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When grounded by bad weather or just needing a get-together, some pilots gather in a hangar at the Flying W Airport, sit around a coffee table and, surrounded by flying memorabilia, light up a Cohiba cigar or sample bourbon.
Just feet away in this man cave of hangars at the airport straddling the Medford-Lumberton border sits Joe Costanza's bright yellow, two-seater 1941 Piper Cub ready for good-weather and recreational flying. For Costanza, it's a far different way of piloting than in his day job — captaining a Spirit Airlines Airbus.
"Airline flying is great, but this is the best flying you'll ever do: at the small local airport," said Costanza, a Marlton resident.
But no one knows the future of the Medford airport. Owner Cave Holdings - Flying W LLC has received the necessary permission from Medford Township to begin the process of shutting down the Flying W on Fostertown Road and turning it into affordable and senior housing.
Under the redevelopment concept plan, which still would need Planning Board approval when completed, the Medford part of the Burlington County airport and adjacent vacant land would be developed into 290 age-restricted housing units and 90 rent-affordable family units. The development would help the Township meet its affordable housing obligation under the court-mandated Mount Laurel affordable housing plan.
While a shutdown would mean an end to the informal meetings of the "Hangar Rats," as they call themselves, it also could mean the end of flying for some of the pilots whose 100 or so aircraft call the Flying W home.
Fewer places to store private planes
"There is a shortage of hangars," Sean Collins, regional manager of government affairs for the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, told 70and73.com. Vacant hangar space is scarce not only in New Jersey, but in many states, particularly the ones where winters require some aircraft to be housed indoors, Collins said.
A survey of 116 airports in Pennsylvania by the association found that 90% are full. In New Jersey, it's worse, because there are fewer than 40 public-use airports, Collins explained.
"Sadly, folks might have to travel quite a bit farther to store their aircraft," the Maine-based association manager and commercial pilot said. "Some pilots may get out of aviation altogether."
When John and Dawn Cave bought the struggling, then-32-year-old Flying W in 1996, they restored the facility, making the on-site motel, restaurant and airplane-shaped swimming pool a destination both for local flyers as well as visiting pilots landing for a "$100 hamburger." Hamburgers, of course, weren't that expensive, but the inside joke in recreational flying is that you set a pleasure flight destination and land for lunch or dinner, with $100 or more being the cost of the excursion.
Several pilots interviewed recently at the Flying W credited the Caves with operating a thriving airport for years, a place that went beyond flying and was fun. It was a place they could stay overnight, take the family to the pool and be around other flying enthusiasts.
What is 'obsolete, dilapidated'?
The pilots say that Cave is a private land owner and can do anything he likes with his 106-acre property — including developing it himself or selling it to a developer.
But the group of pilots nevertheless was irked by a Township study issued by the Taylor Design Group Inc. in March — used by Town Council to declare the airport as an Area in Need of Redevelopment — that suggests the Flying W is in a state of disrepair.
"The portion of the airport located in Medford contains scattered office buildings, hangars and outbuildings," according to the report. "All these structures are in need of repair and/or rehabilitation and are obsolete and dilapidated," the Taylor Design report states.
Finding a property and its buildings generally obsolete or dilapidated is one of the criteria that can be met before a municipality deems it an Area in Need of Redevelopment under New Jersey state law. Officially naming a property in need of redevelopment permits the municipality to offer tax breaks on any improvements to the property, such as the housing project planned for the Flying W.
Township Council in May approved the Flying W as an Area in Need of Redevelopment after a Planning Board endorsement of the plan.
Taylor's 2021 report was based on one written and submitted in 2017 to the township by his firm. "In particular, one of the hangars is rented but hardly used, while the other is completely utilized by the owner of the airport for personal storage, because despite attempts to do so the space has not been rented," the 2017 report states.
However, the report does not delve into the half-dozen hangar buildings that are rented out and active with private pilots on the Lumberton side of the airport. The Medford-Lumberton border horizontally bisects the airport's 3,500-foot runway.
"Much of the information analyzed was provided by the landowner, which is common with redevelopment analyses," Scott Taylor of Taylor Design told 70and73.com. Messages were left for John Cave at the Flying W office, but he could not be reached for comment.
Taylor explained that, for an Area in Need of Redevelopment decision, Medford Township could consider only that part of the Flying W within its borders.
Medford's goal was to show progress in its plan to provide affordable housing in town.
"One of the driving and guiding forces behind all of this has been the township's need to satisfy the affordable housing obligation," Taylor said. He said the project is setting aside 24% of its units for affordable housing, which is more than the usual 20% for other developments.
Is the Flying W obsolete?
"That sentiment is in the eye of the beholder," said Collins, of the Pilots Association. "Airports, once they go away, they don't come back."
Added Collins: "We're not going to tell someone what they should or shouldn't do with their property. We think it’s unfortunate that the airport may go away."
Small airports disappearing
Pilots at the Flying W have made inquiries about hangar space elsewhere. They said they were told that the state-operated South Jersey Regional Airport in Lumberton, less than two miles from the Flying W, has a long waiting list for hangars.
