Al and Teri Carlson wake up at 5 a.m. each weekday to the sound of their neighbor flying to work. That's followed an hour and half later by the sound of their friend across the street firing up his Cessna and taking off for Los Angeles. "We can pretty much tell who's flying just by the sound," says Al Carlson, who lives just 120 feet from the runway.
Most people would live almost anywhere but near an airport, but the Carlsons are not annoyed. In fact, they are thrilled to live not just near the airport but at it. Their plane is just a stone's throw from their kitchen window. They live in Rosamond Skypark, a subdivision of single-family homes and hangars built around a private runway.
Rosamond is on the edge of the Mojave Desert, in southern Kern County, and within easy commuting distance of Los Angeles--especially by air. Carlson, an architect, frequently flies between Rosamond and Whiteman Airport in Pacoima, where he parks a car and zips to business and social appointments. The air hop saves him two hours off the same round trip by car, he says.
Though still unusual, air parks have been around for nearly six decades. Their appeal has been limited pretty much to hard-core aviation enthusiasts such as the Carlsons--both are pilots, and they've collectively logged more than 4,350 hours in the cockpit.
But the number of air parks has begun to climb as commuters and business travelers look for ways to bypass overcrowded highways and commercial flights. The trend mirrors a surge in interest in private aircraft generally and efforts to develop affordable planes as easy to fly as cars are to drive.
There are about 450 air parks scattered around the U.S., according to the Living With Your Plane Assn., based in Steilacoom, Wash., which maintains a directory of the parks and publishes a quarterly newsletter.
Some new high-end air parks come with stables, pools, tennis courts or even golf courses. They are, says one researcher who has studied them, the "ultimate in gated community living."
About three or four new air parks are being built annually; California has 28 air parks--including the nation's first--and Florida has 78.
"Everything about aviation is explosive and growth is continuing," says Chuck Arnold, Florida's aviation administrator. "That's true for air parks too."
An Eclectic Mix of Airplane Lovers
When you get past their love of aviation and their tolerance for its noise, it isn't easy to characterize air park residents.
Some are families with young children, some are retirees, some have a past connection to the military or to aerospace, some are business executives who need to go in lots of different directions quickly, some are pleasure travelers--heading one week to Alaska, another to Mexico.
Dave Sclair, president of the Living With Your Plane Assn., and his wife raised their family in an air park home in Washington state. Both kids are now pilots; their daughter works for Federal Express.
"It starts from one extreme of people jumping in their airplane and flying to work ... to those who just fly their historically accurate collectibles on the weekends," says Mark Clements, president of the Naper Aero Club and a resident of Aero Estates, a residential air park in Naperville, Ill., about 35 miles west of Chicago.
Clements has been living there with his family since 1991. His house sits on a 1-acre lot and has 2,600 square feet of living space and a 2,500-square-foot hangar attached.
Across the country, air park homes range from modest cottages with driveway access to dirt runways to 15,000-square-foot mansions with gargantuan garages or hangars that hold planes, cars and other big-boy toys.
At Spruce Creek Fly-In in Daytona Beach, Fla., residents boast that they are just four miles from the beach and eight miles from a vacation and sports paradise. With more than 1,500 lots--recently expanded from 1,250--Spruce Creek is considered one of the premier air parks in the nation. Among Spruce Creek's former residents is actor John Travolta. He sold his property in April after residents complained that his Gulfstream II jet was too noisy. Travolta has since purchased acreage at Jumbolair Aviation Estates, just outside Ocala, developer Jeremy Thayer says.
Jumbolair broke ground in April for a 110-lot development its promoters call "the Rolls-Royce of air parks." In addition to the nation's longest, private runway--7,550 feet, enough to land a 747 airliner--the gated development will include its own country club, a bed-and-breakfast, a 75-stall equestrian center and a gymnasium.
By comparison, Rosamond Skypark is modest. The 60-home park, established in 1986, is surrounded for miles by tumbleweeds and Joshua trees--the area is nearly devoid of dining or entertainment venues.
On any given day, the sky above Rosamond is crisscrossed with tufty white airplane trails. A slightly askew painting on the Carlsons' living room wall is testimony to the traffic overhead.
There is so much air traffic here that it is known as Aerospace Alley. Many of the contrails are from the jets flying out of nearby Edwards Air Force Base, but some are from the Piper Cubs, Cessna Cardinals, experimental aircraft and other privately owned planes flying out of Rosamond Skypark.
The Rosamond homes, built on half-acre lots, cost from $225,000 to $400,000 and come with garages and hangars. There is a monthly upkeep fee of $54 to maintain the runway and taxiways. The airstrip and other facilities are co-owned by residents--similar to the way common grounds in a condominium are owned.
