A Price Too High

For three small airports, there’s no way back to life as it was before September 11.

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Musafiri came to the United States in 1982. He was 25 and did not speak a word of English. For 13 years he worked a string of odd jobs, including janitor and commercial painter. He married, had a daughter, and bought a house in Maryland. When his marriage ended, he enrolled in the Spartan School of Aeronautics in Tulsa, Oklahoma, to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. He earned his ratings, graduated in 1998, and returned to Maryland to be close to his daughter. James Davidson hired him, and Musafiri thought he could build flight time fast enough to remain an attractive hire for the airlines. But the longer the airports remained closed, the less time he could give to future ambitions and the more he had to devote to immediate survival. Even in the best of times, primary flight instruction has never been a lucrative profession.

In the middle of October, Davidson got his airplanes out of Potomac during several one-way flushes of stranded aircraft that the FAA had permitted. Police searched airplanes and pilots and examined drivers’ licenses before pilots were allowed to depart, and law enforcement agencies and the FAA closely monitored the flights. The first refuge was St. Mary’s Airport in southern Maryland’s Calvert County. Then Davidson moved his airplanes to Maryland Airport in Pomonkey, Maryland. But Washington-area roadway traffic can be brutal, and few students chose to brave the long drives and turn a one-hour flying lesson into a half-day ordeal. Musafiri’s flight hours dropped from eight hours a day to one a month. Because he had to pay child support, he went back to picking up odd jobs. The Salvation Army covered his rent.

Musafiri is not optimistic about achieving his ultimate ambition. The airline industry is not hiring many pilots, his flight hours have been cut, and at 44, he is much older than most airline pilot hires. “I’m flying but my dream is gone,” he says.

Executive/Hyde Field is close to Potomac, but in appearance Hyde is a world away. Hyde’s dominant decor is rust. The runway is sloped and cracked, its edges littered with mud and gravel slopped from trucks transiting the adjacent pit. Some of the concrete block and Quonset T-hangars look like they would collapse in a strong breeze. Herbert Jones, 78, owns a flying school at Hyde called the Cloud Club. In the days following September 11, Jones saw his retirement dreams turn into a nightmare. A pilot since 1946 and an active member of the Tuskegee Airmen, Jones worked a day job in the assignment branch of the U.S. Patent Office until he retired 20 years ago. He’s been in the flight training business for more than 15 years. Since September 11, Jones has struggled with the expenses of rents and insurance, but he has not had to lay anyone off. When Hyde was shut down, Jones thought to himself: This won’t last very long. Now, struggling with losses after almost six months, he contemplates getting out of the business. “But I think I’ll hang in there a little longer,” he says.

Retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant Larry Kelley, 71, is not a pilot. But he opened Beacon Flying Service, another flight school at Hyde, because “I just like airplanes and aviation guys are good guys,” he says. Kelley’s last assignment for the Air Force was superintendent of quality assurance for the 89th Wing of the Military Airlift Command, including the Presidential fleet. During his military career, Kelley flew as a flight mechanic on everything from B-25s to C-47s. Between 1969 and 1972 he flew aboard the ponderous C-47s on navaid checking flights over Vietnam, exercises that were magnets for Viet Cong ground fire. But nothing prepared him for the shot he took on September 11. Kelley lost $10,000 a month during the shutdown and he estimates that his retired or part-time instructors lost about $8,000 each for the duration. “I figured maybe we’d be shut down for a couple of days,” he says. “Boy, did I learn a lesson.”

Milton Gilley operates a maintenance shop at Hyde. September 11 forced Gilley to lay off employees, among them his son-in-law, Mark Gifford. As for money, Gilley estimates that during the shutdown he lost “38,000 by the books.” Business is “way down,” he says, but stoically adds, “I’m going to keep to it for the moment. I just as soon go bankrupt myself than have the government bankrupt me.”

Stan Fetter’s traffic reporting business was shut down until November 30, when he resumed operations flying from Maryland Airport under a special FAA waiver. He estimates that his business has lost more than $300,000. Fetter used his retirement savings and the proceeds from an SBA loan to cover shutdown-related losses. Resuming flying has reduced but not eliminated his red ink. “This has never been a business in which you are going to get rich,” he says. “My margins aren’t that great.”

Fetter is visibly angry about the time it took for the government to devise a plan to reopen his home airport and the effect the delay had on the aviation communities there. “Not to minimize the prices that were paid by those directly impacted on September 11, but there’s a batch of people out here who paid too high a price for what came afterward,” he says. “And there was really no reason for it.”

Lloyd Coleman, a Beacon flight instructor based at Hyde, thinks the ultimate price may yet to be exacted: “I don’t think business will get back to the way it was before 9/11,” he says.

At 8:35 a.m. on February 23, pilot Leon Jackler, an attorney with the Federal Communications Commission, landed his 1975 Grumman Yankee at College Park, the first resident civilian pilot to land there since September 11. After being shut down for nearly six months, College Park, Potomac, and Hyde had lost at least a collective $1.3 million—and much of their clientele. As of May 2002, only 35 of College Park’s previously based 87 aircraft had returned.�

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