Sunday, May 15, 2022

'Old school and down to earth': The Marion County Airport (X35), near Dunnellon, is having a moment

Flight instructor Steve Mace makes a radio call as he turns downwind for Runway 23 at Marion County Airport on May 4.

DUNNELLON, Florida  — Brittney Owens was operating her wedding planning company, Southern Charm, two years ago when she decided to take her career to new heights and become a private pilot.

Owens now serves as a pilot for Central Florida Skydiving, one of several aviation-related operations based at Marion County Airport, located north of County Road 484 near Dunnellon Field.

“It’s a blast (and a) responsibility,” Owens said about taking parachutists aloft and watching them jump out the door of the Cessna 182 at about 90 mph.

She is building up flight hours with her sights aimed at a continuing career in commercial flying. Owens, 31, now holds her instrument and commercial pilot license and is working on her multi-engine rating.

Owens took her private pilot, instrument and commercial pilot training with Federal Aviation Administration Gold Seal flight instructor Steve Mace of Ocala, currently an A320 Airbus pilot with Spirit Airlines based in Orlando.

Brittney Owens 

Mace’s "Trusty Trudy" Cessna 172, used for giving flying lessons, is kept in a hangar at Marion County Airport.

Mace, 50, moved to the Ocala area in 1992 and worked at Ocala International Airport as a fueler and flew fixed-wing aircraft for UF Health Shands Hospital in the 1990s.

Flight instructor Steve Mace makes a radio call as he turns downwind for Runway 23 at the Marion County Airport near Dunnellon on May 4. The small, pilot-controlled airport is popular with general aviation pilots from around the region. “It’s an old school airport were everyone is committed to aviation and helping each other,” said Mace.
He has taught pilots as young as 16 and is teaching his son Michael, 22, to fly.

Mace likes the Marion County Airport in Dunnellon because he feels it is "old school and down to earth."

Owens had her final license exams from Troy Townsend, operator of, which is based at the airport. Townsend is an FAA DPE, or designated pilot examiner.

Townsend praised the airport's location and conveniences. He said it provides a place for people to enjoy "the freedom to fly, which we take for granted but doesn't happen in some countries."

You can call it the Marion County Airport or just X-35

The airport, commonly known among pilots as X-35, which is its FAA designation, has become a haven for private and sport aviation activities.

The 800-acre facility dates back to World War II and has two lighted runways, measuring 5,000 and 4,702 feet.

The facility is "pilot controlled," which means there is no on site control tower. Fliers communicate on a common designated radio frequency to announce their presence and intentions.

According to, pilots can radio control runway lighting and obtain weather advisories from the facility.

The airport has 48 hangars, ranging from $250 per month and up, and 51 tie-down spaces that cost $50 per month, the website states.

Current fuel prices are available through a link on the site.

A computer program, VirTower, picks up signals from equipment installed in most aircraft to provide data including location, altitude and direction of travel information. Pilots can call Jacksonville control for instrument landing information, for example, in cases of bad weather.

Chris Helme, vice president of the local Sun Country Aero Club, which has a Cessna 172 as a club plane, said the Marion County Airport is a regular stop for members of the group.

The Marion County Airport has undergone many improvement projects through the years, with more planned

Marion County Airport Manager Mike Grawe, an Air Force veteran and private pilot, has spearheaded projects including a $2.9 million 20-hangar unit project and added $220,000 worth of improved landing lights during his four years at the facility.

Future plans include parallel taxiways for both runways, a $4.5 million project aimed at improving safety; a new $1.1 million aircraft fuel station; an additional $3 million worth of “T” style group aircraft hangars; and more commercial and private hangars, Grawe stated.

Data at an portal states that in 2018, the 12-month activity ending in September 2018, included 23,162 local general aviation aircraft operations and 15,441 “itinerant” general aviation aircraft.

Grawe estimates aircraft activity has increased by about a third at the airport, and he points to a 33% increase in fuel sales at the airport from 2018 to 2021.

He added that aircraft activity update figures will be available in August, and the figures will be more accurate because they are based on the VirTower data.

Programs for drones and remote-piloted vehicles (RPV) are also part of future plans.

Aviation gas and jet fuel prices are said to be “very competitive,” and sections of the airport lounge are open 24 hours, Grawe explained.

"I want to continue to grow and inspire people's passion for aviation and provide flight opportunities for everyone," Grawe stated.

Grawe and his management team including Stanley Roberts, airport lead operations tech, and Jerry Stone, airport operations tech, have been fostering a welcoming atmosphere for all who love to fly and attracting flight instruction, aircraft repair, maintenance, upgrade and other businesses.

Business at the airport is looking up – literally

Central Florida Skydive set up operations at Marion County Airport in September 2021 after looking at four other airports.

Donnie Hickey, owner of the business, has over 9,400 jumps under his belt. He said tandem jumps are offered beginning at $189, and a video made by Payton Candales, 20, who is with the company, and has at least 386 jumps in his career to date, starts at $60.

“It’s floating, not falling,” Hickey said about the sensation of parachuting.

ITEC, a nonprofit, faith-based research and development organization founded in 1996, has been based at the Marion County Airport for a number of years.

Founder Steve Saint developed the Maverick, an FAA “certified flying car,” according to It is intended to enable missionaries to travel into secluded areas where transportation is a “significant hurdle.”

The organization has designed a lightweight portable dental chair for transport in missionary use.

ITEC continues development of several types of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs,) including ones to deliver lifesaving medical supplies like snake bite treatments to GPS-specified locations that might otherwise be inaccessible, according to Bruce Van Fleet with ITEC.

Roy Beisswenger operates Easy Flight, a training center for power parachutes. Beisswenger was inducted into the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Ultralights Hall of Fame in 2021.

The association says Beisswenger is the only FAA Gold Seal Instructor to earn the award through powered parachutes "exclusively."

Dan Hansen, 65, of Inverness, a power parachute flier, said the view is "incredible" from the open cockpit machines.

Oscar Mollineaux, from New Jersey, took vacation time to travel here and attend the East Flight school. He said he "absolutely loved" flying in the power parachute.

Jesse Saint, son of ITEC founder Steve Saint, operates Saint Aviation ( at the Marion County Airport.

The company installs Dynon brand digtial avionics equipment for "panel upgrades," with GPS, "moving maps" and flight information. Units range for $20,000 to $70,000.

Jim Hoekenga, of Sebring, made the one-hour flight to Dunnellon to have Saint install a unit in his Cessna 172.

"This is a beautiful airport, nice long runways. I'll come back," he said.

Additional companies now based at Marion County Airport include Fly All Things, a flight instruction school also offering a 62-hour accelerated flight training program by Bo Feldman; Mount Up With Wings Aviation, an aircraft rental firm operated by Randy Dorsey; and Aero Aggregates, which turns “post-consumer recycled glass into material that can be used in infrastructure and commercial construction,” according to an Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership online post.

1 comment:

  1. Mike Grawe and his team at X35 have made the airport a magnet for aviation activity. Mike continues to lead expansion efforts that will ensure the growth of the airport. Kudos to Mike for his hard work and Marion County for supporting it.