Since the very discovery that such a thing existed, I, like many other pilots, have dreamed of airpark living. For the purposes of this column, I will define “airpark” as a residence associated with a runway—or more than one runway, if you’re really lucky. Airparks exist in a wide variety of types, from farms and ranches with perhaps a simple dirt or grass strip to vast communities of hundreds of individual habitations and municipal airport-level facilities, including full-service FBOs and even instrument approaches. Some are geared toward full-time living and others more as vacation getaways. Many are a combination of the two.
Airparks and Experimental/Amateur-Built aircraft are not inherently linked, but are wonderfully well suited to each other. Nothing beats the convenience and efficiency of having your beloved project close by. (Projects may be flying, but they are never completely finished.) It is even better still when an enthusiast is immersed in a close community of like-minded individuals from which to garner support, inspiration, advice, tools, supplies, refrigerator contents…whatever. No wonder, then, that a large percentage of E/A-B aircraft are built and kept at airparks and that airpark marketers and airpark-oriented vendors are abundant at Oshkosh and similar events.
Individual as You Are
The individual desires and requirements for potential airpark residents are as varied as the properties themselves. As just one example, I will share some of the journey that my wife and I have taken from being shoppers, buyers, builders and then residents.
One of the advantages of working as an airline pilot is that one can live pretty much anywhere. Pilots are based in a domicile that they are awarded by seniority. Pilots who live somewhere where they can’t drive to work are considered “commuters.” Even though it is estimated that roughly half of all airline pilots commute, I wanted nothing to do with the added stress, inconvenience and lost time. So when I was hired at my final career destination, we packed up everything and moved to the least undesirable (to us) of the available domiciles at the time. We have lived in the Phoenix area for almost 30 years since, where I have enjoyed the luxury and convenience of driving to work.
One of the nice things about the Phoenix area is that within about a 100-mile radius of Sky Harbor Airport (KPHX) are literally dozens of airpark communities. One, Hangar Haciendas (AZ90), is only about 8 miles from Sky Harbor. The greater Phoenix area includes one of the oldest and most iconic airparks in the country in SkyRanch at Carefree (18AZ), which has existed since the 1950s. Supposedly, newsman Hugh Downs built one of the first hangar residences there, and it has been a popular hangout over the decades for celebrities such as Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope and Paul Harvey. The area also includes Stellar Airpark (P19) in Chandler, which is popular with airline pilots, plus one of the newest Airpark developments in the country, Pegasus Airpark (5AZ3), in Queen Creek.
A little further out from base zero is an interesting development called Mazatal Mountain in Payson, Arizona, about an hour and a half drive from Phoenix. This is a cooperative association between a public municipal airport (KPAN) and a private airpark development connected by a taxiway and an electric gate. An attractive “best of both worlds” scenario that I’m sure has been incorporated at other locations as it makes total sense in many ways.
Since I am still working (last I checked), and we’ve spent more than 20 years in a home and neighborhood that we really enjoy—plus nine grandkids (last I checked) living fairly close by—our airpark quest focused more on a part-time vacation/climate change situation, since we planned to maintain a residence in the metro Phoenix area. My wife and I are both originally from tall-pine country and often miss that environment. That led us to a high-country development called the Mogollon Airpark (AZ82) in Overgaard, Arizona.
At only a two and a half hour drive or a (much preferred) half-hour flight in the RV, the airpark was close enough to my work to be convenient. Yet at over 6600 feet elevation, it offers a vastly different climate and environment than the Phoenix valley. Think pine trees and elk instead of cactus and scorpions. It’s a great place to escape the oppressive heat in summer and to enjoy snow days in winter. We also had dear friends who already lived there, which is always a positive.
Just like it would take a fleet of aircraft to satisfy every pilot itch, an airpark choice is a compromise as well. Mogollon checked the most squares for us, so we started watching the real estate market carefully several years ago. Properties at Mogollon consist of two basic types: home/hangar units on one lot with taxiway access or hangar lots that have separate home lots that are set back a bit from the runway. Even though the development has been established for decades, it is quite large, so about 250 properties of both types are currently available for sale either as previously owned homes or raw land. The development appears to me to be about three-quarters built out. From a casual observation I would guess that about a third of the residents are full time. Most owners have a connection to Arizona. Some to an adjoining state. Some come from far across the country and a few even a totally different country.
As a pilot wanting to build another airplane, I was most interested in a home/hangar single lot with taxiway access. My dear wife, however, liked how the detached home lots were generally larger and more forested. So we compromised and went the way she preferred. Let’s be honest here: For most pilots, getting a non-pilot significant other to even entertain living on an airpark is a huge win. After 39 years of wedded bliss, I figured it best to not press my luck. We found a nice combination of a quarter-acre hangar lot at one end of the runway attached (by assignment) to a heavily treed corner lot of over an acre, the two parcels separated by about 100 yards. We made an offer and were soon happy owners.
Okay, Let’s Build
We were referred to a draftsman in the area who had drawn numerous plans for the development. As simple as hangars may seem, they can get quite complicated, especially with respect to their doors. Experience and familiarity are important for success. The same can be said for choosing contractors. I wish that I could say that dealing with an architectural committee of an airpark homeowners association (HOA) was pleasant, simple and hassle free. I wish I could say that. Moving on.
As I spoke with friends during this process, I heard concerns that general aviation was graying out. Wouldn’t airparks be graying out as well? I can see that point and definitely considered that situation. One countering argument: Retiring airline pilots like myself make for a rather large demographic of potential airpark buyers and at no time in history have so many airline pilots been retiring as there will be over the next several years. That statistic bodes well for the airpark market.
One consideration at our airpark, and I am sure others, is that the residences themselves are attractive enough to entice non-aviators to buy in and use the hangars as convenient garages for boats, RVs (the other kind), snowmobiles and the like. This can be a blessing and a curse. While this desirability makes for a more active real estate market, always nice for sellers, it can create problems when the time comes to address aviation-related costs and/or noise complaints. While I am not aware of any in particular, I am sure that an airpark runway somewhere has been dug up and repurposed—as have numerous other general aviation airstrips over the years. For example, the airport I soloed off of as a teen in 1975, Strawberry Glenn in Boise, Idaho, is covered in houses today, lamentably without a trace of its former aero-glory.
For an incurable airplane nut, there is a very special feeling taxiing up to your hangar/home and opening the hangar door from a remote in the cockpit. A dream come true for me. Earlier in this column, I hinted at the challenges of having our house and hangar built; next month, I’ll offer more detail on that.
Some good and well intentioned residents, even friends, have taken exception to the way I described my experience with the airpark architectural committee, as is their prerogative. As any homebuilder will tell you, there are bumps and scapes along the way, and some disagreement and negotiation will occur even in the best of times. In the saga that caused my somewhat caustic comment, there were mistakes and miscommunications on both sides of the issue. I take responsibility for my side of the equation.
I still wish the experience had been better and I still wish I could have a window from which to overlook the runway—but just as much I wish that I had not cast my frustrations in a way that appeared to speak for others. That was never the intent, nor was it, as some have called out, to make others avoid Mogollon. My family and I all love this airpark and the aviation community it makes possible. We are about to embark on our next significant investment here, and that should tell you what you need to know. —M.N.