Sunday, September 04, 2016

Flying high at Chandler’s Stellar Airpark (P19): Homeowners just having plane fun

Mike Lane and his wife, Sally, like to have breakfast some weekends at Crosswinds restaurant at the Payson Airport.

That’s just a 30-minute jaunt from Chandler in his 300 horsepower, single-engine Bonanza F33A, not including the 20-30 minutes he spends on a pre-flight inspection, and the three minutes or so it takes him to taxi to one of Stellar Airpark’s two runways.

Like thousands of other East Valley subdivisions, where life revolves around serene lakeside living or bustling golf courses and clubhouses, Stellar Airpark has a tie that binds its more than 100 homeowners.

It just happens to be piloting magnificent flying machines into the wild blue yonder.

“The common interest in aviation really draws people together,” Lane says. “It’s really a fantastic group of people.”

“I don’t think we have a bad apple in the bunch here,” says Larry Perkins, a retired commercial airline pilot. “Everyone speaks fluent aviation.”

The Lanes, who work in IT, moved to Stellar 10 years ago. Mike was visiting his sister in the Valley and noticed bulldozers moving dirt around south of Chandler Boulevard and Galaxy Drive, west of Chandler Fashion Center. When he saw the well-maintained runways and distinctive homes sprouting up, he and Sally started charting a move from metropolitan Washington, D.C.

Sally was nervous at first. She feared she might become isolated, hanging out with other spouses who had little interest in business or community. Neighbors she got to know disabused her of that notion, and the Lanes quickly settled into the community’s cruising speed. 

Up and away

At Stellar, even the street names are out of this world. In the older north section, main streets such as Stellar Parkway and Galaxy Drive branch off into Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Jupiter Ways. In the newer south section, custom homes—mostly in the Mediterranean style—line Kitty Hawk, Lindbergh, Earhart and Rickenbacker Ways.

All but a few of the homes in the two gated communities have cleverly disguised hangers attached to the back. The hangers are served by short taxiways that lead to and from the runways.

Lane says the airport’s 3,900-foot asphalt runways are long enough to accommodate small jets, such as the Cessna Citation, which several residents own. 

But many Stellar residents cling to the old ways. Larry Perkins’ personal plane is a 1946 Aeronca 7AC. He also flies an old Howard, a vintage Bell helicopter and a replica P-64/NA-50, which was used as a fighter plane and trainer during World War II. Those aircraft are owned by the estate of a Stellar collector who died in February. 

“If you don’t run these things,” explains Perkins, 72, “they’ll deteriorate.”

As a lad growing up in the ’50s, Perkins rode his bike to a local airport, where he plunked down the then-enormous sum of $5 to ride in an airplane. He loved it so much that he rode his bike back to the airport the next week and got a job with the fixed-base operator as a line boy. 

By his late teens, Perkins was taking former flight teachers up in the air, serving the California National Guard and flying for hire.

Fixed-base operators are like marinas. They provide fuel, maintenance, aircraft rentals and rent tie-down lines to pilots who don’t have private hangers or just want to use the airport temporarily or seasonally. 

Avgas, as pilots call it, is expensive: $4.69 per gallon, currently. Most of that is federal tax that goes into a fund to build new general-aviation airports. Lane says the tradeoff for skipping security lines and getting to San Diego in 100 minutes is a $240 avgas bill.

East of the runways, spanning to McClintock Drive, there’s a compact commercial section of the airpark that houses industrial-park-type businesses and large hangers for oversize or overflow aircraft. A small flight school fell victim to the 2008 recession.

But Stellar Airpark is looking like it will finally reach its own version of build-out soon. According to Lane, Stellar’s fixed base operator plans to use some of his space to develop condominiums with hangers. Another developer is going through city channels to build 12-14 custom homes on a vacant strip of land in the north section of airpark, along Beechcraft Place just south of Chandler Boulevard.

A farmer plants a seed

In 1969, Harold Earley Jr., a cotton farmer, thought it would be a cool idea to be able to land a private plane in West Chandler and taxi it right into your home, according to Stellar’s resident historian, Joe Martin.

In those days, Chandler Boulevard was known as Williams Field Road.

He sketched out 40 homes with private taxiways and another 40 with access to a tie-down area. The forward-thinking farmer also envisioned building a motel and having a cafe above a fixed-base operator where residents and the public could dine and enjoy watching small planes take off and land.

Earley developed the airport and got about 40 homes built in the north section of Stellar Airpark, but he died in a plane crash in 1975, before his dream could be fully realized.

Tom Van Sickle, a local developer, bought the property from Earley’s estate in 1976, and he started building the industrial park. In 1979, the airpark had achieved enough mass to be annexed by the City of Chandler. 

Unfortunately, Van Sickle borrowed against the undeveloped south half of Stellar Airpark, and he became ensnared in the savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s. All of a sudden, a big chunk of Stellar was owned by the Resolution Trust Corp.

Then, in 1990, Maricopa County threw down a delinquent property tax bill to the tune of $200,000. The airport was perilously close to being transferred to a tax lien investor. 

Residents dug deep in their pockets to legally defend themselves and hastily formed a nonprofit organization called the Stellar Runway Utilizers Association. Incredibly, according to Martin’s research, the SRUA managed to buy back the assets from Resolution Trust for $500, and persuaded Maricopa County to settle the delinquent tax bill for $1,000.

Residents who financed the fight with private loans and donations got reimbursed when the SRUA sold unused land south of the runways to ADOT to make way for the Loop 202 freeway.

In 1999, Jeff Mark—the Mark part of Mark-Taylor, the high-end apartment developer—bought the south section and cleared the way to develop 65 new lots. As part of the deal, he renovated the runways and upgraded the lighting/navigation aids and taxiways.

A call to serve

Perhaps because pilots feel blessed to be able to fly, and thankful for every safe takeoff and landing, they have a keen sense of giving back.

Mike Lane, for example, is an honorary commander with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, and he uses that opportunity to arrange tours of the base for youth groups. Other residents volunteer for Angel Flights, which ferry patients who can’t afford commercial flights to distant hospitals. Another resident fires up his helicopter whenever local law enforcement officials mount a search-and-rescue operation.

Larry Perkins also volunteers in a special way. And you don’t truly realize how much of a skilled pilot he is until you learn he’s one of the pilots who flies the B-17G Flying Fortress at Falcon Field to benefit the Commemorative Air Force Base.

“It’s like driving a big truck with the power steering broken,” Perkins says. “It’s a real privilege to fly it, though, and to be able to share it with others.”


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