Imagine planning to land on the turf and camp at Isle Airport in Minnesota. Maybe you anticipate a hearty dinner at one of the nearby restaurants, then a short hike to Mille Lacs Lake. But you discover the airport was closed by the city because of encroaching trees. Now you have to disappoint your family, all looking forward to the weekend camping together.

The Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) became aware of the situation, and thanks to a $14,000 RAF grant, the trees were removed in cooperation with the Isle Airport Association, and the airport was saved. To celebrate, Association volunteers hosted a fly-in last July. Eighty airplanes arrived, many camped, and 800 folks enjoyed breakfast at the airfield. “The future of Isle Airport is bright,” RAF Minnesota Ambassador Amy Gesch said.

The Recreational Aviation Foundation marks another year of collaborative successes – like Isle – from Alaska to Florida. Throughout its 19 years as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the RAF has depended on donations and the efforts of volunteers to carry out its mission to preserve, improve, and create airstrips for recreational access.

Headquartered in Bozeman, Montana, the RAF operates coast-to-coast with only three paid staffers. Volunteer state liaisons identify projects, assisted by volunteer state ambassadors. The RAF engages with state aviation groups, aeronautics departments, AOPA regional managers, local EAA chapters, and type clubs for the best ways to enhance recreational aviation opportunities and preserve access. “The nearly ten thousand folks who support us appreciate the way we do things,” RAF Chairman John McKenna said. “Volunteers step up because they are passionate about
what we do.”

The creation of a new airfield in the Ozarks on land managed by The Nature Conservancy is just one example. Trigger Gap is a beautiful airfield that the RAF helped create with Fly Oz. “We have the full support and involvement of The Nature Conservancy in being good stewards of their lands,” RAF Arkansas Liaison Dave Powell said.

The RAF grants funds for projects that fit the RAF mission. “Our volunteers multiply the power of our monetary resources. It’s leverage in its truest and most enjoyable form,” McKenna said. Picnic shelters, toilets, shower facilities, WiFi, and weather stations are going up; trees and brush are removed, making fields safer for more types of aircraft. Here are just a few cooperative successes since July 2021, typically involving RAF grants for all or part of projects:

Part of the RAF success story is due to its partnerships with aviation goods and service providers like Hartzell Propeller, who extended their offer of a $1,000 discount on popular backcountry propellers to RAF supporters through the end of 2022. In addition to the benefit to the buyer, Hartzell has pledged $250 toward the RAF mission for each of these sales. “This demonstrates Hartzell’s dedication to backcountry aircraft safety, performance, and noise reduction – features RAF members really appreciate,” McKenna said.

The RAF assisted the Tailwind Aviation Foundation on the Airfield Guide, in response to requests for a listing of recreational places to fly. Currently, it lists over 300 airfields across the country – more are being added all the time.

Continued dialog with the FAA resulted in official acknowledgment of turf aircraft operating areas adjacent to paved airports – another form of advocacy. “This win represents a great collaborative effort between the RAF, EAA, and AOPA. It’s a huge win for recreational aviation. These turf operating areas are valuable for training purposes, to prepare pilots without practicing in the backcountry,” RAF Director Jeff Russell said.

Also at the national level, the RAF secured budget allocations from the US Forest Service for use on backcountry airstrips. The RAF has a renewable MOU with the USFS, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service that authorizes RAF volunteers to provide maintenance on airstrips on these lands.

This relationship came about only with the commitment to connect with Washington, DC policymakers on their own turf. McKenna manages about four trips per year to DC. Counting other RAF representatives’ trips, he says the tally is over one hundred visits to meet face-to-face with Congressmen, relevant cabinet members, and staff. He often cites the adage, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

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Success Stories by State

AK Campaign to preserve USFS wilderness cabins accessible by air on the Tongass National Forest; work party at May Creek.

AR Completion of pavilion at Trigger Gap; continued improvements there and at Richland Creek, with Fly Oz.

CA Cooperation with owners to retain and improve Las Trancas airstrip on Pacific Coast.

CT Camping improvements at forest-lined Waterbury, a turf field just 80 miles from NYC; continued support of Goodspeed, after saving it from closure through a grant for the down payment enabling purchase by local airport group.

FL New picnic tables, windsock, markers, and general refreshment of Blackwater and its amenities.

ME Parallel turf airstrip improved in central Maine at Norridgewock.

MA RAF grant for Katama Airfield facility for visitors to gather, picnic, and enjoy direct access to the Atlantic Ocean.

MI Major lengthening project at Two Hearted in Michigan’s UP; continued maintenance at North Fox Island.

MT RAF grant toward mule-driven maintenance at Schafer Meadows, within the Bob Marshall Wilderness; RAF and Montana Pilot Assoc. volunteers refurbished, delivered, and re-assembled a mule-drawn mower for use there; RAF volunteers helped MPA members with maintenance at Meadow Creek, Spotted Bear, and airstrips within the Missouri River Breaks Monument; irrigation was installed at Ryan Field and Ryan barn improved.

NM RAF was the first of 13 parties to sign the New Mexico Airstrip Network MOU renewal, a shared stewardship and advocacy organization; RAF grant provided new tires for Amigo Del Cielo’s surface roller; cooperated with New Mexico Pilots Assoc. on Me-Own Airstrip.

NY Second successful cooperative project between the RAF and Town of Keene at Marcy Field. Trees and brush removed with volunteers from Adirondack Aviators Group, and safety signage was installed.

OR Picnic table and fire ring were installed at Toketee; RAF volunteers helped improve McKenzie Bridge airport, receiving praise from Oregon’s Dep’t of Aviation and USFS; RAF cooperates with the Hells Canyon Recreation Collaborative (HCRC) to protect and improve access to six Hells Canyon airstrips.

TX RAF restored aviation access to riverbeds; a new formal agreement regarding airstrips in Texas State Parks was signed. “This is far more than an agreement to provide volunteers and RAF grant money for projects in Texas,” McKenna said. “The state of Texas is looking to the RAF for expertise and guidance on managing aviation assets in their parks while identifying new opportunities to provide additional recreational access.”

WI Cornucopia, near the Apostle Islands Nat’l Lakeshore, continues to exemplify RAF-Community partnership. A pilot shelter and bicycle shed have been cooperatively built, with donated bicycles. A volunteer has fabricated and provided a turf roller to smooth the airfield seasonally.