Saturday, May 25, 2013

Easton, Pennsylvania: Braden Airpark (N43) demise will hurt the future of Lehigh Valley business, vitality

2:09 p.m. EDT, May 25, 2013

Paul Carpenter, The Morning Call
It was a glorious day in the skies above Kutztown, and after releasing its tow cable from a powered airplane, the sailplane whooshed back and forth, sometimes catching an updraft, before returning to Kutztown Airport for a smooth landing in the grass alongside the asphalt runway.

For most of the ride, the pilot let me take the controls, but not for the takeoff or landing, and then he took my daughter, Cindy, for a similar adventure. It is sad that many people do not get to experience such things, and the chance of them doing so in the Lehigh Valley is diminishing.

Kutztown Airport closed down in 2009. It seems there isn't enough money in taking people on sailplane (I prefer the term "glider") rides, nor in the general aviation functions of small powered aircraft at a small community airfield.

The Morning Call reported Friday that Braden Airpark in Forks Township, north of Easton, may be shut down soon. It seems there isn't enough money in it, either, at the moment, and the future doesn't matter.

I'll get back to that, but when I think of small airfields, I think of Bobby Livingston and the way he used to fly — not up in the sky but around velodrome in Trexlertown.

Livingston moved to the Lehigh Valley from Georgia in the 1980s because of the velodrome, and he was soon a fan favorite, winning many of the local professional races with his ripsnorting style. He also won national championships in the hair-raising madison and the kilometer.

In 1988, he was on the U.S. Olympic cycling team, but no medals.

In the meantime, he caught the flying bug and got a private pilot's license in Florida and a commercial glider pilot's license in Kutztown. He was one of those pilots who took other people for those marvelous rides, although it was another pilot who took Cindy and me on our rides. (My wife wimped out.)

At one point, Livingston tried to join the Air Force, but was too old (30). "So I went to chiropractic school … in Seneca Falls, N.Y.," he told me. Once he had his doctorate, along with a master's in acupuncture, he headed back to the Lehigh Valley.

"The reason I came back to this area was that I wanted to be close to both the velodrome and the Kutztown Airport," he said, "and then the airport closed up that year."

Fortunately, his home and office are just west of the velodrome, which is the nation's best recreational cycling area, so he still gets to ride bicycles quite a bit, mainly just for the exercise.

I am one of those who believe strongly that future prosperity depends on general aviation and general aviation facilities. In any region in which air travel is increasingly shifted to major airports — and the hellish congestion and hassles they represent — business is going to suffer.

It's not just about fun sailplane rides in the wild blue yonder; it's about the availability of convenient air travel vs. the strangulation of convenient air travel.

Looking no further into the future than their next budgetary meeting, the members of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority, it was reported Friday, made plans to close down Braden Airpark, calling it a "money drain."

Speaking of money drains, the authority itself is in a fiscal funk because it still owes $14 million of a $26 million court judgment because of its previously unwise attempt to grab somebody else's property.

Also, Friday's story said that Braden had been operated by Moyer Aviation, which provided an annual budget of $56,000, but when the authority refused to give Vern Moyer a long-term lease, he took the business — and that $56,000 — to Pocono Mountain Municipal Airport in Monroe County last month.

Tony Iannelli, the chairman of the authority, was quoted as saying the 80-acre Braden facility "doesn't appear viable." He may be right, but it makes one wonder how it got that way.

Along those lines, Iannelli was discussed in another story last month, noting how delighted he was that some of the authority's financial woe may be relieved by the anticipated sale of a 753-acre piece of Lehigh Valley International Airport land, appraised at up to $10 million. "This is very positive news," he was quoted as saying.

Never mind that it cost the public $30 million to buy only a portion of that same land in the first place.

If that is the kind of business acumen displayed by this authority, the chairman of which then celebrates the fact that the public is taking that $20 million drubbing, I'm not sure how much faith we should have in the authority's decisions about closing down Braden Airpark.

The demand for small general aviation facilities indeed may not be robust enough, at the moment, for them to be as profitable as we'd like. But do we want to put all our eggs of the future in the basket of major airports, where small pleasure and business aircraft will get shot down in the hubbub?

Once Braden is gone, it's gone forever, no matter how badly future business communities may need it, no matter how many people with the vitality of a Bobby Livingston may decide to go elsewhere.


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