HOW TO BUILD A GRASS STRIP

HERE’S WHAT IT TAKES TO TURN YOUR AVI­A­TION VI­SION INTO RE­AL­ITY

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Randy Bolinger

Achiev­ing the ul­ti­mate dream of hav­ing a run­way in the back­yard re­quires a lot more than plant­ing grass seeds. Here’s what you need to cre­ate your own.

If you’ve ever fan­ta­sized about your own pri­vate air­field in the back­yard, here are a few things to con­sider about mak­ing the grass strip of your dreams a re­al­ity.

As an avi­a­tion mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sional, I’ve had the good for­tune to work for some of the finest aerospace com­pa­nies in the world. Which means I’ve also had the great priv­i­lege of liv­ing all over these United States. From Sa­van­nah, Ge­or­gia, to Bend, Ore­gon, and Du­luth, Min­nesota, to Ker­rville, Texas, east to west, north to south, I’ve moved my tools, pool ta­ble and the bal­ance of our house­hold be­long­ings over a con­sid­er­able amount of North Amer­i­can terra firma. With the prospect of each move, a fa­mil­iar daydream popped into my head: “Will this finally be my chance to live with my air­plane at a pri­vate air­field?”

The fan­tasy al­ways be­gan the same. Pull out a VFR sec­tional (or most re­cently, ForeFlight on my iPad) and ex­plore ex­ist­ing pri­vate air­fields and res­i­den­tial air­parks in the area — the ones with the fa­mil­iar cap­i­tal “R” inside the ma­genta cir­cle that you’re never quite sure if you’re wel­come to visit or not.

Then I’d open my lap­top and search air­port com­mu­ni­ties within a rea­son­able com­mute to my new job. For­tu­nately, work­ing for air­craft OEMs al­ways meant that my em­ployer was based on an air­port, thereby mak­ing the com­mute from grass strip to work an easy propo­si­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, the process al­ways ended the same (which I’m told is the def­i­ni­tion of in­san­ity): con­tin­u­ing to do the same thing but ex­pect­ing dif­fer­ent re­sults.

Per­haps a wiser course of ac­tion would be to ex­plore buy­ing prop­erty to build a house and my own grass strip. Af­ter all, the pri­vate strips dot­ting the sec­tion­als to­day were built by am­bi­tious in­di­vid­u­als who de­fied

ad­mo­ni­tions from a spouse and other fam­ily mem­bers and ig­nored the snicker of neigh­bors. And who knows, per­haps the cul­mi­na­tion of build­ing a grass strip would un­fold like the plot theme from the movie Field of Dreams.

I cer­tainly wouldn’t ex­pect “Shoe­less” Joe Jack­son to come walk­ing out of a corn­field with base­ball glove in hand, but a visit from the ap­pari­tion of Glenn Cur­tiss would make for quite an in­ter­est­ing hangar tale.

Hol­ly­wood fic­tion aside, just what does it take to make a grass strip a re­al­ity? And what will the neigh­bors think — es­pe­cially those whose prop­erty you might need to over­fly at tree­top level to land?

IN THE ZONE

While you might sur­mise that a rea­son­able first step is to con­sult the FAR-AIM for reg­u­la­tions gov­ern­ing the de­vel­op­ment of a new air­port, the FAA won’t be the chief con­cern. Granted, at some point you’ll need to con­sult FAR 157.3 and sub­mit the req­ui­site pa­per­work, but we’ll get to that later.

Ac­tu­ally, the place to be­gin the odyssey is with lo­cal mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to ex­plore zon­ing is­sues. Search for any ap­pli­ca­ble zon­ing or­di­nances gov­ern­ing land use, noise statutes, over­flight, en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact and a host of other items dreamed up by lo­cal law­mak­ers that may ad­versely af­fect your abil­ity to build a land­ing zone on your own prop­erty. While re­search­ing lo­cal or­di­nances — qui­etly, so as not to set off any pre­ma­ture alarm bells — it might even be­hoove you to in­ves­ti­gate cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing other

types of vari­ances is­sued within the same mu­nic­i­pal­ity. If for some rea­son a zon­ing com­mis­sion was will­ing to bend, tweak or oth­er­wise turn a blind eye to zon­ing code in a prior case for one res­i­dent, that prece­dent might ben­e­fit you should there be op­po­si­tion to your plan.

