Saturday, July 4, 2015

Build a Private Airstrip Or Land on One? Think Twice

Let's hypothesize that some Sourdough wants to build a grass airstrip on his property so that his Cheechako buddies can visit. Below are mistakes the former might make that the latter might encounter – to his peril. The list should give prudent pilots plenty of food for thought before they land on any private airstrip... or build one.

A visiting flyer could encounter problems if the airstrip is:
  • Adequate for the owner's one seater with a STOL kit and tundra tires who is familiar with the quirky bumps and holes, but problematic for other pilots and other planes. (for example, a short, narrow strip with animal holes at the end).
  • Built on soft or clay soil with no underlayment and no camber for drainage, soupy in rain, rutted after a prior friend landed or a moose walked through, uneven shifting due to permafrost and ice heave.
  • Studded with rocks that are loosened by each visitor, pitting propellers and low winged aircraft.
  • Too short for visiting airplanes, or long enough to land but too short for visitor take offs when temperatures or humidity rise (leaving Cheechako Charlie a stranded, and possibly unwelcome, visitor until the weather changes).
  • In many parts of the country, and CERTAINLY in Alaska,  the runway will be wet, slushy, and icy  many times of year.  As any car driver in similar situations can imagine, the rule of thumb for safe landings in these conditions is to multiply one's "normal" landing distance by 1.4 when wet, by 1.7 for snow, by 2.3 for standing water/slush and by a whopping 3.5-4.5 for ice.  PLUS a 15% margin of error.  So, for example, a Cessna 182 and 206 generally can land in 1400 feet.  However, ski planes have NO BRAKES unless one adds them (a $2000 extra).  A safe ski plane pilot  would avoid an icy strip of less than 5600 feet,  especially if there are trees, roads, or homes at the far end of the luge lane, or if the strip angles downward.  The past two warm winters here made strips perilously icy.  Pilots avoided our neighbor's strip in the woods all winter long.  They stuck to the much larger (if still icy) lake.        
  •  Wide enough for the owner's plane or experienced pilots but too narrow for occasional pilots or in cross winds.
  • Contains a tricky curve, laterally or vertically!
  • Built steeper than the recommended 2% grade lengthwise or greater than the 2.5 % camber widthwise, or it angles down instead of up for landings, or the lay of the land changes over time and is not regraded by the owner.  Oriented downward, a 1% grade can increase a pilot's needed landing distance by 10%.  3% grade = 30%!  And who can see that from the air? 
  • Obstructed on the ends, sides, or even middle of the strip – a downed tree, a piece of machinery, animals, trash, a windblown plastic chair.
  • Oriented toward the prevailing wind in some seasons but not others. Positioned where mountains throw up quirky weather.  Positioned where landings speed up because of common tailwinds. 
  • Infrequently maintained if the owner is not a frequent flyer. For example, the grass could be high enough to obscure obstructions, ruts or animals except right before the owner/pilot plans to fly.  Wet grass contributes to hydroplaning, while dry grass can "grab" on landing. (Where we live, the wild grasses grow one foot per week to eight feet and then flop over everything nearby).
  • A windsock at ground level surrounded by trees/buildings will not offer much useful information, and it may be contrary to conditions above trees ... where you need it.
  • Finally, most airplane insurance does not cover landings on private residential strips. Those visits are strictly “at your own risk,”  understandably!  The factors that most grossly exaggerate the length required for a safe landing are strips that are slippery (from ice, snow, water), where landings are graded downhill with a tailwind.   

The owner of the airstrip may encounter problems he didn't contemplate, either.
  • If Sourdough Sam is not a flyer and has no aviation radio, he cannot communicate important information to circling aircraft to encourage or discourage landing by wannabe visitors (like landing conditions).
  • In many states, including Alaska, owners of private strips are NOT liable for visiting plane damage except in cases of gross negligence -a phrase lawyers love to argue over...$$$... by the hour. However, if the owner of the airstrip has a commercial interest in visiting aircraft and accepts compensation from them (such as a lodge or other business), he/she can be held to a higher standard of responsibility for the strip's condition than the owner of a private, residential strip.
  • In Alaska, any plane can land on any private strip (or a road, for that matter) in an emergency. Can Sourdough Sam make repairs? If the downed plane is stranded in the middle of the runway, can it be hauled off so another can land?

