When The “RAF” Doesn’t Mean The Royal Air Force!

by Jim Bildilli

The 81st annual meeting of the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) was held in Salt Lake City, Utah, and there was one presentation that especially captured the audience’s attention on a subject that doesn’t usually come up in flying circles – back-country airstrips!

The Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) is making efforts to not only keep them open, but to expand their numbers on a national basis.

John McKenna is president of RAF. He sells insurance for a livelihood, but like most of us, he wears at least one more hat. Assisting McKenna with the presentation were Utah state liaisons, Wayne Loeber and Steve Dortschi.

The RAF was started by a bunch of pilots from Montana sitting around a campfire, wondering about the fate of back-country airstrips. Together, they began a grassroots effort to ensure that these facilities would be available to future generations of pilots.

That original group sitting around the campfire has grown to over 4500 members representing not only the U.S., but 12 foreign countries. The non-profit organization has garnered support from the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association, Experimental Aircraft Association, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, National Business Aviation Association, and a host of other aviation groups to assist them in meeting their goal of preserving and creating new public-use, recreational-use airstrips. In addition, the RAF is using their charitable contributions to acquire private lands for airstrip development, producing educational materials to assist pilots in becoming knowledgeable advocates, educating members of state and federal governmental agencies about the value of recreational airstrips, and assisting with the development of new airstrips on public lands.

To meet those goals, the RAF has developed a network of 27 volunteer state liaisons who work with state pilot organizations and governmental agencies. In addition to their role as advocates of recreational landing strips, they work closely with state aviation offices and legislative representatives to amend existing rules and regulations that may prohibit the establishment of recreational landing areas. So far, 15 states have amended their statutes, rules or regulations to allow the use of private or otherwise restricted airstrips by the public and limit liability for such use. In some instances, it merely meant adding the words “aircraft operations” to an existing recreational-use statute that already allows for other recreational pursuits, including the use of recreational vehicles (RVs), boats, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), and utility terrain vehicles (UTVs). In all cases, the change only applies to non-commercial use of an aircraft.

According to McKenna, some state trial lawyers have raised concerns about additional protection provisions, but he points out that the RAF has found methods to address those concerns. Because the RAF’s early work started in the west, several of the recreational landing areas are on land owned or controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS). To date, there have been no lawsuits filed against either agencies or private landowners.

In many instances, the establishment of a new remote landing area has actually enhanced access to an individual’s property for emergency use and land management. But getting legislative changes has not always been easy.

For the State of Virginia, it took three tries to get a recreational-use statute through the legislature and adopted, even though there was support from the aviation community and the state aviation department. Currently, the following states have passed a landowner protection statute or rule: Arizona, Maine, Montana, Pennsylvania, Utah, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, South Dakota, Minnesota, New Mexico, Tennessee, Washington, Virginia and Kansas.

Here in the Midwest, both Minnesota and South Dakota have changed their statutes, while efforts are currently underway in North Dakota and Michigan. Several years ago, Illinois, and a few other Midwestern states, had open-to-the-public landing strips in several of their state parks. However, most have been closed due to the lack of funding for maintenance and the concern over potential lawsuits.

As with most non-profit organizations, fundraising is always a challenge. While donations provide a substantial portion of the funds, the RAF has embarked on a new project to supplement those donations.

Based on the idea of a campfire being a central gathering place to share the day’s events and plan tomorrow’s activities, the RAF is constructing “Fire Hubs Across The Country.” A corporate sponsor initially funds each hub. Twelve hundred (1200) bricks surround each hub and are sold and engraved with an individual’s personalized message. The RAF’s goal is to construct 50 fire hubs over the next few years. AOPA was the first corporate sponsor of a fire hub, which was unveiled at Sun ‘n Fun in March 2012.

To learn more about the Recreational Aviation Foundation, their mission, contacts and activities, visit their website at www.raf.org and take a look at a recent video they produced about the organization. The scenery is fantastic!

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