Along the banks of the Connecticut River, hidden behind a dike built to protect the city and surrounding area from the occasional devastating floods caused by the river breaching its banks, is Brainard Airport. KHFD is an unpolished jewel of the general aviation industry.
Since the 1950s the cry has gone up from time to time that the airport should be closed and developed as a mixed-use residential and commercial plat of land. The theory most often put forward proclaims that housing, movie theaters, retail shops, and parks would be a better, more economically beneficial use of the property.
This is an almost inexcusably myopic view of how real estate development works in the real world. It completely misses the value of having direct access to Connecticut’s capital city by air.
It also ignores the reality that productive, economically beneficial development of the land does not preclude its use as an airport — a use that has been in place since the airport’s founding in 1921, long before those who clamor for shuttering this proud facility owned homes and businesses in the neighboring communities.
The airport has been around a long time, as evidenced by this vintage post card estimated to be from the 1930s. (Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection).
In the interest of full disclosure, it is worth mentioning that I am a pilot, an aircraft mechanic, a writer, and a full-time You Can Fly Ambassador for the AOPA Foundation. My career owes a specific debt to Brainard Airport, the air traffic controllers, flight instructors, mechanics, and administrators who make the facility run.
My initial flight training was done at Brainard more than 33 years ago. On Oct. 26, 1988, I flew solo for the first time from Runway 2 at Brainard Airport. My flight instructor was a young man named Keir Johnson.
It’s worth knowing that my experience was not an aberration. I am not an outlier.
What is often missed when calculating the value of a facility like Brainard Airport is its educational and vocational worth. Its profound capacity to create opportunity for individuals young and old, from all walks of life, who choose to involve themselves in aviation as a hobby or a career, is undeniable.
This is where development efforts would have their most impactful result. Should the city of Hartford, the Connecticut Airport Authority, the Hartford School District, and private industry find a way to work collaboratively, the potential economic impact of Brainard Airport would skyrocket. Not just for the property owners, the tax collectors, and the business interests, but for the thousands upon thousands of individuals whose lives could be reinvigorated by the potential this airport could offer.
Rest assured this is no pie in the sky dreaming from an aviation enthusiast. This is a verifiable fact. Communities all over the United States have seen the light, developed educational facilities on or adjacent to airports, and reaped the benefits.
Aviation High School in Long Island City, New York, is a prime example. As is the Central Florida Aerospace Academy in Lakeland, Florida. Both prepare their students for college and careers in a growing, high-paying field that has international reach.
Lakeland Linder International Airport is perhaps most nearly aligned with the issue vexing Hartford and those who wish to close the airport. Prior to the establishment of the aviation high school on the field, more than 100,000 square feet of hangar and office space was vacant. The airport had little connection to the community as a whole. In a corner of the world that was agricultural in nature, where income was well below the national average, the outlook was bleak.
A decade later Lakeland’s airport hosts a high school, a state college, five economically viable flight schools, two hotels, and a plethora of independent businesses that thrive not in spite of the decision to include educational institutions on the field, but because of it.
Economically beneficial development of a property does not require us to throw out the old in order to replace it with the new. Rather, it behooves us to look at the potential of using the land as it is currently being used, but in a more productive, effective, and far-reaching manner.
Get creative. Look to other communities that have effectively developed their languishing airports into hubs of activity and commerce with educational programs that enrich the local populace.
Ironically, in 1921, the same year Brainard Field came into being, another Connecticut city was on the ropes. Whaling as an industry came to an end in Mystic in that same year. With their bread and butter industry coming to a halt, Mystic took the long-term approach of re-envisioning its potential. Through that process this historic town established itself as one of the most alluring tourist attractions on the East coast.
They reinvented their seaport to be viable as a 20th and 21st Century tourist attraction, rather than as a 19th Century whaling village.
Hartford could do much the same thing by recognizing the tremendous value they possess in the form of Brainard Airport — an advantage their neighboring cities and towns simply don’t have and can’t affordably replicate.
Beyond the educational benefits of such a shift, the career opportunities it would present, and the convenience of having a thriving airport located in the Capital city, there is the undeniable economic benefit of revamping the airport into a more modern version of itself.
Professional flight training can easily run into the $100,000 range for each participant. The bulk of those flight students will come from elsewhere, bringing large volumes of out-of-town dollars to Hartford. For not only do they pay for flight training, they also rent apartments, buy clothes, eat in restaurants, avail themselves of entertainment, and buy cars.
There is a gold mine sitting beside the Connecticut River in Hartford. The question is, will those with the authority and responsibility to operate the facility in the best interest of the community, truly choose to do so?
One can only hope, they will.
Jamie Beckett is a former Glastonbury resident and the AOPA Foundation You Can Fly Ambassador in Florida.