North Fork’s only airstrip may be grounded for good

11/25/2012 12:00 PM |
North Fork, Mattituck Airbase, closing airport

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | With its fuel tanks gone, Mattituck Airbase’s fate remains in doubt.

The future of the Mattituck Air Base, the North Fork’s only public airstrip, is uncertain, according to one of the landowners, Jay Wickham.

This news comes four months after Teledyne Technologies, the airplane engine overhaul facility located at the airport, closed, putting about 20 people out of work. That business was consolidated with the company’s other facility in Fairhope, Ala.

Most recently, Southold business owner Fred Martin, whose plane is currently based in Mattituck, said the airport’s fuel tanks were given to Albertson Marine Inc. of Southold, sparking concerns among the dozen or so pilots he said also keep their aircraft there.

“We’re just hoping and praying it stays open,” Mr. Martin said. “If they shut it down, we wouldn’t have an airport on the North Fork anymore. We’re hoping the town does something with it.”

Mr. Wickham verified the loss of the airport’s fuel tanks, which he said would have been costly to repair to current standards. He added that he is open to the town’s leasing the property to keep the airport open, but lingering issues with the property’s last tenant prevent him from seeking a new one.

“I would have no problem with the town having the airport, but it still has attachments to Continental, the last ones to operate it,” he said of the property’s most recent lessee, which was purchased by the Chinese firm Technify Motors more than a year ago.

He said the firm has failed to complete a certified closure of the business, which he said is needed to re-let the property.

“There is a difference of opinion between the landowners and the Aviation Industry Corporation of China as to how a certified Department of Environmental Conservation and Suffolk County closure should affect both parties,” Mr. Wickham said.

Though Continental Motors vacated the property in June, Mr. Wickham said the company has been “dragging their feet” to complete the certified closure, which includes repairs and maintenance years overdue.

“Nobody can get involved with the property until that certified closure is done,” he said.

He believes Teledyne was the best of the five companies to own the facility since the Wickham family originally sold the business in 1984.

“This other company – Continental Motors, the ones in Alabama, they have their marching orders,” he said. “None of the [Aviation Industry Corporation of China] people are hands-on business people. They don’t know how stressful this has been. If they had any idea what it takes to close a business, they wouldn’t have bought it.”

Mr. Wickham said once the certified closure is completed, the town will have the option to lease the land as other companies have in the past.

“Once this is done we can sit down and have some real serious talks,” he said. “Not negotiations, but some talks about the fact of the importance of having an airport here.”

Southold Supervisor Scott Russell said he has not approached Mr. Wickham about the possibility of the town’s buying or leasing the airport, though he said he and his economic advisory committee have been working to help keep the airport open, despite diminished interest in the aviation industry over the last few years due to tough economic times.

“If you lose an airport, you’ll never get another one and we recognize that,” Mr. Russell said. “We told Jay, if you have any bona fide tenants and they have any issues with zoning or issues of oversight or licensing or permit requirements, have them come see us to see what we can work out because we’re anxious to keep the airport open.”

Local pilots have pointed to the 2011 subdivision and sale to the town of land, including the hangar and airstrip, of what’s known as Klenawicus International Airport on Shelter Island, as a model Southold Town could follow to keep the airstrip up and running.

“I’d been flying out of there since the late ’70s and word came around through the Shelter Island Reporter that the airstrip was going to get taken over by the town and I realized that the local pilots needed to come forward to preserve the airstrip as an airstrip,” said Shelter Island pilot Jim Pugh, who spearheaded the effort to form a pilot’s association on the Island.

The association has since become responsible for maintaining the airfield. “We came up with a plan to lease it from the town and interface insurance with the town insurance,” said Mr. Pugh.

“Everything overlapped seamlessly,” he continued, “because we bought the maintenance equipment from Susan Klenawicus two years before the property changed hands, familiarized ourselves with the procedures, went over surveys and met with and communicated with supervisor Jim Dougherty frequently.

“I made a presentation to the Town Board and it was approved. If we hadn’t done that, it would have become vacant land and the continued use of it as an airstrip would have disappeared,” Mr. Pugh said.

He added that the measure was approved largely because the pilot’s association agreed to take responsibility for maintenance, which they continue doing to this day as a cooperative.

In order for the model to work in Southold, Mr. Pugh said, committed pilots who want to use and maintain the airport need to be interested and motivated to undertake such a project. He added the model has been working “splendidly” on Shelter Island and will be two years old this coming May.

Mr. Russell said he is exploring options to keep the airport open, including obtaining small airport grants through the Federal Aviation Administration. But he’s not sure the Shelter Island model would work in Southold, due to a substantial drop in the number of local pilots.

“The aviation industry has been hit particularly hard in these economic times,” he said. “Whether there’s enough pilots that would have enough interest to provide the critical mass needed as an option doesn’t seem likely. The reality is a lot of the pilots that used to keep their planes there and fly out of there just aren’t there anymore.”

gvolpe@timesreview.com

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