OCEAN CITY, N.J. - For a place whose operations desk is accessed at the rear of a diner through a door marked "Restrooms," there's a definite air of smugness around the Ocean City Municipal Airport.
"Flying in here, looking at all those red brake lights on the Atlantic City Expressway, it's just such a joy," says Jeffrey Carpenter, chief of surgery at Cooper University Hospital, minutes after landing his Beechcraft Bonanza, model G36, at the little airport at 26th and Bay Avenue last Saturday.
After a slight pause to let that sink in, Carpenter laughs out loud. At you, the shoobies routinely stuck in traffic around Exit 7. It takes him 13 minutes from the airport in Mount Holly.
Shoobies like Carpenter, 55, of Moorestown, are single-engine shoobies (except the one guy who flies in weekends in his twin-engine Cessna jet, 14 minutes from Northeast Philadelphia Airport).
Landing at the only airport left within walking distance of a beach in New Jersey (Bader Field in Atlantic City, now closed, was the other), they make coming down the Shore look rather . . . efficient.
Some never leave the airport, flying in for a meal at the cozy Airport Diner and flying back home.
One legendary pilot, Tom Krisanda, head of the ER at Franklin Square Medical Center in Baltimore, flies in just to pick up a few pizzas from Manco & Manco's (formerly Mack & Manco's).
He does this about 20 times a year, his wife, Carol, said.
"He grew up in Trenton," she said. "He figures there's no better pizza than Jersey pizza."
Krisanda calls ahead, flies in with a special pizza delivery bag, has the delivery guys meet him at the airport, and flies the pizza back home, about 35 minutes each way. He either gets them half-baked to finish at home, Carol Krisanda said, or fully baked to drop a few at the hospital.
And then there are the Lairds, Bud, 67, and Carol, 66. One recent week, they flew in three times from West Goshen Township's Brandywine Airport just to spend the day at the 25th Street beach perfecting their expansive tans.
Each time, they loaded their beach chairs, coolers, and towels into the backseat of their four-seater Cessna 172K Skyhawk, flew down, paid the $12-a-day fee to park, and walked to the beach, pushing their rickety plastic beach cart packed with lunch and their day's supplies.
"I hate driving and I love flying," Bud Laird said. His trip can take 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the winds.
Flying home one day recently took 41 minutes.
"I don't think I even know how to drive down here," he said.
The main concession they make to packing a plane rather than a car for the beach is a sock on each end of the umbrella to guard against any mishaps through the glass.
Ocean City used to have a couple of showers for use by pilots and passengers, but they're out of service this season. Instead, there's a hose around the back of the diner/operations building.
Laird has one firm rule:
"No sand in the plane. That's my baby."
Behind the operations counter much of the time is John Judge, who takes parking fees, pumps fuel, and clears the 2,977-foot runway and parking lot of snow. (The jet is a bit tight for the length but "flies light" fuel wise.)
The municipal airport, an uncontrolled air field with no control towers, was built during the Great Depression with $100,400 in federal Civil Works Administration money that paid for 400 workers. It is also home to a golf course, and if you're just flying in to play a round, the parking fee is waived, Judge said. It's also waived if all you're doing is flying in to have two eggs over easy or lunch (pilots call it the "hundred-dollar hamburger" in deference to fuel and other costs) at the diner that fronts the airport.
"We don't have a landing fee," Judge said. The $12 for 24 hours to park if you leave the field is cheaper than some car lots near the beach in summer. And if you fly in after hours (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), it's basically the honor system. Pilots can also rent a monthly fee for $100, and locals rent out parts of hangars on the property to store their planes and, well, stuff. A summer weekend with favorable weather could see around 60 planes flying in.
"This is my country club," says Frank Rapp, 93, of Ocean City, a retired World War II naval aviator who stores his Piper Cherokee 140 and his bicycle in one of the airport's hangars. On this day he's at the airport just to take a spin around the place on the bicycle. Safer than the streets this time of year, he says.
"I can't play golf anymore, too hard," he says. "I just come over here and putz around."
Because Ocean City is an uncontrolled airport, there is no problem riding around on his bicycle. The only security is a code to buzz through the fence if you don't want to go through the diner, or it's closed. No flight plans required; a little advance notice over radio is common courtesy. A log-in book to sign in and out.
The walk to the beach takes you around the wildlife preserve, though pilot John Simmermon said he recalled "walking through the poison ivy forest" to get to the beach from the airport in his youth.
Rapp says he and Ocean City pilot Leon Grisbaum, 86, regularly fly one of their planes to another airport, say Woodbine, or Pennsylvania, or even Maryland, for breakfast, and fly back. They need flight hours and, he says, "It's a plan for the day."
"We have a routine," Rapp says, then jokes, "He's a pain. He falls asleep."
Rapp says there's always pressure on the Ocean City government to sell the airport, make way for bayfront condos, but FAA funds have prevented that for now.
"I hope they never take it away," says Carpenter, the Cooper surgeon. "Every year we hear chatter that they're going to do something else, there's always an assault on it every year."
Corey Ruth, a Philadelphia orthopedic surgeon, flew down for the weekend recently but had a copilot fly the plane back so it would be protected from the salt air's pounding. The pilot met him back that Monday for the flight home and back to work.
"I have a place in Margate," Ruth said, clad in shorts and Docksiders, ready for the flight home to the Wings Airfield in Blue Bell. "I fly down on the weekends. I do it for fun."
His wife and kids usually drive down.