With the runways of Stow’s Minute Man Air Field in sight, flight instructor Ellie Callahan pilots her Robinson R44 helicopter back home.
The airport in Stow was a grass landing strip in 1966 when Paul McPherson, an inventor who loved to fly, bought the land and renamed it Minute Man Air Field.
The new airport opened in 1969 as a family business. McPherson’s son, Don, then 23, paved the runway and began to manage the airport. His wife, Peg, opened a coffee shop called Peg’s Place, where their daughter also worked.
After just three years, Paul died in an airplane crash, probably caused by a heart attack, in Acton. Don McPherson took over and still owns and runs the airport, which is now home to a second runway, several flight-training schools, a bakery, a printing company, and more than 60 planes and helicopters. His wife, Nancy, runs a restaurant that serves vegetables, meat, cheese, and other products from local farms. On the weekends, Don is a host at Nancy’s Air Field Café.
The private operation, which sits near acres of open fields and forests, now brings $8.6 million a year to the region, including money spent by its owners as well as other businesses at the airport, according to a new report by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. About two-thirds of the people who fly in and out of Minute Man are tourists, McPherson says, and the rest are business people, flight students and community service groups.
The study examined how the state’s 39 airports, public and private, contribute to the state’s economy, both directly and indirectly. The study found they generate more than 124,000 jobs and $11.9 billion in economic activity, from airport construction and flight schools to the money locally spent by tourists who fly in, stay at hotels, and eat at restaurants.
Minute Man generates 94 jobs that pay more than $2.8 million in wages, salaries, and benefits, according to the study. The airport and its tenants employ 30 people, according to the report. In recent years, McPherson has leased space to the flight training schools and other businesses now based at the airport.
“That’s the impact of people at the airport, and those businesses around the airport that are impacted from people at the airport spending their paychecks in the community,’’ said Christopher Willenborg, aeronautics division administrator at the state’s Transportation Department.
McPherson is working with a company that is preparing to lease 16 of his acres for a solar farm that will generate electricity for sale to the local utility company.
“It’s definitely the little engine that could,’’ said state Representative Kate Hogan, whose district includes Stow, about Minute Man. “Because it’s a smaller airfield, they’ve always looked to diversify.’’
After McPherson’s father died and he took over the airport, one of the first things he did was extend the runway. “When the runway was 2,000 feet long, we would average two planes a month that would run off the end of the runway and get stuck,’’ he said. “Nobody ever got hurt.’’
He also decided to add a flight school. He constructed a new building for the school and dedicated it, in his father’s memory, to “the self-reliant who dare mighty things.’’
His first student was a grandmother in her 70s who was so terrified of flying that she requested the name on her account be “Chicken Wings.’’ If she learned more about aviation, she hoped, she would lose her fear, McPherson said.
“She loved it so much that she went on to get her license, and fly all around and take her friends flying,’’ he said.
In the 1980s, the airport became eligible for federal funding. Many small airports didn’t want to partner with the Federal Aviation Administration because of the additional layer of regulation. McPherson eventually decided the funding was the only way to preserve the airport, because a developer was trying to build houses nearby in Boxborough.
“I sort of reluctantly accepted them because I saw it as the only way to save us from the inevitable conflict of encroaching houses,’’ he said. “We bought $2.5 million worth of land. In Boxborough, we bought 20 house lots and stopped farmland from being turned into another subdivision.’’
He now leases some of the land to farmers and harvests timber from some of the rest.
McPherson is aware of the airfield’s precarious relationship with neighbors, close enough to hear the planes taking off and landing. His relationship with the Conservation Commission in nearby Boxborough has sometimes been contentious.
Don Copeland, who lives in Boxborough near the airport’s runway, moved into his house in 1961, before Minute Man was built. The airport has been less noisy in recent years, he said.
“It used to be a lot worse than it is now,’’ he said.
Now, as McPherson turns 66 this year, he is beginning to think about the future of the airport. Neither of his children has expressed interest in taking over, he said.
The McPhersons spend so much time at Minute Man that they moved their hobbies from their house to the airport: two gardens, a stone waterfall and a koi pond, and beehives. Every summer, they hold an open house for local residents, with plane and hot-air balloon rides, cake, and, a recent addition, an observational hive from the apiary and tastes of honey.
“I think a lot of what Nancy and Don do creates a sense of community in Stow,’’ Hogan said. “I think it’s very important.’’