Once you’ve cleared the first hur­dle of ob­tain­ing lo­cal per­mis­sion to use your ex­ist­ing or de­sired land for the pur­pose of air­craft op­er­a­tions, con­tact your state’s depart­ment of trans­porta­tion aero­nau­ti­cal di­vi­sion to dis­cern what re­sources and re­quire­ments ex­ist at the state level. While you are un­likely to dis­cover any state fund­ing avail­able for pri­vate-use air­ports to help off­set your costs, there is al­ways a pos­si­bil­ity that cer­tain mod­i­fi­ca­tions (per­haps run­way length or type) or con­ces­sions (such as grant­ing pub­lic ac­cess) in your de­vel­op­ment plan might make your air­port el­i­gi­ble for fund­ing. And with­out a doubt, the state will have some form of pa­per­work to com­plete, so the ear­lier you get in touch with the

state the bet­ter. Con­sult the Air­craft Own­ers and Pi­lots As­so­ci­a­tion web­site for a list­ing of states’ and ter­ri­to­ries’ aero­nau­ti­cal agen­cies, with web links and key con­tact in­for­ma­tion. For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www .aopa.org/ad­vo­cacy/state-ad­vo­cacy/ state-avi­a­tion-of­fices.

RULES AND REGS

The federal reg­u­la­tions that gov­ern the con­struc­tion of an air­field are found un­der FAR Part 157 and in­clude FAA Forms 7480-1, No­tice for Con­struc­tion, Al­ter­ation and De­ac­ti­va­tion of Air­ports.

Tech­ni­cally, you need not in­form the FAA what you’re do­ing on your own land, pro­vid­ing the airspace above is not Class B, Class C or Class D to the sur­face and the prop­erty in ques­tion is not inside the 30-mile ra­dius of a Class B pri­mary air­port. How­ever, in this case, the FAA can be your friend (insert your chuckle here), mean­ing that if you do de­cide to build a grass strip and com­plete the req­ui­site forms no­ti­fy­ing the FAA of your in­ten­tions, the agency will help pre­vent sur­round­ing prop­erty own­ers from build­ing struc­tures or the lo­cal cel­lu­lar provider from erect­ing a 200-foot tower with guy-wires that might in­ter­fere with your take­off and land­ing cor­ri­dors.

Now would be a good time to men­tion that you’ll also want to en­gage the ser­vices of a qual­i­fied avi­a­tion at­tor­ney to help establish both a clear­ance ease­ment and an avi­ga­tion ease­ment. The clear­ance ease­ment will limit the height of nearby struc­tures and may re­quire veg­e­ta­tion and nat­u­ral growth to re­main trimmed to a pre­scribed height by ad­ja­cent prop­erty own­ers. The avi­ga­tion ease­ment per­mits free flights over the ad­join­ing land — where the neigh­bors live — es­pe­cially at low al­ti­tude for take­off and land­ing. There are no hard and fast guide­lines gov­ern­ing when and how to suc­cess­fully but­ter up your neigh­bors, so use your best judg­ment and ap­ply but­ter lib­er­ally. Start the but­ter­ing process well in ad­vance of hatch­ing your plan, and re­peat as nec­es­sary.

LAND GRAB

So how much acreage is ac­tu­ally needed to build a grass strip? Nat­u­rally, the an­swer to that ques­tion hinges on what you plan on fly­ing. Some air­craft re­quire a longer take­off roll to reach ro­ta­tion speed. Other air­craft re­quire a longer land­ing roll due to higher stall and land­ing speeds. In every case, grass wet from rain or dew will in­crease land­ing dis­tance by as much as 30 per­cent. Ob­sta­cle clear­ance for take­off and land­ing also comes into play. And with all things avi­a­tion­re­lated, you’ll also want to build your­self a com­fort­able safety mar­gin.

For the sake of il­lus­tra­tion, be­low is a ta­ble show­ing take­off and land­ing dis­tances of some ran­domly se­lected pop­u­lar air­craft.

This in­for­ma­tion is for ba­sic il­lus­tra­tion pur­poses only. Un­less you al­ready own enough land to re­cover a space shut­tle, there are dozens of nat­u­ral and hu­man fac­tors that need to be con­sid­ered and care­fully cal­cu­lated when de­ter­min­ing the op­ti­mal min­i­mum length of a grass strip and the land re­quired to build on. For ex­am­ple, fixed and vari­able items like ac­tual sea level al­ti­tude and po­ten­tial worst-case den­sity al­ti­tudes must be con­sid­ered. Are there per­ma­nent ob­sta­cles in the ap­proach and land­ing cor­ri­dors? How does a run­way slope af­fect op­er­a­tions in one di­rec­tion ver­sus the other? How will lo­cal weather pat­terns po­ten­tially af­fect run­way sur­face con­di­tions at dif­fer­ent times of the day and year? How are your short-field take­off and land­ing skills? How pre­cisely do you man­age air­speed and mo­men­tum? Can you hit a spe­cific land­ing spot con­sis­tently at the tar­get air­speed and get stopped in short or­der? Do you know how much longer a take­off roll is at max gross weight ver­sus when you’re fly­ing solo? How is your feel for brak­ing on wet grass? What is the bal­anced field length? Where will you likely end up if you lose the en­gine on take­off and need to land straight ahead?

