HAMMONTON — Hammonton Municipal Airport is a quiet place today, with fewer than 20 private planes calling the field home.

Turnover in airport operators, a fatal accident in 2011 and the worst economic downturn of the past 70 years has cut heavily into activity there, said local aviation boosters. But there has been some movement recently toward increasing use of the facility.

Staraero Partners Group, the airport operator for about two years, and its principal, Bob Pinto, have brought many clients to the municipal field from Millville Airport, where Pinto was previously located for 13 years, said co-worker Dan Armand. The company services planes and helps clients sell them, he said.  

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Armand was working on two twin-engine planes recently, getting them ready for sale. A six-person Aerostar 80 has two buyers interested with a price tag of about $225,000, he said. And a six-person Beechcraft Duke that has been converted from piston to jet engines will go on the market for more than $1 million, he said. Both came from out-of-state to be worked on by Staraero, Armand said.

Staraero also trains pilots, sells fuel and even plans to bring in a restaurant operator for the airport’s south hangar, where Town Administrator and Public Works Manager Jerry Barberio said Pinto has already invested about $75,000 in new kitchen equipment, a fire suppression system and other upgrades.

There is a possibility that Atlantic Cape Community College may build a small control tower at the airport for use in a new control tower operator program. Talks are preliminary and no decision has been made on the program or location, said Atlantic Cape spokeswoman Kathy Corbalis.

If the Atlantic Cape deal goes through, it would give the airport a tower and daytime operator, Barberio said.

The New Jersey State Police’s SouthStar Aeromedical Helicopter has been based at Hammonton since December 2011, paying about $3,500 a month rent. Dan Haug, who is affiliated with Hangar Corp. of America, has broken ground on building a new hangar for the $16 million vehicle, and will then pay a fee to the town to lease the land, said Town Solicitor Brian Howell.

Thanks in large part to the SouthStar helicopter, airport revenues have grown from about $30,000 in 2010 to $61,000 in 2011 and $72,000 in 2012, Barberio said. The income comes from rental fees for tied-down planes, fees from the State Police and a portion of Staraero’s fuel sales.

Hammonton resident and airport committee member John Fortis said such improvements as extending the runway would help bring activity back to 2006 levels, when about 80 aircraft used the airport.

“If we can get to 5,000 feet, we can better handle planes that want to come in, like light twins and small jets,” he said.

But an economic rebound may be what is most needed.

“With the cost of fuel and maintenance, it got really expensive (to fly),” said longtime aviator and airport committee member Don Berenato, whose father was among those who started the airport as a crop-dusting base and a place for local fliers in the late 1960s. Berenato gave up his plane years ago but still flies rented aircraft and friends’ planes.

 “After 9/11, there were a lot more restricted areas. It caused bigger routes, you couldn’t fly straight through anymore. It got cost-prohibitive,” Berenato said.

The town is saving money where it can. Barberio is acting as airport administrator to save the $3,000 a year stipend the town used to pay to former councilman Rock Colasurdo, he said. The town budgets about $6,000 for basic maintenance each year, he said.

Improvements such as repaving the runway are funded through federal grants, said Berenato.

Other improvements have been made by pilots themselves.

A group of female pilots called The Ninety-Nines  — whose first president was  aviation icon Amelia Earhart — recently painted a compass rose on the tarmac to give pilots a low-tech way to calibrate their compasses, Fortis said.

Barberio said no final decision has been made about the future of the aerobatics box at the airport, which was one of the few aerobatics boxes in the state and drew pilots from all over New Jersey. It has been closed since a fatal crash between an aerobatics plane and another small plane on Aug. 20, 2011.

One pilot, David Mitchell, 71, of Voorhees, was killed. Aerobatics pilot Kirill Barsukov, 33, of Jersey City, parachuted from the cockpit after the crash and was critically injured.

Even though a National Transportation Safety Board report found the aerobatics pilot was not at fault, the town has not reopened the box.

“The aerobatics box was there for 20 years or longer,” said Berenato. It attracted people such as national aerobatics champion pilot Kirby Chambliss, who not only practiced in Hammonton, but also filmed Red Bull commercials there, such as the one in which he flies upside down over a car on the runway.

Soon after the 2011 crash, a dispute over gate fees erupted between then- airport Administrator Colasurdo and the owner and tenants at the Taildragger Inn, a private airplane hangar located just off the airport property. Taildragger had long paid about $100 a month to allow its planes to move on and off the airfield through a gate in the fence, and the town required a new fee of about $1,000 a month.

Some of its pilots are aerobatic flyers, and Colasurdo at the time said stunt pilots had become too much of a liability to the airport.

The town has blocked the gate between the Taildragger Inn and the airfield, effectively keeping about 12 planes from using it.

Joseph Flood, of Franklin Township, Gloucester County, had operated Jenny Aviation out of the Taildragger Inn for several years, and has said the  blockage threatens his airplane-restoration and repair business.

Barberio said he could not comment on it, as litigation is possible.

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