WOODBINE — Terry Dillard walked across a field covered in prickly pear cactuses, looked up at the blue-and-white aircraft circling overhead, and talked about what brought him and his crew to the edge of the Pinelands.
The captain for Van Wagner Airship Group would be flying the Horizon blimp during the Atlantic City Airshow that morning and taking off from the Woodbine Airport. It is one of many airfields in the country where he is stationed each year, but he said he prefers ones like this.
“We like the smaller airports,” he said. “They’re quite a bit more friendly.”
That seems to be one of the main reasons the Woodbine Airport is always so busy, attracting a variety of both recreational pilots and businesses because of the “hassle-free” environment Dillard described.
There are more than 20 public-use airports in South Jersey, but many of the people who fly to and from this isolated property think it has something unique.
“You have to know the flavor of the airport,” said Woodbine Mayor Bill Pikolycky, who is also chairman of the Woodbine Port Authority, which operates the airport. “We’re looking at an unusual situation.”
He means that while development has encroached on airfields throughout the state, leading to a dramatic decline in their numbers over the past few decades, Woodbine’s 700-acre airport has been relatively sheltered from the problems presented by having close neighbors.
At the same time, it’s location is ideal for many because of its close proximity to the shore. Many second-home owners leave cars in their hangars so they can fly to Woodbine and drive to their homes in Ocean City, Sea Isle City, Avalon or Stone Harbor.
Two banner-plane companies operate out of the airport, too, and one of them also provides sightseeing tours of the region. Maybe more than anything else, the fact that MidAtlantic MedEvac chose to station the only EMS helicopter in the county at Woodbine says a lot about its important location.
There are 58 hangars at the property, and all of them are filled. There are plans to build even more, which would be the latest in hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of improvements over the past 10 years or so.
The facility dates back more than a century, when it was just a grass field, prior to the Navy taking it over during World War II and building the asphalt runways that exist there today. After the military deeded it back and the Port Authority took it over, it languished for a time.
One day, during the late 1990s, an Air Force veteran and retired aviation technician named Wayne Rumble started complaining at Port Authority meetings that more needed to be done. Clifton Anderson, the chairman of the authority at time, approached him after one meeting and told him he also wasn’t happy.
“Oh well, I’ll back off then,” Rumble remembers saying.
“No, I think you should get paid for what you’re doing,” Rumble remembers Anderson answering.
Rumble, of Upper Township, is now the airport maintenance manager, also operating in a consultant-like role to supervise and advise. He has overseen some significant upgrades to the airport since getting his position in 1998.
“As we started doing these things, there was a need to have someone down there,” said Anderson, who is still a member of the authority.
Last year, the airport finished expanding a section of its apron, which is the area where aircraft can park, due to increased demand. That is part of an ongoing plan using $1.4 million in mainly federal money that will lead to expanding the nearby business park as well.
“All it takes is money,” Rumble said, before thinking about it more and adding, “and patience.”
He was referring to the sometimes arduous process for getting permits to improve the airport. The fact that it is in the Pinelands helps keep development away, but it also presents issues with expansion of the facility and even just maintaining it.
Rumble walked over to a map and pointed to an area where wetlands are located on one side, an endangered owl on another side, endangered plants on another side and an endangered snake on another side.
The snake in particular has caused the most problems, because it has restricted the ability to trim trees near the main runway. Rumble said they cannot clear them until November.
“It’s really a safety hazard,” he said.
But the natural environment does make it a scenic location. Pilots often sit on the deck outside the administrative office and enjoy a cool breeze that sometimes blows across the field.
Bill “Doc” Daughenbaugh, an aerial sprayer with the Cape May County Mosquito Control Commission, was doing just that on a recent morning while taking a break from dropping granular larvicide nearby to fight breeding mosquitoes.
He has been flying out of the airport for more than 30 years, he said, and he thinks it benefits from having a large buffer of trees between it and the nearest homes.
“There’s nobody that lives around here that complains,” he said. “All these other airports are getting really encroached on.”
As Daughenbaugh walked back to his helicopter to go treat an area in Lower Township, Megan McAfee and her children watched from a bench by the entrance. The mother from Upper Township brought them down because they enjoy watching the planes fly in and out.
She explained that her father used to fly out of the airport, and she would take her son, Ethan, 5, there when he was younger. Now she also brings her twins, Connor and Payton.
“I want to do this when I grow up,” Ethan McAfee said, “but that’s a long time, because I’m 5.”
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