Chris Hatin and Bruce Mowery didn’t hear the, “If you build it, they will come!” mystery voice from Kevin Costner’s film Field of Dreams!but they might as well have: They’ve experienced The Vision.
We’re shooting the breeze inside the big, brand-new 80×80-foot hangar they’ve just completed—at their very own country airport. Solo and tandem skydivers flare and plop down onto the grass not 100 feet from where we sit. Parked on the ramp is Chris’ new Quicksilver Sprint two-seat LSA sporting a robust turbo HKS 80 hp engine. A Piper Saratoga makes a low buzz down the 2,200-foot grass runway. Two Taylorcraft just flew off into balmy summer afternoon skies.
And Cody, no doubt the friendliest golden retriever I’ve ever met (and that’s saying something), just flopped down on top of my feet for a rest and Personal Moment. “We call him Velcro Dog,” says Chris. “Wherever you are, he’s gotta make contact with you.”
The view out the west-facing hangar door is a beautiful north-south ridge cloaked in a lush canopy of deciduous trees. Bruce and Chris own that, too. These two guys have a passionate ambition, and they’re going all in on it: to build an aviation “fun park” that somehow avoids the economic pitfalls of traditional airports by actually sustaining itself.
The key word is “fun,” and here’s their plan: The admonition to maximize location, location, location is as endemic to success in aviation as everywhere else. The field is Harris Airport (identifier: 83K). A friend of the partners, Keith Harris, had a dream to develop the airport, too. He died five years ago in a plane crash, and Chris and Bruce bought it. In part, they wish to honor his name and vision. The field sits in the quintessential pastoral green farm valley, just minutes from a major New York tourist center: upstate’s fabulous Lake George, named for King George of England, and the third-cleanest lake in the United States.
Lake George Village, a 15-minute drive west, serves up all the traditional tourist traps: lodging choices from tacky to top-end, campgrounds, multiple eateries, hiking trails, tons of water sports, souvenir shops, mini-golf parks and much more.
What makes Chris and Bruce think Harris Airport could be a thriving aviation business are two important numbers: 40,000 people per week visit Lake George from spring to fall, and 26,000 vehicles a day pass by on State Road 149, very close to the airport.
How close? The 04/22 runway’s south end is perhaps 200 yards from S.R. 149. Still, an entrepreneur needs a hook to bring in the crowds. “And we have it all going on, right here,” says Bruce. “LSA flights and training, skydiving, helicopter scenic tours, food!a bit of everything. That’s what you need today to make anything work: diversification.”
Watching a fluorescent-orange Quicksilver two-seater float through the bright blue sky or a clutch of rainbow-colored square-rig canopies glide into land alongside the runway are powerful motivators for parents or adventure seekers to stomp the brakes and detour into Harris Airport.
“Like every business,” adds Chris, “You need to appeal to the general public. Canopies opening will bring people in just to watch. What’s the attraction at an average airport, other than seeing the occasional airplane take off and land?” And let’s not forget the forbidden zone-like rebuff that’s the norm for most airports.
It’s a Sunday. I’ve just taken a delightful spin with Chris in his two-seat Sprint, where all my ultralight joys flooded back into memory. Climbing out at a leisurely rate, a fresh, 70-degree breeze in our faces, the emerald fields and farmhouses of the pocket valley dropped gradually away. Perfect little clouds dotted the deep-blue afternoon sky. We tooled around for a while just taking in the expansive joys of open-cockpit country flying, then settled in for a gentle touchdown at 35 mph.
My wife Tomma went up with Chris next. I’m not sure whose smile was bigger after landing, hers or mine.
“This was our first weekend open,” says Chris.
“How many people showed up?” I ask.
“Hundreds, it was a great turnout.”
When’s the last time other than at an air show you heard the word “hundreds” attached to the phrase “foot traffic” at a little airport?
Harris Airport will have services, too. “We might do aircraft maintenance, and do plan to build more hangars next to the runway: We own 175 acres in all. A nearby airport just closed down, so those displaced airplanes need a new home.”
Flight instruction should be a principal revenue source, along with Bruce’s already thriving helicopter business. Retired from his custom-home business, he’d like to build custom homes on that beautiful 160-foot ridge across the runway. Meanwhile, he’s busy giving rides in his sleek Robertson R-44, the four-seat helicopter that’s a perfect aerial sightseeing platform.
A Cessna 150 and probably a C-172 on leaseback will soon join the flight instruction fleet, along with a new Quicksilver Sport 2S S-LSA for sport-pilot training.
“And I’m a Cub guy,” Chris adds. “So we’ll offer taildragger training, too. My other dream is to manufacture pure Piper J3 Cubs. I’ve built components for Legend Cub in the past, but they and all the LSA Cub clones use Super Cub technology. I want to build the straight Cub design, probably the PA-11 Cub Special variant with enclosed cowl.”
Dreams, like all living things, need to eat, so veteran businessowner Bruce watches the bottom line. For all the fun, Harris Airport is still a business.
“We’re at that ‘where to start, where to stop, what to build next?’ place,” says Bruce. “What are people willing to pay? Can the airport sustain itself? We’ll see.”
Chris, an active social networker, will market the operation online and on his website (www.quicksilverNE.com). Bruce’s helicopter business is already thriving, which will help.
“This could become a premier jump zone,” says Bruce. “I’ve found two things on everybody’s bucket list: fly in a helicopter and jump out of an airplane.”
“People are excited about ultralight flights, too,” Chris says eagerly. “It’s not like flying in an airplane. You’re out there like a bird.”
I leave the partners to go back to chatting with their remaining visitors, grab a snack from the hot lunch they laid out, then we walk back to the car.
As we drive away, I’m thinking of another iconic movie quote, from a concerned Jeff Goldblum in the movie, Jurassic Park. “Life finds a way,” he says, worrying that the dinos will multiply and wreak havoc. “Life always finds a way.”
Reflecting over the prevalent gloom and doom around general aviation these days, I believe lovers of flight will find a way, too. Ask Charles Lindbergh, Paul Poberezny or the Wrights.
Can you hear that whisper through the tall green grass of Harris Airport?
“If you build it, they will come…”
Oh, let it be true.