Typically one new house a year has been added since Rosamond Skypark opened 15 years ago. Now, says Olaf Landsgaard, co-owner of commercial property on the airstrip, four homes are under construction, and resales are snatched up quickly.
First 'Air Ranch' Had Bad Timing
The nation's first air park was built in Carmel Valley. It was started by Byington Ford, a man with a vision that planes would someday be as popular as cars for everyday transportation.
Ford built his "air ranch" in 1941, timing that proved unfortunate: He had constructed the first two "hangar homes" when he opened the air park to the public on Dec. 7--the same day Pearl Harbor was bombed. Because of security concerns, all private planes were banned from flying along the West Coast.
The park survived, but even as it celebrates its 60th anniversary, it is threatened with closure. Although the aircraft flying in and out must meet FAA standards, the airstrip itself is governed by state and local governments. Neighbors of Carmel Valley Vintage Airpark are lobbying Monterey County officials to shut it down, saying they consider it a safety hazard.
Paul McKinley runs http://Airparks.com , a Web-based home listing service--he's also developing Cross Country Estates air park in Georgetown, Texas. He says the complaints about air parks come from neighbors concerned that small planes are dangerous.
"People that are non-pilots, you can have them sign all kinds of contracts and agreements that they understand it's an airport [nearby], but you're still going to end up having people whose fears of aviation set in after they get moved in. Then they decide they don't like having that airport there and want to close it down," he says. "That's a real problem for a subdivision that's designed as a residential air park. You see this all over the country."
The FAA doesn't keep track, but air park residents say they are confident the parks are safe. Says McKinley: "You're at much greater risk driving down the freeway than you would be living right underneath the end of a runway."
A Resurgence of Private Airstrips
More than 1,100 new private airstrips have been built in just the last five years, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Those include such common improvements as heliports at hospitals or as quirky as the landing pad built atop CBS headquarters in Los Angeles for "Survivor." It's estimated that at least 10% to 15% of the increase can be attributed to emerging air parks.
The popularity of small planes soared until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the number of private pilots peaked at more than 800,000, according to Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. spokesman Warren Morningstar. But product liability issues caused major manufacturers such as Cessna and Piper to stop building small planes. That changed with adoption of the General Aviation Revitalization Act of 1994, which revised liability rules, brought manufacturers back and triggered a reemergence of small-plane ownership. The number of active pilots nationwide--now about 645,000--is on a slow climb back, according to Morningstar.
Seth Young, a professor of airport operations and management at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, predicts a "real boom in personal commuter aviation" in the next five years, a trend likely to increase the popularity of airstrip-based communities. Young has studied air parks and worked as a consultant to groups setting up new ones.
He is active in a research and development program working to expand alternatives to traditional air travel. Headquartered at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., partners in the project include the FAA, state and local aviation organizations, universities and businesses.
The program was funded by Congress last fall with $9 million in seed money and is expected to receive an additional $60 million in the next five years.
The Small Aircraft Transportation System ( http://sats.nasa.gov ) envisions smarter airports and easier to fly, affordable planes that will get commuters around quickly.
Young says remarkable strides are being made, including development of navigational systems that allow pilots to fly to and from uncontrolled airports despite inclement weather.
'We Love Airport Noise'
In the here and now, Al and Teri Carlson cruise in a white and yellow Cessna. And they enjoy living in a community filled with those who share their interest in small planes--with others who think the sound of a well-tuned engine is, well, wonderful. "We love airplane noise," says Al Carlson. "In the high desert, aerospace alley, if you don't ... something's wrong with you."
One of the Carlsons ' neighbors uses his hangar for a vintage car collection; another has converted his into an indoor swimming pool. But the majority who live here use their hangars for what they were intended: airplanes.
"The way most people live, you might know your next-door neighbor but you probably don't know the person two doors down. Out here, everybody has one common hobby," says John Wilson, 62, who lives across the street from the Carlsons.
Wilson says he used to store his single-engine Cessna 182 at Whiteman Airport before moving to the Rosamond Skypark in 1987.
Until his retirement last month, each weekday morning Wilson would walk through his backyard to his hangar, pull his plane onto the tarmac, taxi past his neighbors and fly off to work while his wife sipped coffee in the kitchen. "I'm like a golfer who likes to live on a golf course," says Wilson, "only I'm a pilot who likes to live on an airport."
Says Morningstar of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn.: "People choose to fly for lifestyle reasons. They view it as a challenge, as romance, as adventure.
And, at air parks, that lifestyle is extended to terra firma.
The Carlsons use their plane the way most people use a car--for vacationing, going shopping, even going to church on Sundays.
"Planes are an extension of anybody's ability to drive," says Al Carlson. "We just go long distances faster."