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Living at Runway's Edge

There are some folks who wouldn't live anywhere near an airport. But at air parks, home meets hangar, and residents can fly away at a moment's notice. And the noise? It's music to their ears.

July 03, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER and MARTHA L. WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ROSAMOND, Calif. — 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.

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