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Friday, April 5, 2013

A Tale of Two Airports

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times - that's how Charles Dickens started his story about the French Revolution, through the eyes of his protagonists living at different ends of the social spectrum, and in two very different cities and societies.  Viewed through the lens of aviation, the city of McKinney is itself two very different places......

On the East side of McKinney, Texas, is Collin County Regional Airport.  If you follow the airport signs from US-75 (Central Expressway) East along Eldorado, you will arrive at the base of the new control tower, opened in 2012.  The airport is owned by the city, and operated by the Collin County Airport Development Corporation (CCADC), which "is tasked with promoting, developing, encouraging and maintaining aeronautical facilities, commerce and development at Collin County Regional Airport". The City council appoints seven board members.

Although the Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS) which broadcasts on 119.925 MHz always announces "Collin County Regional Airport" before giving the most recent weather measurements to pilots (you can hear it on your phone by dialing (972) 548-8525), the aviation world simply calls it "McKinney", or knows it by its International Civil Aviation Organization code "KTKI".  All US airports with an ICAO code start with the letter "K", Dallas-Fort-Worth's code is KDFW.

McKinney Tower manages all aircaft traffic within 4 nautical miles of the tower, and up to 2,500 above ground level (AGL), which at KTKI is 588.9 feet above sea level, according to the FAA.  So the KTKI airspace is a cylinder, centered on the airport and 8 nautical miles in diameter, and up to 3,100 ft MSL (above mean-sea-level).  From 4,000 MSL to 11,000 feet MSL, the airspace above McKinney belongs to DFW Regional Approach, leaving a small sliver from 3,100 to 4,000 open to all comers.  But in practice pilots commonly talk to the tower anywhere from about 8 to 10 miles away, and certainly while overflying unless talking to DFW Approach

McKinney airport recently opened a new, wider, and stronger runway, called runway 18-36, which refers to the compass heading of the runway, depending on which way an airplane is facing.  Taking off or landing to the North, the compass will read "360", and to the South, "180".  Drop the trailing "0"s and you get the runway designation.  All airports around the world use that method.  Taxiways Alpha and Bravo run parallel to the runway (Bravo used to be the old runway), under the control of the "McKinney Ground" controller, leading to the North and South Hangars, and the FBO, which stands for "Fixed Base Operator".

Bigger airports usually have an FBO, and some airports like Dallas' Love Field have several.  The FBO is like an airport terminal for private airplanes, and combines the functions of security, check in, parking (for aircraft and cars), car rental, and gas station (for airplanes).  The lone FBO at McKinney is Cutter, part of a chain of FBOs in mostly in the southwest.  The Cutter offices also house a flight school and pilot shop, run by Monarch Aviation, and manages hangar space for the airport.  The two largest hangars by the FBO are used by maintenance shops, Air-O Specialists of Texas, which does most regular maintenance work on large and small aircraft, and Select Avionics, which sells and maintains the aircraft electronics (known as "avionics")

McKinney airport is a busy, corporate place.  It caters mostly to private business aircraft, which generate the most income, but the majority of the actual traffic is single engine propeller aircraft. At any given time, about half the aircraft in the pattern are doing some form of training, American Flyers and Monarch, based at Addison like to use Mckinney airport for repeated take off and landing practice (known as "touch-and-goes") since it's banned at even busier Addison.  The other half are either visiting aircraft, or aircraft based on the field.  There are a couple of flying clubs, the biggest being the North Texas Flying Club, which started out as the Texas Instruments flying club, but opened its membership to all in the 1990s.  For about $400/mo, aircraft owners can lease a private single airplane "T" hangar, or they can share a larger one with other airplanes, for less money.  Private Jets need their own hangars, some company flight departments might have an even larger hangar if they have multiple airplanes.

The Collin County Regional Airport Board has ambitions about eventually bringing scheduled commercial airliner flights into KTKI.  The new runway meets the international standards for passenger aircraft up to 450,000 lbs, good enough for regional jets and some small airliners, for all current business aircraft (except for a very few privately owned 747 and A380 aircraft, mostly in the middle east, and for Air Force One.)