Liam Alderman, a South Jersey Regional employee, said that about 30 aircraft owners are on the waiting list for private hangar space and, at most, about two private hangars open up each year. He said the waiting list is shorter, about six, for a spot in a community hangar with other planes.
In the 1950s and 1960s, more than 100 small airports operated in New Jersey, said Frank Steinberg, a Somerville aviation lawyer who is chairman of the New Jersey Aviation Association, which lobbies for the interests of private aviation.
"That number has just consistently been whittled away over time," Steinberg said. Now New Jersey has fewer than 40 smaller airports, which is "a very unfortunate trend and it's a persistent trend over time," he added.
Despite private aviation lobbying the state, New Jersey is "terribly underfunded right now in terms of money that can be used for airport infrastructure," said Steinberg, who confirmed the statewide shortage of hangars.
Steinberg said the Flying W was viewed as unique in the flying community, almost like an "aviation country club."
For many small airport owners, the lure of selling out to housing or commercial developers is a strong one, Collins said. Many operate "very much on a shoestring budget," he added.
"It's the equivalent of a highway gas station," Collins explained. The small airports make money from selling fuel and parking aircraft.
Most of the private airports are built on relatively flat land, making them attractive to developers.
Small airports feed pilots to the airline industry
New pilots who earn their flying licenses at small airports across the nation are a key target for the airline industry seeking commercial pilots, both Steinberg and Collins said. The industry used to draw heavily from pilots who left the military, but those numbers have fallen off, Collins said.
"Small airports like Flying W are at the core of that training," said Collins, who estimated that three-quarters of commercial pilots have come up from private, civilian training.
The demand for career pilots is skyrocketing, added Collins, who said many start out on regional airlines for $40,000 to $60,000 a year with a goal of being a captain on a large airliner. A captain with more than 20 years' experience who flies international routes on large jets, such as the Boeing 777 or 787, can make close to $300,000 a year, he said.
Between 2020 and 2039, the worldwide demand for new pilots for commercial and business aviation will total 763,000, according to Boeing's 2020 Pilot and Technician Outlook.
In the outlook report, Boeing said the downturn in the aviation industry was only a short-term symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic. "As the industry positions itself for recovery, adequate qualified pilot supply remains an important consideration as a large contingent of the workforce approaches mandatory retirement age," Boeing stated in the report.
"Prior to the downturn, many airlines had begun utilizing cadet programs to recruit, develop and train aspiring pilots. It generally takes two or more years for an aspiring pilot to achieve a commercial pilot license," according to Boeing.
Karl Kleinberg taught his sons, Karl Jr. and John, to fly at Camden County Airport, the private airport he owns in Berlin. John works at the airport, but Karl Jr. chose instead to fly commercial and now is a captain with United Airlines. However, he also helps out with airport operations.
Kleinberg took over the airport in 1970 from his father, who acquired it in 1954. His wife, Florence, also is involved in day-to-day operations at the Watsontown Road facility, which has a 3,100-foot runway. It is formally owned by the family company, Part Guy LLC, which is a global seller of aviation parts.
The waiting list for hangar space at Camden County Airport has only about six people on it, but the wait could be a long one — Kleinberg said only about two hangars open up each year.
At one time, seven private, small airports operated in Camden County, Kleinberg said, and today his is the only one left.
Many were sold for housing developments, something that has tempted the Kleinberg family, he said. Although developers have approached the airport to sell, there are no plans to close it at this time, he noted.
What to do with the planes
Abbas Reza of Medford retired a year ago after 31 years flying for United Airlines, the most recent years as captain of a Boeing 777.
Since October, Reza has housed his 1975 Citabria plane at the Flying W. He had the aircraft at the South Jersey Regional Airport, but they had no hangar space for him.
What would he do if the Flying W shut down?
"I have no idea," Reza said. "I don't know where I'm going to put it."
Many of the pilots cannot keep their planes outside because sunlight can break down the fabric in the wings.
One couple, both pilots, live in Lumberton in the flight path of the Flying W. Mark Mattioli and Patty Anderson keep a 1970 Piper Cherokee 235 and a 1985 Christen Eagle aerobatic plane at the Flying W. Mattioli is a Washington lawyer and frequently commutes from the Flying W.
Mattioli said the housing development would be an "absolute nightmare" for that area of Medford and Lumberton.
One pilot at the Flying W with even more at stake is Morten Stoverud. He is a United Airlines Boeing 777 pilot but also operates Mort's Aero Service Inc. at the Flying W.
Aircraft require regular maintenance. Pilots say inattention to maintenance on a plane is far different than inattention to a car. In a car, you can pull over to the side of the road if you break down.
Stoverud, who lives in Vincentown and employs two full-time employees, counts his customers among those who lease hangars at the Flying W as well as other pilots who fly in for maintenance and repairs.
"It's an active and busy airport," said Stoverud, who has been at the Flying W since the late 1980s.
If the Flying W turns into a housing development, "I close down," Stoverud said. "There is no place to go here."