All of the above and more will be part of de­ter­min­ing the amount of lin­ear space you need for your grass strip. Sadly, most parcels of prop­erty are not long nar­row tracts that re­sem­ble run­ways. But once you have a feel for the re­quire­ments needed for your air­craft, skill and the lo­cal con­di­tions, you can com­mence search­ing for acreage with a lin­ear run that will ac­com­mo­date your de­sire.

GREEN ACRES

Acreage is de­fined in terms of square feet — 43,560, to be ex­act. For the sake of il­lus­tra­tion, we’ll con­struct an imag­i­nary grass strip us­ing the fa­mil­iar di­men­sions of an Amer­i­can foot­ball field, which is about 1.3 acres (57,600 square feet, end zone to end zone), with a lin­ear di­men­sion of 360 feet.

Cer­tainly, many a bush pi­lot can set down and take off in much less space. I’ve even seen ex­tremely tal­ented back­coun­try pi­lots land, per­form a 180-de­gree turn and take off again with­out ever let­ting the tail­wheel touch the ground (visit fly­ing­mag .com/avi­a­tion-videos to wit­ness such feats). But for those pi­lots among our rank who are mere mor­tals, a bit of ex­tra space keeps the heart rate, and pas­sen­gers, re­laxed.

Pro­fi­cient pi­lots of most tube-and­fab­ric prod­ucts, the sporti­est LSAs and STOL air­craft of any ilk can the­o­ret­i­cally get in and out of a 1-acre foot­ball field. But even the most rusty pi­lots among us don’t need a 160-foot-wide run­way — the width of an Amer­i­can foot­ball field. So if we di­vide the field into four equal tracks along the length axis, we could con­vert the sur­plus width of our prover­bial 160-footwide foot­ball field into length. Then, with the four sec­tions placed end to end, the re­sult­ing real es­tate at one-quar­ter of the width of the foot­ball field (40 feet) is now 1,440 feet long — now we’re get­ting some­where. Bet­ter still, if we di­vide our foot­ball field into sec­tions 20 feet wide (the width of a nor­mal two-lane road), that cre­ates a run­way length of 2,880 feet from the same orig­i­nal 1.3 acres.

So, in the­ory, if you could carve out a lin­ear par­cel of land that is rel­a­tively straight and flat (with ac­cess to a road), you could cre­ate a pri­vate grass strip on roughly 1 acre of land. How­ever, you’d quickly re­al­ize two things: First, 20 feet times 2,880 feet isn’t a typ­i­cal or prac­ti­cal con­fig­u­ra­tion for ran­dom parcels of land, and se­cond, 20 feet is enough run­way width for un­der­car­riage but doesn’t ac­count for wing­span, ob­struc­tion clear­ance and safety mar­gin, so you’ll still need more land around the run­way. Twenty feet of clear­ance on each side of the run­way turns the 1-acre run­way into a 3-acre par­cel with a re­spectable grass strip mea­sur­ing 60 feet by 2,880 feet.

CLEARED TO LAND

Af­ter you’ve cleared the le­gal hur­dles, cleared the land, con­structed a safe run­way and popped the cel­e­bra­tory bot­tle of Cham­pagne that has since aged a few more years in the process of build­ing your strip, you’ll want to sub­mit FAA Form 5010-5, Air­port Mas­ter Record. Since the air­port is on pri­vate prop­erty, you can de­cide whether you’d like it to ap­pear on the VFR sec­tional like so many mys­te­ri­ous re­stricted air­fields that dot the maps.

While the use is pri­vate, there are var­i­ous ben­e­fits to mak­ing the ex­is­tence of the strip pub­lic even if use of the strip re­mains pri­vate. The most al­tru­is­tic rea­son for putting your­self on the map is of course to aid fel­low avi­a­tors by pro­vid­ing safe-har­bor op­tions in the event of an in-flight emer­gency. Per­haps the best part of re­veal­ing a pri­vate strip to your fel­low pi­lots is con­jur­ing a name and hav­ing it printed on sec­tion­als for the avi­a­tion world to see. We’ll leave the creative nam­ing con­ven­tion up to you, but feel free to send Fly­ing a note and tell us what you’d name your pri­vate strip and the gen­e­sis of the name.

CROWN­ING ACHIEVE­MENT

There are, of course, myr­iad other things to con­sider about the prop­erty you pur­chase and prep, such as soil sta­bil­ity, grad­ing a crown for drainage, lo­cal bird and wildlife ac­tiv­ity, pre­vail­ing wind di­rec­tion and more. And if one of your con­sid­er­a­tions is build­ing a paved run­way rather than a grass strip, I’ll just say this: Get a ro­tary-wing ticket and pur­chase a heli­copter in­stead; it will be in­fin­itely cheaper, easier and equally fun.

Cre­at­ing your very own grass land­ing strip takes plan­ning and per­se­ver­ance.

Swaid Rahn spent seven years build­ing his grass air­port on 18 acres in Ge­or­gia.

Be sure to hone your soft-field land­ing skills be­fore com­plet­ing your project.

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