If Collin County Regional Airport if the business face of Mckinney Aviation, AeroCountry is the smudgy-faced hobbyist country cousin.  Located 8 miles West of KTKI, between US-380 and Virginia Parkway just West of Custer Road, AeroCountry is a small, privately owned airport - but it's not all low rent.  The West side of the runway is a mixture of "T" hangars and shared hangars, together with about half a dozen houses with attached hangars for those pilots who can't bear to leave their flyable babies alone, even for a night.  The East side is all new development, with large shared hangars, and combination condominiums with attached hangars and a swimming pool.

There's only one jet on the field, an ex-Romanian Air Force trainer, parked at the south end.  There are many old and new biplanes, some homebuilt, and eclectic mix of everything else - twins, singles, open cockpit, closed cockpit, pushers, world war 2 trainers.  Some of these are transient, since there are several small maintenance shops on the field, but there is no FBO.  Pilot's can pump their own fuel from a tank near the south end, for about $1/gallon less than McKinney airport, but that's it.  There is no pampering at AeroCounty.

AeroCountry has an FAA designator, T31, but no ICAO designation.  Despite some publications (and GPS Navigation units) calling it "KT31", that's wrong.  It's just T31.  It has a single runway, 17-35, at 792 feet MSL.  Unlike McKinney, AeroCountry has no bad weather instrument approaches - if weather conditions are less than Visual Flight Rules (VFR), the field is essentially closed to landing traffic.  Although you can take off from T31 into rain and clouds on an instrument flight plan, there is no way to get back to the ground at T31.  The runway is long, at 4,000 feet, but the north 1,000 feet is grass, leaving about 3,000 feet for most aircraft.  Some of the biplanes and WW2 trainers like to land on the grass part of the runway.

The runway was very narrow and a bit broken up, but as part of the deal with the condo developer on the East side, the airport received a new, wider runway in 2011.  There is a main road called AeroCountry Road leading into the airport, and small roads off it that double as taxiways.  You have to be careful driving at T31 - the traffic coming around the blind corner might be an airplane.  The small roads are all named after aviation legends, starting with Aeronica, Bucker, Champion and Decathlon, and going in alphabetical order to Yak Drive at the far North end.  Boeing, Airbus and Lockheed Martin don't get roads at T31, but small plane pilots know all these names.  I keep my own airplane on Bucker, named for a German light aircraft manufacturer pre-war.  Personally I think it should be renamed "Beechcraft", but that's only because I fly one.  Mooney gets a road, but Cessna and Piper don't.  Whoever chose these names went for aviation obscurity.

The airport is owned and run by the property owners on the field - own a hangar and you get a vote.  There are some non-aviation businesses that rent hangars, for old car restoration, storage and so on, and a cheer-leading school off the main entrance road.  Some cheerleader Moms have been known to get confused and drive onto the runway by mistake - this is aviation as it was before 9/11.  The pilots know each other and know who should be where, so interlopers are quickly seen and redirected.  Because the runway is small and bounded by trees on the East and Hangars on the west, the board doesn't allow touch and goes at AeroCountry, unless the aircraft is based on the field.  There is a flying school that teaches tailwheel flying and does aerobatic instruction, but that's it.  AeroCountry is an airport for experienced pilots who own their own aircraft.

It's unusual for a city of 140,000 to have two airports, even the City of Dallas itself only has two - Love Field and Redbird Executive.  Plano has one (Plano Airpark), as do Addison, Denton and Mesquite.  Carrollton, Frisco, Richardson and Garland have none.  Encroaching development is threatening both airports, which now have noise abatement procedures that pilots try and adhere to, when it is safe to do so.  AeroCountry has the bigger problem with houses now immediately to the East and South - not too long ago it was surrounded only by horses and cattle.  Pilots like to say that the airport was there first, but in a democracy the majority rules.  As baby boomers and WW2 veterans age, and the price of fuel continues to climb, the number of active pilots and airworthy aircraft is declining, but McKinney has two treasures that should both be nurtured and preserved, even though the face each presents to the world is quite different from the other.

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