Planes take wing in Berkshire County


If it seems like there are a lot of small planes buzzing the Berkshire skies, there are.

More than 100 private planes are registered in Columbia County, N.Y. Most of them are housed in individual hangars and fly from grassy airstrips without landing lights or radio towers. Some are kept in barns.

"My Dad started flying with a skywriter, a guy who started in the 1930s," said Shane McMahon, son of Jim McMahon, owner of Parker O’Malley Air Museum in Ghent. "Dad started to fly around age 15, and he went with grandfather, who was interested in flying."

A third-generation flight aficionado, McMahon is a student pilot. His father is teaching him on the same plane he learned on, a 1947 Piper Cub.

"It was the first plane he flew in, learned in," McMahon said. "He’s teaching me in it."

While the family bond in flying is strong with the McMahons, the romance of flying is too.

"Flying antiques is very different," McMahon said. "The biggest difference is that they all have tail wheels. Gotta get used to the nose point up and not seeing anything during takeoff."

Tail wheels make landing a bit different too.

"With two wheels in front and one under the tail, you land on the front wheels," McMahon said.

And the advances in aviation technology make the old planes seem harder to fly.

"Some didn’t fly that well in the first place," said McMahon, age 28. "Everything takes longer. Requires patience. Patience, knowledge and time. They don’t have as much power as modern stuff."

With the cost of aviation fuel running just under $6 a gallon, and with small planes burning five gallons an hour, private planing has become a more expensive hobby than it was just a few years ago.

In Columbia County, most of the 102 private planes registered with the Federal Aviation Authority are owned by a handful of individuals and two corporations, Parker O’Malley and Richmor Aviation, which holds the lease on Columbia County Airport.

"There’s been somewhat of a decrease in activity," said Gail Howard, who has worked at Richmor for 18 years. "It’s the cost in fuel."

With a pilot teaching program, private planes hangared and private jets available for charter flights, Richmor, on State Route 9-H in Ghent, is a hub of aviation activity.

While it seems that there are more small planes in the sky during summer, Howard said at the airport, people fly year round.

"There’s no peak season," he said. "We have people coming and going all the time. They come from all over the country, mostly Florida and California, and Canada."

Private planes can be tied down for $61 per month. Space in the community hangar costs $350 a month, and a private hangar is $370 a month.

Chartered jets fly out of Columbia County all over the world.

"We had a flight to Kuwait," Howard said.

At Kline Kill Airport in West Ghent, a private airport that is home to Chapter 146 of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), airport owner George Kerner of Chatham said the airport houses about 20 airplanes in hangars, some singly, some doubled up. About 15 planes are outside.

"Some of these planes are brand new," said Kerner. "They run $200,000 and up, and take two to four passengers."

Kline Kill pilots run the gamut of society, according to Kerner.

"We have a radio announcer from New York City and we have local farmers," he said.

Kerner mentioned that Kline Kill’s 4,000-foot single runway, going north-south, had a statewide distinction.

"It’s the longest grass runway in New York State," said Kerner, who bought the airport more than 40 years ago.

A retired commercial pilot, Kerner owns a green and white 1976 Cessna 182.

How often does he go up?

"Less and less," he said. "Not as much as I used to."

Most of the private planes in Columbia County are kept in barns with wide doors. A grassy strip is kept mowed, and that’s all a pilot needs.

A green barn in New Lebanon housed a 1948 Piper and 1947 Luscombe until recently. The pilot owner passed away unexpectedly in his 80s. The single turf runway is still mowed.

If you go ...

What: Parker O’Malley Aviation Museum

When: Open by appointment only

Where: 435 Old Route 20, Ghent, N.Y.

Information: (518) 392-7200

What: Movie at the Airport: Airplane!

When: Saturday, August 24 at 8 p.m. Gates open at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Harriman-West Airport, 836 State Road, North Adams.

Admission: $14 per car, $7 adults, $3 for kids under 12. Bring your own chairs.

Information: (413) 662-2111

What: Richmor Aviaition

or (800) 359-2299


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