by Carmine Mowbray, RAF Publicity Liaison
Updates From The Recreational Aviation Foundation
The Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) was formed in 2003 when a group of western pilots in the backcountry of Montana realized airstrips were being abandoned and in jeopardy of permanent closure. The group decided that this incredible aviation experience needed protection. The RAF mission soon evolved, “to preserve, maintain, and create airstrips for recreational access” . . . so pilots can enjoy these spectacular places. And enjoyment of these remote locations comes with a responsibility to preserve airstrips and, where possible, add to them.
Since its founding as a 501(c)3 donor organization 17 years ago, the organization has gained supporters in all 50 states and some foreign countries, and now has nearly 10,000 followers. The mission is carried out with one paid Volunteer Coordinator, based in Bozeman, Montana, and a volunteer cadre of fifty state liaisons and dozens of RAF ambassadors.
“Thanks to our thousands of concerned donors, the RAF has championed causes and efforts that have led to some good things in recreational aviation all across this country,” RAF co-founder and board chairman John McKenna said.
The RAF uses “backcountry” as more than a term describing geographic characteristics. To the RAF, backcountry describes a style of flying in a variety of landscapes and locales that offer new adventures and experiences.
A large part of the RAF success story depends on partnerships the RAF has built with AOPA, state pilot organizations, EAA chapters, type-clubs and state aeronautics departments. RAF liaisons engage with these stakeholders for best ways to enhance local recreational aviation opportunities and preserve access to them.
Recreational airfields are located on both public and private lands. The RAF maintains close relationships with public lands managers, starting at the top level with the US Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service. In response to the elevated awareness of the importance of airstrips, Congress has repeatedly budgeted $750,000 toward airstrip maintenance on US Forest Service lands. The RAF now functions under a renewable Memorandum of Understanding that codifies volunteer participation in maintenance on these public lands. “We spent a fair bit of time in Washington, D.C. building the relationship that led to these agreements,” McKenna said. “Then, we partner with state and local pilot associations, and flying clubs to do the ‘boots on the ground’ work” he added. “You’re just as likely to find one of our volunteers wearing a suit and tie in Washington, D.C. advocating to protect these airstrips, as you are to find them in their work clothes, digging a fence post hole, or clearing brush,” he pointed out.
“We are especially proud of the creation of Russian Flat on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in central Montana, the first new airstrip on US Forest Service land in 45 years,” McKenna said. Built in cooperation with the Montana Pilots Association, it was dedicated in August of 2011. Judith District Ranger Ron Wiseman said, “From the very beginning of this project, it has gone as well as I could have envisioned. We appreciate the high level of cooperation from all different aspects of the pilots. The volunteers respected our requests for low-impact access, and minimal disturbance to the land.”
On private lands, RAF state liaisons connect with owners of private airfields, and offer guidance on liability issues, FAA charting, improvements and work parties. The RAF has built up a grant fund, and disburses monies for projects that fit the RAF mission. Since the RAF runs on volunteers, “we turn donations into deliverables,” Administrative Director Tricia McKenna says. Recent accomplishments include new pilot shelters at Wisconsin’s Cornucopia and Colorado’s Del Norte airports; and campground improvements at Minnesota’s Bowstring airport and Montana’s West Yellowstone. Upgrades such as shower facilities, vault toilets, WiFi and weather stations have been installed; and grants go toward ongoing maintenance for airfield safety improvements like encroaching brush and tree removal at Michigan’s North Fox Island. When budgets shrink from federal, county, and municipal sources, the RAF is able to provide resources toward recreational improvements. See theRAF.org for details.
A popular project is the Airfield.Guide, created in response to requests for a comprehensive listing of recreational places to fly. It’s free to use, and lists physical characteristics, safety briefings, and amenities. Created in cooperation between the RAF and Tailwind Aviation Foundation, all of the work is provided by volunteers. RAF state liaisons send in appropriate airfields for consideration. Once the information is verified, the location is added. As of this writing, the site included airfields in all 50 states – 232 so far – and more airfields are being added all the time. Visit Airfield.Guide to register. Once you’ve created a user email, you receive updates of the new fields as they are added.
The RAF has joined forces with AOPA and local stakeholders to reverse threatened airfield closures, by pointing out the economic impact and benefits of recreational aviation; and by putting “skin in the game” with committed volunteers to assist in improvements and maintenance responsibilities.
The organization has really hit its power band, with the development of continuing education for RAF volunteers at regional gatherings, and bi-annual national conferences. Liaisons and Ambassadors are geared up to staff aviation events, organize work parties, advise land owners and managers, and monitor their state legislatures on aviation-advocacy issues.
As the organization matures, the nine-member Board of Directors places emphasis on working smarter using the lessons learned over the past sixteen years to boost volunteers’ effectiveness.
“In short, we continue to seek new opportunities, and keep our backcountry voice heard nationwide,” McKenna said. “We are committed to keeping backcountry a thriving part of aviation.”
To learn more and get involved in the RAF, visit their website.
Images courtesy of @WyomingAviatrix; Heidi Stoeppler and the RAF.