Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mountain Air: First in Flight

Perched a mile high in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Mountain Air Country Club was one of the earliest premier golf course developments to include an airport

(BURNSVILLE, N.C.) — Back in the late 1980s when a pair of families initially began development of the private real estate community Mountain Air — to be anchored by its own landing strip — nearly a mile above sea level in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, many wondered if the developers might literally have their heads in the clouds.

Undaunted, Mountain Air’s open-minded and visionary development team worked diligently toward its aeronautic goal atop Slickrock Mountain — albeit following a cautious and deliberately thoughtful pace, always keeping safety first. Today, nearly three decades later Mountain Air’s 2,875-foot airstrip has become as iconic as the community’s world-class golf course and its equally impressive array of amenities.

Yet, what many don’t know is exactly how instrumental Mountain Air’s runway was during the community’s earliest days — providing a considerable portion of the central driving force behind the development’s maiden success.

It was the ability of Mountain Air’s member-pilots to fly into their dream community from all reaches of the country that lured many initial investors. Their capital infusion provided an early cash flow and prevented financial turbulence — helping the community “get off the ground,” so to speak.

Meanwhile, the Mountain Air Pilots Association (MAPA), which was formed in 1995 to promote aviation safety at Mountain Air and contribute to the education and welfare of the local community, would later provide seed money to build the community’s gorgeous clubhouse.

Fort Walton Beach, Fla., orthopedic surgeon Bill Marshall, an avid pilot, first visited Mountain Air in 1992. One of his doctor-pilot friends who had already purchased property at Mountain Air had raved about it to Marshall for two years, “You have got to come up here,” he said. “It’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I think you’ll love it.”

His friend, Dan Roper, advised Marshall, “Don’t fly up here and land [at Mountain Air]. I want you to land in Asheville to get a feel for the place and make the 30-minute drive up here, so you can fully appreciate the surrounding area.”

After one visit, said Marshall: “It was hook, line and sinker for us.”

As Marshall and all of Mountain Air’s vibrant pilot community are aware, mountain flying is substantially different than the usual experience of landing at a conventional “flatland” field. Pilots coming into Mountain Air for the first time are provided a safety manual as well as a video about landing on the runway. The detailed safety manual was compiled by Mountain Air’s roster of experienced pilots as a way to review the process for landing and taking off in the mountain environment — in particular at Mountain Air — at the same time adding extensive risk management.

“You land at Mountain Air weather permitting, which means proper visibility and wind conditions,” explained Marshall. “The conditions have to be right to come in there and land. You need to be a prepared, experienced pilot and you need to be on your toes.”

Mountain Air’s airstrip can handle most shapes and sizes of aircraft, everything from a single engine Cessna to a small Citation jet. The runway was constructed uphill, allowing pilots to decelerate as they land. Mountain Air residents on the ground, meanwhile, are made aware by a pilot landing warning system that alerts residents of approaching aircraft. Also, there is a pair of cameras positioned to provide real time images for runway safety and to observe the visual weather conditions along with runway markings to assist landings.

In addition, Mountain Air’s airstrip provides year-round access that allows Mission Memorial Air Ambulance Service to reach critical care patients in the area when access to the valley is denied because of foggy conditions. Under those conditions patients may be transported by ambulance to the Mountain Air airstrip and retrieved there by Air Ambulance. The runway has also been used for military training such as mountain night approaches.

MAPA is a 501-C3 serving not only as advocate for safety, but also to help foster community relationships by providing scholarships and grants to community organizations. The association works with area rescue squads and EMF personnel. In addition to raising funds for charities, MAPA holds seminars on flight safety and conducts regular safety improvements to the Mountain Air airport.

A number of Mountain Air’s pilots participate in Angel Flight, an organization that flies patients to get health care and flies donor organs to places where they are needed. MAPA also plays host to an annual Airway-Fairway Golf Tournament, where pilots, controllers, Mountain Air residents and guests participate in the largest fundraiser each year to support the charitable work of MAPA. The 2012 tournament produced a net profit of almost $11,600, the largest ever.

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