HAMMONTON — Pilots call it the $100 hamburger.
That’s aviation slang for flying to get lunch at an airport diner, sometimes hours away, and is so named because of the fuel and rental costs to do so. It’s not because the food’s extraordinary, but because it’s a good excuse to go for a joy-flight.
Such fare is the next thing on the menu at Hammonton Municipal Airport, one of several area airfields steadily updating its infrastructure to attract more pilots.
“This is the prettiest dining room for any airport around,” said airport Administrator Rock Colasurdo on a recent morning in the facility’s long-unused restaurant.
New Jersey has lost many airports in recent decades, including Atlantic City’s Bader Field in 2006 and sites in Bridgeton, Mays Landing, Galloway Township, Stafford Township and Lacey Township. Upgrading infrastructure and features has become a goal of several of the remaining area airports following those closings, along with the need to accommodate flights that Atlantic City International Airport cannot handle:
n Hammonton has received millions of dollars in grants in recent years to improve the site. Rehabilitation work on the south hangar and runway, repaving of the entrance road and installation of security cameras and a new fence surrounding the site were all completed last year.
n Last fall, Cape May County Airport received $2 million in federal funding to rehabilitate plane taxiways and study future development plans by updating the airport’s layout plant.
n Millville Municipal Airport received $2.6 million as part of that grant, and Ocean City Municipal Airport received $285,000 to fix taxiway lighting.
n The Eagle’s Nest Airport in Eagleswood Township, Ocean County, received approval in April from the local planning board to install a 10,000-gallon self-serve fuel facility. New owner Peter Weidhorn said he also has submitted an application for 36 hangars, utilities, parking and a storm drainage system.
According to the state Department of Transportation, there are 475 licensed aviation facilities and heliports in New Jersey. Of those, 44 are public use, 75 are private use and 314 are heliports.
In March, Hammonton appointed an airport engineering firm — Hunterdon County-based L.R. Kimball — to oversee future development at its airfield.
Colasurdo said he has already had people offer to run the airport’s restaurant once it opens. The town is currently seeking bids for kitchen equipment to install and make that happen.
He said the result of that work has already been seen in increased activity. His shirt flapped in the wind as he watched a medevac helicopter take off outside the main hangar, while inside a crew worked on several twin-engine airplanes — all new traffic at the airfield.
The town’s goal is to make the municipally-owned airfield profitable; it had fallen into disrepair at least a decade ago.
Last year, the town spent more than $5,000 on operating expenses at the airport, and more than $18,000 on its portion for grants that exceeded $685,000. It also received nearly $32,000 in revenue through rentals, fuel fees and use of hangars, town accountant Frank Zuber said, resulting in a net profit of about $8,500.
Mayor Stephen DiDonato said the government does not have a specific goal for the airfield’s rehabilitation, just to make it as attractive and profitable as possible.
“We’re slowly taking space that’s been neglected and trying to get it back into shape,” he said. “Every little bit helps offset the budget.”
At Eagle’s Nest, new owner Weidhorn said more needs to be done to encourage aviation, and believes there needs to be a concerted effort to inspire youths to fly and reverse a historical trend of declining interest.
“I believe that the rebound is important to the state of New Jersey because the pilot population is an important resource,” he said.
Department of Transportation spokesman Tim Greeley agreed with that assessment.
“Aviation is a key part of our integrated transportation network in New Jersey,” he said, citing figures that the industry provides 20,000 jobs including pilots, airport employees, mechanics, service suppliers and others.
He said state businesses and government entities in general aviation also generate $1.7 billion annually in economic activity.
Those numbers are what Colasurdo said he has focused on in his two years as airport administrator so far, aiming to make the facility a viable business more than anything.
He said his aviation experience is limited to the glider planes that are parked at the airport’s southern end. But as owner of Frog Rock Golf & County Club, he is bullish about the airport becoming a true money maker for the municipality.
As he stepped out of the south hangar, where new pilot’s quarters and facilities were also recently installed, he turned around and pointed at the newly painted outside wall.
“See what I did there?” he said
A blue plane had been stenciled on it, below lettering that read “Airport Restaurant,” and next to script that said “Landing Soon.”
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