OCEAN CITY — A half-dozen planes parked on the airport apron overlooking the marsh grass and bay on a cloudless September afternoon, the serene atmosphere rarely interrupted by a propeller’s hum.
The Ocean City Municipal Airport is the last barrier island airport operating in the state but continues to lose about $150,000 a year and is rarely at capacity.
City officials say the city-owned airport serves a greater mission, and airport advocates would like to see the facility promoted as tourist attraction.
“Really, there’s just this wonderful opportunity that no one taps into because they’re focused on the beach and the Boardwalk,” said city resident Martin Schlembach, who fell in love with flying 10 years ago and stores his single-engine Cirrus SR-22 at the airport in a hangar he purchased.
Airport manager Todd Dwyer estimated the airport sees 30 to 40 planes come in a week.
“We’re not full to capacity very often. We could be at 60 percent capacity in the middle of the season,” he said.
As a member of the city’s Aviation Advisory Board, Schlembach wants to see renovations made to the Airport Diner building, which also serves as the airport’s office and the pro-shop for the golf course. He’d also like to see a flight school and a maintenance station added.
“This resource that is right here really needs … we really need to expose it more,” he said.
On Sept. 24, the airport will host its annual festival, at which Dwyer expects about 7,000 attendees and more than 100 aircraft.
The single-runway airport opened in the 2600 block of Bay Avenue in 1935, a project funded by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration. Built over an old landfill, the airport was named Clarke Field for Lt. Cmdr. Vincent Clarke Jr., former commander of the USS Los Angeles, who was an Ocean City resident.
It is officially called Clarke Field.
For 80 years, the tiny airport has drawn local pilots, but it has never been a moneymaker for the city.
The airport took in $177,887 last year, but the city spent $322,036 operating it, said Frank Donato, city director of finance.
Donato said the airport normally operates at a loss of $150,000 per year.
“The airport is not unlike some other city operations and services that don’t quite break even, but are offered and supported because they benefit the community as a whole and are part of what makes Ocean City a full-service community,” he said.
To earn money, the airport sells fuel, hangar space and charges a tie-down fee for aircraft.
“You can come here, just like any parking lot,” Dwyer said.
A charter plane operates out of the airport, as well as Red Baron Air Tours.
Dwyer said the 3,000-foot runway sees a lot of single-engine and light multi-engine planes.
Schlembach said the economy has put a damper on activity at the airport.
Planes like Schlembach’s SR-22 go for more than $500,000, according to Cirrus’ website.
However, Schlembach, who uses his plane for both work and pleasure, argues that flying into the city is extremely economical.
“You can get from here to Philly in 15, 20 minutes,” he said, adding that pilots come from the Main Line in Philadelphia to spend the weekend in the city.
Schlembach flies from Ocean City all over the Mid-Atlantic to meet clients, he said. And on weekends, he takes his family down to their home in Marathon, Florida, or on spur-of-the-moment adventures.
“Living here and having access to my airplane a mile from my home is incredible,” he said. “We can go anywhere we want in the world.”