Building A Backyard Airstrip

by Hal Davis
WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics

How many landing facilities would you guess there are in Wisconsin? If you guessed “a lot,” you would be right! In all, Wisconsin has well over 700 separate landing facilities, and more than half of those are private-use airstrips.

Many pilots, including me, dream of being able to walk out my back door and take to the skies from my own private airstrip. While I may be a long way from realizing this dream, many pilots in our state already have. Aside from the means of flight and an adequate piece of real estate, all it takes is a phone call to the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics (BOA) to get the approval process rolling.

There are two separate, but related, approval processes that must be completed in order to establish a private airport in Wisconsin. Fortunately, BOA is a “one-stop-shop” for all your airstrip approval needs. On the federal level, FAR Part 157 establishes standards and notification requirements for anyone proposing to construct, alter, or deactivate an airport. Similarly, Chapter 114.134 of the Wisconsin state statutes establishes a statewide approval requirement for all new airports.

At this point you might be asking yourself, “What constitutes an airport?”

In Wisconsin, an airport is any area of land or water which is used, or intended for use, for the landing and takeoff of aircraft. In other words, any area used for takeoff or landing is an airport regardless of its size, location or type of aircraft. That means all private airstrips are considered airports and, consequently, must be approved.

An alternative perspective is that anyone who takes off or lands an aircraft in Wisconsin is required to do so from an approved airport as the mere action of using a site for landing or takeoff establishes it as an airport under Wisconsin law.

Wisconsin State Statute Chapter 114.134 prohibits the establishment of new airports without a certificate of approval for the location, thereby prohibiting anyone from operating an aircraft at an unapproved airstrip, helipad, etc. While FAR Part 157 accounts for temporary landing facilities, it’s important to note that Wisconsin law makes no such distinction.

Before contacting BOA to start the approval process, it goes without saying that you should probably make sure your property is suitable for an airstrip. Depending on the size and shape of your property, you may only have one or two options for locating the runway. Runway dimensions will depend on your aircraft’s performance. Neither the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) nor BOA publish standards for runway dimensions; however, in Wisconsin, other airport standards do exist. Specifically, your runway threshold must be a minimum distance from public roads and railroads. For a more detailed discussion of these standards, reference the Wisconsin Airport Standards document available on our web site or available through the mail upon request. Finally, in addition to runway dimensions, be sure to take into consideration other factors like prevailing winds and terrain when planning your runway.

At this point, you will also need to decide if your airstrip will be made available to other pilots. In Wisconsin, you can designate an airport as “personal” meaning only you will use the airstrip; “private” meaning other pilots will be able to use the airstrip with your permission, or “public” meaning anyone can use the airstrip. How you designate your airport may affect safety standards, publication on charts, insurance and compliance with local ordinances.

Once you have chosen the location for your new airstrip, it’s time to begin the paperwork. The good news is that both the federal and state processes are free, and once the approval process is complete, neither BOA nor FAA will ever come out to inspect your airstrip unless the general public is involved somehow.

We strongly recommend contacting BOA prior to beginning the paperwork, but the required forms are also available on our web site. They include the Wisconsin Application for Site Approval and FAA Form 7480-1: Notice of Proposed Landing Area. You may notice the two forms ask for similar information. Fortunately, free mapping web sites have made obtaining information like geographic coordinates and distances much easier in recent years.

As part of the Wisconsin site approval application, you will be asked to provide a U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) quadrangle map depicting the outline of each runway. To help, BOA will send you a copy of the appropriate USGS quadrangle map upon request.

After completing the two forms, send them both to our office. We will forward FAA Form 7480-1 to the FAA for analysis. On our end, BOA will ensure your airstrip meets state standards. If it does, your proposal will be sent to your county, municipality and any existing airport owner within 10 NM of your airport site for comment. We suggest contacting your county and local municipal government for applicable ordinances, laws or regulations concerning your proposal early on in this process. Local ordinances vary greatly, and this oftentimes can be your greatest hurdle in the establishment of your airport.

For example, some airstrips may require zoning adjustments, conditional-use permits or other stipulated conditions concerning the operation of your airport in order to be approved locally. BOA is willing to help resolve problems encountered with local zoning offices if needed. Often the issuance of these permits will depend on your neighbors and whether or not they object to your proposed airstrip. It may be a good idea to meet individually with each neighbor, brief them on your intentions, and address any concerns prior to applying for a permit with the local zoning authority.

Final state approval for your airstrip is contingent on a favorable FAA determination in addition to the resolution of all local concerns regarding your proposal. Once those conditions are met, BOA will issue you a certificate of approval for your airstrip. The process takes a minimum of two months to complete.

For more information and links to Wisconsin Airport Standards, Application for Site Approval, and FAA Form 7480-1: Notice of Proposed Landing Area, visit: www.dot.wisconsin.gov/travel/air/airport-ops.htm

For questions, or to begin the approval process, contact Mark Pfundheller at 608-267-5272 or Mark.Pfundheller@dot.wi.gov.

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