Airfield struggled since 9/11
Editor's note: This story was updated February 24 to correct an inaccurate description of a business. AOPA regrets the error.
Washington Executive Airport, also known as Hyde Field, never really recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The final day for aircraft owners and businesses to clear out was November 30, under a bankruptcy court ruling.
The exodus followed two decades of uncertainty about the future of the airport, one of the Maryland Three where special security procedures have been in place since 2002. In early 2020, airport owners filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, after which it was clear to the Hyde Field community that a sale or closure of the airport was imminent.
The closure of Hyde Field leaves two general aviation airports in the Washington, D.C., flight restricted zone (FRZ): Potomac Airfield and College Park Airport. The proximity of these airports to the capital requires pilots to complete the Washington D.C. Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA) course; apply for a personal identification number; and obtain a background check and provide fingerprints to a Maryland Three airport security representative.
The complicated arrival procedures at these airports deter many pilots from attempting to enter the FRZ for fear of violating the SFRA/FRZ boundaries, resulting in financial challenges brought on by lack of traffic.
The toll this has taken on Hyde Field is evident. Empty hangars are covered with overgrown foliage, and the airport's only runway, 5/23, is a discouraging sight with grass poking through the pavement.
Final word from the bankruptcy lawyer arrived in October that all tenants must vacate the premises within 30 days. The property was expected to sell for around $7.5 million as of mid-November, with plans to use the land for mixed-use redevelopment.
"I'm sad to see it happen," said Airport Manager Stan Fetter regarding the announcement. "In a lot of ways it's a waste of a public resource. The place is 15 minutes from MGM National Harbor, it's 10 minutes from [Joint Base] Andrews. Unless it's rush hour, you can be on Capitol Hill in 25 minutes."
Fetter also highlighted the loss of the airfield as an emergency response base. "You're losing a resource. I mean, there's a lot of stuff that goes away and people don't realize it," he said.
However, there is a reluctant relief that seems to accompany the sorrow. "We've been going through this a long time," Fetter said. "The good news is, if you want to call it that, is we have an actual wind up and end date."
Despite the yearslong buildup to a potential closure, tenants were caught off-guard by the news they had a month to clear out.
Clinton Aero Maintenance, Hyde Field's only maintenance shop, has been owned by Dan Fragassi since 1978.
As the November 30 closure date set by the bankruptcy court approached, Fragassi was working with just one other contractor to try and wrap up the projects in the shop. "I've got three [aircraft] that I can finish in pretty short order," Fragassi said. "The other two, they're going to have to be disassembled and moved."
After 40-plus years as the go-to shop on Hyde Field, Clinton Aero Maintenance has accumulated a significant volume of tools, machinery, and aircraft parts, all of which will need to be relocated—a near-impossible task to complete in 30 days according to Fragassi.
Fragassi's unique position as the only shop on the field has granted him some lenience from the new owners, who promised to work with him to make arrangements for the move, though it was not immediately clear what that would mean.
Perhaps the biggest concern surrounding the closure, especially with such short notice, was the fate of the aircraft based at the field. At the time of the announcement, around 30 aircraft were stored on the field, and owners were left with little time to evacuate—some with decades of accumulated property—and find tiedowns or join a waiting list for a hangar amid an ongoing, nationwide shortage of space.
Tiedowns were available at neighboring Virginia and Maryland airports, but aircraft owners interested in hangar space would need to seek out options farther away, join a waiting list, or wait for new infrastructure to be built.
One such aircraft owner on the field, Mark Buchner, spoke about the relocation challenges. "For me it wasn't a problem," he said. "I was there 18 years, but…a few people…have been here longer. Some of those hangars out there, you can't move the airplane out because it's packed full of stuff."
Currently, Buchner's aircraft is tied down at a nearby airport, he is having trouble finding a hangar that can shelter his Cessna 150 from the elements, along with storage for his belongings.
He's joined waitlists for hangars at nearby Maryland Airport, Stafford Regional Airport, and Shannon Airport, all of which have indicated their waitlists are at least a year long, while they work to build new hangars.
"Other than that, there's no place else to go," Buchner sighed.
AOPA Eastern Regional Manager Sean Collins echoed the concerns of tenants: "There simply are not enough hangars at other airports to accommodate those who are already in hangars and expected to be displaced," Collins said. "While the loss of Hyde is unfortunate, it highlights and exacerbates the industry's hangar needs as we head into the snow season."