If he is building for friends to arrive in personal, rented, or commercial planes, many flyers won't jeopardize their insurance/contracts to do so, if the strip is short or poorly designed/maintained.  So ask people first!
Future remote airstrip builder
  • in areas where permafrost is melting or the ice is heaving or the rain is heavy: the landing strip surface and underlayment will  shift seasonally.
  • If the airstrip is listed in FAA sectionals, even with the “R” for restricted, every Cheechako with a plane (and every interested governmental agency) knows where it is.
  • So the FAA strongly encourages people to communicate with their neighbors before building a landing strip, and check the land use codes which vary by state, county, and neighborhood.
  • A well maintained airstrip can raise the owner's property's values (and taxes) but may degrade the values and quality of life of the neighbors.  Neglected strips may degrade the value of the owner's property, too.  
  • Airstrips adjacent to seasonally unoccupied homes provide ingress and egress for thieves. You might not think there would be many in the pilot community. Ask bush pilots. You'll be disappointed in some aspects of human nature.
  • Any reader with a home in an attractive location deals with acquaintances who invite themselves for a visit. Remote homes with airstrips attract flyers who “happen to be in the area”... at lunch time, with or without invitation. If weather changes, they may not be able to leave after dessert. We know one snow storm stranded service provider who spent a week at a remote cabin with his client's wife while the husband was similarly stranded in town.
  • Some remote strip owners find themselves hosts to various governmental groups, like Fish and Game wardens or troopers, who are grateful for a toe hold near hunting/fishing grounds or other regional interests.
  • Many pilots, particularly novices, purposely plan a flight route to cross air strips – private as well as public - “just in case” with the logic of “better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.” As a courtesy, many AOPA members list the contact information for their private, restricted strips in that organization's database. However, in the Mat-Su Borough of Alaska, which has more than 250 private airstrips (more than any other county in America), most are unlisted. So if Cheechako Charlie has to land on a remote, restricted strip below him, he does not know the conditions, or if anyone is home or welcomes him there.
  • Just as any property improvement should be assessed for its comparative “payback,” Sourdough Sam can determine whether a runway is the best use of his time, space and money. In a heavily wooded area, a 100 x 2000 foot runway eats up 200,000 square feet – that is 4.6 acres!  If he anticipates planes the sizes of Cessna 182s and 206s, and wants to provide space for safe landings in inclement weather, he needs to maintain at least 100 x 6000 feet (600,000 square feet or 13.8 acres).  What if, instead, he used that prime, flat land for other purposes that might have a better return on invested space/time/money: to graze livestock, grow cash crops or lush gardens, build a tennis court, pool and putting green, or subdivide and sell/rent structures to others? Alternatively, what is the quality of life value of NOT putting time/money/effort into grading and maintaining an air strip year after year? Of NOT hearing from friends and strangers who want to drop by? NOT hearing neighbors complain? Part of the analysis can include commuting to a nearby airfield that somebody else builds and maintains or have an insured air carrier land on an adjacent property or lake. Which option yields the best quality of life benefit?

An air strip changes the ecosystem of an area in a number of ways.
  • Animals and plants: By virtue of an air strip's size, it disrupts the habitat of animals that prefer more shelter and encourages use by animals that value the open space. If the area had previously been heavily treed, the openness will encourage a new and often unfamiliar set of succession plants – welcome or not.
  • Noise: Most private pilots and passengers wear earphone protection because the decibel level in planes exceeds 90, at which point hearing can degrade. (Cessna 172 and 182 range from 101 – 109 decibels). The loudest activity is take off – in other words, closest to the ground dwellers in the vicinity, most of whom are NOT wearing ear protection. Since pilots prefer to fly into the wind, the engine noise “floats” downwind. Therefore, owners who have enough space, may want to consider not only terrain and prevailing wind but also whether the noise will blanket their home or their neighbors.
  • Petrochemicals: Every private pilot's pre-flight check includes testing and tossing a few ounces of aviation fuel. If Sourdough Sam is a pilot, he knows this. But if he is not, he should anticipate that gasoline and other chemicals will accumulate in the soil and air unless he makes provisions.

In conclusion, Sourdough Sam may have lots of good reasons to build a private air strip.  But for occasional pilots, why bother, when a tie-down at rural airports can cost less than $50/mo?  For non-pilots, check first to see if the buddies and service providers you want to attract can/will use the length and width you anticipate building and maintaining.  If your property restricts either dimension, all the effort may be useless,  at least at certain times of year. This isn't like building a driveway.  Consider leaving the maintenance and unwanted visitors to somebody else. And Cheechako Charlie: those local airports may offer a safer landing that your insurance will recognize. You can always meet Sourdough Sam there for a $100 hamburger in the area.

Author Laura Emerson and her husband keep a Piper PA-20 with wheels, floats, and skis at their remote Alaska home. They land on the lake year round – no earth moving equipment , no maintenance in summer, and no issues with prevailing wind direction. 


  1. From Jacqueline: I am such a fan of your wife's blog :-) worked at an urban garden for 2 years while living in San Francisco, and love love love reading about beekeeping, outdoor living, and lifestyle blogs. She's a wonderful writer, thanks for sharing!

  2. Sorry, but speaking as someone who actually has a private airstrip which has brought years of enjoyment to our family, and whose neighbours are great friends, ( and don't complain about the very short term noise of takeoff - at a distance much greater than the occupants would be - therefore much quieter .. physics, who knew.. ) I disagree with many points of this article, yet even the points which are simply facts are presented in a tabloid style which is simply scandalous and unhelpful. I'm sure you never disturb anyone in your float plane, particularly with that fine pitch. What an amateur hatchet job. Please leave it to the press to do us this disservice. I might add, if you require 6000 ft to operate your piper when on wheels you need to sell it and get yourself a nice lawn tractor to pilot. If you have ever looked through the flight supplement, you will find quite a few certified public use airports, some even on grass, with 2000ft runways. That being said, the majority of certified paved general aviation airport runways are under 4000ft.

  3. Thanks for your comments, though the vigor of it certainly surprised me.
    We have wheels, but never use them. We rely on floats in summer and skis in winter. With our STOL kit, we can take off in 550 feet, fully loaded.
    Landing on smooth ice and grooved icy, poorly maintained runways, I contend, is dangerous, especially for infrequent pilots and even more so on strips surrounded by trees. I urge pilots and their passengers to be prudent, through advance information and practice.

  4. Keep this going please, great job!