Twenty years of flight was celebrated at Tipton Airport, where runways parallel Route 32 in Anne Arundel County.
Two decades ago, the general aviation airport was brought back from dormancy, rejuvenated and integrated into the community.
After significant upgrades, the airport is completing a study, due in 2020, for the future of the $1.6 million operation and looking to usher in a new era of flying high with a runway extension.
This story begins when the U.S. Army closed the airport as part of a Base Realignment and Closure on Sept. 30, 1995.
After a brief hiatus, the Tipton Airport Authority (TAA) hired the airport manager, Mike Wassel, on Sept. 1, 1999, and the runway was reopened Nov. 1.
“When I was hired the county did some renovations on the terminal building, yet my first office was in Annapolis at the Arundel Center, down the hall from then-County Executive Janet Owen’s office, for the first two months,” said Wassel. “The only thing at Tipton was the old fire department, which the army was using.”
That first year, Tipton hosted just three planes and was a daytime-only operation with no lighting.
“The hangers weren’t usable, so we couldn’t get certifications of occupancy from the county for almost a year,” he said. “The county gave us some capital funds during that time to start minor improvements and offered a small operating subsidy that the facility was weaned from in five years.”
As it happened, many of the improvements over the years have been completed mostly with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) money. “We’ve resurfaced the runways and taxiways, installed fueling systems for turbine and piston engines (that use regular fuel), added a pilot-controlled lighting system and 22 T-hangers. We’re now home to 113 small aircraft.”
The tenants now include the Anne Arundel County Police Department, Medstar, three news gathering organizations, two fixed and one rotary wing flight schools and an aircraft maintenance provider.
That sounds impressive when compared to Tipton’s humble beginnings. “That first year,” said Wassel, “was just me and lots of open space.”
While operating Tipton could be lonely during those first years, Wassel said there was ample demand for the airport.
“We needed to get our services in place,” he said. “Since that time, we’ve had a stream of people wanting to use our facility. We are in the dead center of the Baltimore-Washington-Annapolis triangle and we feed of off our prime location. There are clients who drive from as far as Frederick, Rockville and Washington, D.C. to fly out of Tipton.”
Tipton has been a good economic development success story and can be an even better generator with an extended runway, said Eric Flamino, chairman of the TAA.
“We have almost 50,000 takeoffs and landings a year,” he said. “We’re trying to promote aviation as a business by connecting with the schools as well as fostering small businesses regarding mechanics, flight schools and avionics shops that provide maintenance services.”
Going forward, the TAA wants to position the airport to better serve the market.
“One way to do that would be to finish the runway project, so we can expand our offerings to more business as well government employees on and around Fort Meade,” Flamino said. “When you see what else is going on around the post, with Arundel Mills, Live! Casino & Hotel, Laurel Park and others, Tipton should be a beneficiary.”
Given the focuses of the BWI Business Partnership on transportation and economic development in the region, “there is a real synergy between this organization and Tipton Airport,” said Executive Director Gina Stewart, noting the organization just awarded Tipton its Rising Star Award at its annual meeting.
Stewart also praised the community involvement that Flamino alluded to. That’s “a priority for Tipton,” she said. “In addition to participating with our Young Professionals Group and sponsoring our Transportation Think Tank (or T3) program, it also hosts events for the Partnership and the Central Maryland Chamber and serves as a stakeholder in the region.”
Furthermore, Tipton also hosts the Young Eagles on occasion, affording young, future aviators (ages 8 and 17) their first free ride in an airplane and the airport continues positive relations with Fort Meade leadership and serves as an FAA-designated reliever airport for BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.
Before the reopening of Tipton, there were some environmental issues with potential unexploded ordnance “that weren’t so much about immediate danger but making sure that any issues in and around the airfield were identified and mitigated,” said Bill Badger, who was then CEO of the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp. “The airport went through a full environmental assessment before it was turned over to public use.”
That concern resulted in Howard County stepping away from the deal to reopen the airport. Today, Wassel said the ordnance “may still be there.” So Tipton works with Army Corps of Engineers “any time we dig.”
The main focus at Tipton remains on finishing the environmental assessment for the runway extension, which will be done in early 2020. The runway length stands at 3,000 feet and needs to be 4,200 feet, which would enable aircraft to operate more efficiently.
The expansion, with mitigation, design and construction, would cost $7 million. The FAA would pay 90 percent of the cost, the state of Maryland would pay 5 percent and Tipton would pay 5 percent that has been raised via revenues.
“Our share is ready,” Wassel said. “We get some small business aircraft here now but the shorter runway limits what they can carry in terms of people as well as products, especially in the summer when it’s hot.”
But for today, the facility is capped at 300 aircraft, but only hosts 113 clients.
Still, Wassel and company are hopeful of more progress finally being made soon. “The expansion would result in more hanger buildout,” he said, “because it would drive general expansion of the facility.”