By Donald Wittkowski
Todd Dwyer showed off a cellphone photo of a father and son who arrived in Ocean City on Wednesday morning carrying their golf clubs.
What’s so unusual about that, you might ask.
They weren’t getting out of their car, or SUV, or truck or even a limo.
They had arrived in their Cessna. Yes, their plane.
Ocean City has the distinction of having the only airport in New Jersey located next door to a golf course and only a few blocks from the beach. This time of year, it’s common to see pilots and their families get off their planes toting their beach chairs and umbrellas.
“You can fly in, get a hamburger, hit the beach or play some golf and be home before it’s dark,” said Dwyer, the airport manager. “If you have a plane, it’s probably more cost effective to fly here than drive.”
Quiet for most of the year, the airport comes alive in the summer with vacationers flying into town. Last summer, one of the visitors was pop superstar Taylor Swift, who reportedly landed in her private jet and was whisked away in a limo for dinner in Cape May.
Built in 1935, the airport’s claim to fame is that it is the only one in New Jersey located on a barrier island, giving tourist-dependent Ocean City another way to draw visitors to the beach resort.
“We are the premier and only airport on a barrier island in New Jersey,” Dwyer said. “We’re walking distance to the beach. We have pilots who keep bicycles here to ride to the beach.”
This year, the airport installed a new vinyl shower to allow pilots to wash off the sand after returning from the beach. The shower is just one in a series of cosmetic upgrades to the airport building to make it more attractive to visitors.
Next, the airport plans to open a self-service fuel facility by the end of summer or early fall, enabling pilots to conveniently gas up and go.
A far more ambitious facelift for the airport is expected to unfold within the next two years. Mayor Jay Gillian’s five-year capital plan, approved by City Council on Feb. 8, proposes spending $2.3 million in 2020 to replace the tiny airport building on Bay Avenue that currently doubles as the airport’s operations center and a quaint diner.
“It shows that the city is really concerned about the aviation community,” Dwyer said of the proposed improvement plan. “The airport is a prized gem. Not many places can say they have an airport on a barrier island. Ocean City recognizes the importance of that.”
Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, told Council during a presentation on the capital plan in February that the new airport building would house the operations center, the diner and a pro shop for the municipal golf course next door.
The capital plan is considered a sweeping blueprint for city projects that may be built in the future. Although it proposes spending $2.3 million for the airport in 2020, the money is not committed for the project and would have to be approved by Council later on.
More immediately, the capital plan calls for spending about $135,000 in 2018 for improvements to the airport’s fuel facilities.
Overall, the airport handles about 1,400 planes each year, with about 80 percent of the traffic arriving in the summer. Despite some slippage in the general aviation industry overall, Ocean City’s traffic has been getting a boost in recent years, Dwyer said.
“We have a strong aviation community here,” he said. “They want nothing else but for the airport to thrive. That’s great.”
The 3,000-foot-long runway can accommodate corporate jets, although most of the aircraft are small single-engine or double-engine planes. The bayfront airport also serves as the headquarters for Ocean City’s annual air festival and airshow in September, two events that draw thousands of spectators.
Dwyer said the majority of the airport traffic comes from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. Occasionally, a plane will fly in from as far away as Ohio.
Pilot Charles Johnson and his wife, Virginia, who live in Ligonier, Pa., have flown to Ocean City several times for beach trips. They have a single-engine Beechcraft Sundowner.
“We’ve been coming to Ocean City since I was a little kid,” Charles Johnson, 58, recalled of his summer vacations with his parents. “When I got my plane, one of my bucket list items was to fly here.”
Johnson remembered, as a child, how he would marvel at the planes when he and his parents would drive by the airport. Now, as a pilot, he enjoys the convenience of flying to an airport close to the beach.
“Yes, we fly here sometimes just for the beach,” Virginia Johnson said.
In addition to selling fuel, the airport makes money by renting hangar space and charging a tie-down fee for planes. The tie-down fee, essentially a parking charge, is just $12 per day. The modest fee is another way the airport tries to make itself attractive to visitors.
“I don’t know of any other place in the area where you can park for only $12 a day,” Dwyer said. “We’ll even waive that fee if you eat at the airport diner.”