How to build your own grass runway
BY GREG LASLO
PICTURE IT: A BRIGHT little taildragger in a nifty little hangar right
outside your back door, ready to go on a whim into that clean
country air. No doubt you have, and all you need to make it happen
is 40 acres and a Maule.
But there’s the dream and there’s the reality. That is to say, if you
want to build your own runway, you’d better like watching grass grow.
This is an endeavor in agriculture as well as aviation.
So to dig into it, we asked three experts—Eric Nelson, Jim Sternat,
and Bob Warner—about the long and short of creating and maintaining
a grass runway. If green acres are where you want to be, their advice
will keep your head firmly grounded and your airplane flying safely.
The least you’ll ask of an airstrip is for it to be flat, dry, and aligned
with prevailing winds; you’d want to consider leveling anything
greater than 2 degrees, and you should have good drainage to avoid
standing water, which isn’t good for airplanes or grass and may
require a crown of 1 to 2-1/2 percent, depending on your soil type.
Worst case, you may want drain tiles in low spots, Eric said.
As for its physical specifications, the bible is the FAA’s Advisory
Circular (AC) 150/5300-13, Airport Design, which lays out the process
in exquisite detail. AC 150/5370-10E, Standards for Specifying
Construction of Airports, and the Texas Department of
Transportation’s guide, Farm and Ranch Airstrips: How to Build Your
Own Airstrip, will complement your reading. Your pilot’s operating
handbook will come in handy, too, particularly to determine how
much room you need; consider your requirements for a takeoff and
abort on the hottest of days, at gross weight, on a slick turf, factoring
in your airport altitude and runway grade. The FAA suggests adding a
run-out area on both ends and ensuring your approach and departure
paths are clear of trees, hills, and other obstructions—think “50-foot obstacle.” As for width, that’s
a minimum of 75 feet, and greater if you’ve cleared
the strip from a wooded area.
To make it official, complete any state paperwork
and register the airstrip with the FAA with Form
7480-1, which details the location of your airport,
and its two required supplements: a landing-area
sketch and a photocopy of a 7.5-minute USGS topographic map that depicts the runway’s orientation
and local obstructions. These identify whether
you’ll be a hazard to anyone else’s navigation, which
can affect your operations.
CONSIDER THE COMMUNITY
Speaking of hazards, you should consider the idio-syncrasies of your local community, Bob said. You’ll
want to check local ordinances and procedures so
you’re not surprised by rules and regulations.
Zoning approval, permits, and land-use plans may
be required, and Bob went through six levels of
county and local government beyond the FAA and
state of Wisconsin before his Sky Ranch was
rejected at the last stage.
Consider, too, that landing within some
jurisdictions may not be legal—and if it’s not yet
illegal, it might be soon enough if neighbors get
riled up over your airplane buzzing their house,
scaring their livestock, or disrupting their family
get-togethers. To wit, a pilot in Maryland is stuck in