are proud of, but also difficult. "There’s no one to fall back on," he says.
Compared to other airports its size, Nelson explains that Brandywine is "trying to make enough just to pay employees and make improvements when necessary. "If improvements are needed for a county airport, the county just says, ’Fine, do it.’ We say, ’Where are we going to get the money?’"
The Brandywine Airport Club has a board comprised of seven members who meet monthly. Annual shareholder meetings are held to keep all pilot-owners informed of the operations of the airport.
The board meets yearly to review and assess the budget for the upcoming year. From those numbers, the pilot owners are told what they must contribute per share to the airport. According to Nelson, the shareholders were all required to contribute $800 in 2001 to meet the airport’s expenses.
John Taylor, a former computer software salesman and member of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, was hired in April to succeed Nelson as airport manager. Although not a pilot-owner, Taylor’s experience and dedication to aviation made him the most qualified candidate, according to Nelson. The airport is also staffed by two assistant managers, a receptionist, and four part-time employees.
Brandywine is designated as a reliever for Philadelphia International Airport, and is therefore eligible to participate in the state-funded Airport Layout Plan. Nelson explains that an engineering firm will be hired by the state to assess the current condition of the airport, what the future of the airport is, and what it will take to get it there. Once this process is complete, Brandywine Airport will be eligible for state and federal grants, and 95 percent of the total cost of any improvements will be covered by these grants.
"We have a whole laundry list of capital improvements," Nelson says, including widening and repaving of the runway, installing new runway lights, paving of drainage areas, and purchasing additional land to protect the borders of the airport from other development.

GA AND 9/11
Business at Brandywine, like at other airports, suffered following 9/11. Nelson explains that because the airport is in Class B airspace, flights were restricted and it was "virtually shut down. For about two-and-a-half months we were really hurting. We actually had state police out here making sure we were shut down."
Nelson goes on to say that GA airports should be the least of TSA’s concern and initial restrictions were fairly irrelevant. "This was just politicians trying to convince the general public they were doing something important."
Currently, the airport is operating at its pre-9/11 levels, averaging 38,000 takeoffs per year, but Nelson anticipates some changes with possible TSA regulations for GA airports. "If they want tighter security, it’s going to be a huge expense," Nelson says. "Our runway is open 24 hours and it’s not staffed all that time; we don’t even have a fence." Nelson adds that funding necessary for TSA requirements should come from taxpayers.