Up in the Air
Pete Vinton keeps his planes in a corrugated silver garage, a stand-alone airplane hangar in a field five miles east of Parker. From the road, it's the only visible indication of his plan to build a fly-in neighborhood. In two years, this tract of land will be an airpark, a place where people will live alongside their small airplanes, taxiing and taking off for a burger or a trip across state lines.
For now, cranes scoot dirt along the two landing strips that flank the hangar, where Vinton stands next to his Cessna 180. The single-engine plane shines with red and white paint like a starlight mint. Built in 1961, it's a "taildragger," two wheels up front and one in the back, with a single propeller on the nose. It's the kind of plane that demands purposeful steering, strong takeoffs and seamless landings.
"There's something intrinsically satisfying about flying a tail wheel," says Vinton, who is 45. "You have to pay attention to it, like a girlfriend."
Vinton pushes the plane onto the runway, hops inside and guns the ignition. The RPM zooms from 780 to 2600 as the propeller blurs into transparency. Vinton lifts the Cessna off the ground, over the ranch homes and cattle that speck acres of yellow grass. The plane veers around a green hill, and a small shadow appears like a birthmark on the foliage below.
"We can be in Colorado Springs in fifteen or twenty minutes," Vinton says.
But he won't be going so far south today. Back on the ground, there's work to do. He has an airstrip to groom, a fuel tank to set up, and a sign to pick up from the engravers.
Not to mention dealing with the neighbors. Since Vinton first proposed the project last year, he's been parlaying with a handful of angry residents who say that the planes whiz just thirty feet over their rooftops, scaring their cattle and disturbing their sleep. And last week's bungle, when Vinton's brother smashed a kit plane into a piece of construction equipment several yards from the main through street, aggravated them even further. What Vinton explains to them is that the airstrip has nearly always been there. He's only adding homes to the landscape.
There are eleven airparks in Colorado, and most of them are clustered around Denver. It's ultimately up to county or city officials to approve an airstrip or an entire park, but the Federal Aviation Administration will get involved if the planes taking off pose a hazard to other aircraft. In Vinton's case, the airstrip passed muster with the FAA years ago, but he still had to clear the county hurdle to subdivide the land into eighteen lots. When the project is finished, Vinton's Rocky Mountain Airpark will be one of the state's smaller fly-in neighborhoods. Some communities hold up to sixty lots.
The Parker pasture where Rocky Mountain Airpark will stand was long used as a landing strip, starting with crop dusters in the 1930s. A farmer named Earl Everitt inherited that land from his homesteading predecessors. During World War II, he watched bomber planes in training as they passed over his plot from the nearby Lowry bombing and gunnery range. One day after the war, an aircraft crashed into the field near his home. The pilot loped toward the house for help, and Everitt came outside to see the mangled mess.
"He was fascinated with the plane," recalls his daughter, Sandy Whelchel, who lives next to the airpark.
Everitt suffered from heart attacks and couldn't pass the pilot exam. But his son did, and the pair often flew together. In 1968, Everitt formalized the strip with the FAA. This way, his son, then in Nebraska, could fly home.
When Everitt died in 1988, his wife, Janette, maintained the airport until she began to suffer bouts of dementia. Since her children showed little interest in taking over the strip, she began to look around for a suitable custodian. She found one in Vinton, the United Airlines pilot who stored his personal planes in her hangar.
"My mother said, 'Pete's going to buy the airport,'" says Whelchel. "He's going to keep it like my dad wanted it."
But the airstrip's transformation into a full-fledged fly-in neighborhood hasn't gone so smoothly. Last year, when Vinton appeared before the Elbert County Planning Commission to petition to subdivide the area around the runway, he was met by dozens of fretful residents. More people, they said, would mean more planes buzzing overhead, rattling the silverware and spooking the horses. The community could become a terrorist target. Property values would plummet.
Calling themselves the Elbert County Coalition Against Rocky Mountain Airpark, the neighbors — many of whom actually live in adjacent Douglas County — hired a lawyer to derail Vinton's proposal by citing environmental and safety concerns. Soon after, Whelchel's son crashed a plane into a nearby pasture, shattering his foot. The neighbors erected signs in the yards with pictures of a plane hurtling into a house. And when Vinton returned to the planning commission to move forward with the airpark, they did, too, with an arsenal of new complaints and fears.
Vinton and his supporters shot back, saying that the crash was the strip's first in decades. But by that time, the commission was convinced that the "social issues," as one commissioner put it, between the two parties were too great for the project to be approved. They ordered Vinton to meet with his challengers and draft a compromise.
The covenant that followed ensured that pilots wouldn't fly at night. Homeowners would have no more than two aircraft each. And no strangers — only invited guests — could use the airpark's runway in addition to those who lived there.
All was calm until the evening of August 20, when Vinton's brother rammed his biplane into the wheel of a steamroller after losing power at thirty feet, says Vinton. His brother knocked into the roller to avoid skidding into the oncoming traffic on nearby Delbert Road.
"The way I look at it, it's like you have a bunch of guys with sports cars," says Roger Long, who lives across the road from Rocky Mountain Airpark. "And no matter what they tell you, it's the testosterone driving them. The next one will probably be a fireball."
Since the latest crash — which sent Vinton's brother to the hospital with a small cut on his arm — Long and other neighbors have renewed their calls to close down the airpark. But Elbert County officials say there's little that he or anyone else can do to stop the development, short of buying the property.
In spite of the neighborhood ire, Vinton is plowing ahead with his project. When it's completed, the airpark will be the only fly-in community in Colorado that emulates the "golden age of aviation," in Vinton's words. That is to say, the airstrip will be made of grass, and most planes on the property will be vintage aircrafts, true to Everitt's day. Vinton even named one corner of the neighborhood Kitty Hawk Hills, after the North Carolina locale from which Wilbur and Orville Wright first ascended.
Though he can't afford to live at Rocky Mountain Airpark himself (ten-acre lots go for $300,000 to $400,000 apiece, not including homebuilding costs), Vinton says he has sold eight lots, a few of them to commercial airline pilots.
Bob McSpadden is one such individual. The United Airlines pilot moved to Rocky Mountain Airpark with his wife, Beth — the two met when she was a flight attendant — after deciding the Parker area was perfect for their three daughters. Though he doesn't own a plane, McSpadden plans to buy one after the family finishes building their new home.
"The airpark is a big chunk of icing on the cake," he says.
As the first family to put roots in the airpark, the McSpaddens have witnessed the fury that surrounds the project. Beth often wonders if her daughters will make friends in the divided neighborhood.
"You are not sure who is mad at you living here or not," she says. "We want them to know we are just people."
But soon, Rocky Mountain Airpark will be filled with families just like them. People who will take a Sunday off, step into their planes and fly right over their neighbors' heads.
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