How to Build Your Own Grass Strip

Here’s what it takes to turn your aviation vision into reality.

I

f you’ve ever fantasized about your own private airfield in the backyard, here are a few things to consider about making the grass strip of your dreams a reality. As an aviation marketing professional, I’ve had the good fortune to work for some of the finest aerospace companies in the world. Which means I’ve also had the great privilege of living all over these United States. From Savannah, Georgia, to Bend, Oregon, and Duluth, Minnesota, to Kerrville, Texas, east to west, north to south, I’ve moved my tools, pool table and the balance of our household belongings over a considerable amount of North American terra firma. With the prospect of each move, a familiar daydream popped into my head: “Will this finally be my chance to live with my airplane at a private airfield?” The fantasy always began the same. Pull out a VFR sectional (or most recently, ForeFlight on my iPad) and explore existing private airfields and residential airparks in the area — the ones with the familiar capital “R” inside the magenta circle that you’re never quite sure if you’re welcome to visit or not. Then I’d open my laptop and search airport communities within a reasonable commute to my new job. Fortunately, working for aircraft OEMs always meant that my employer was based on an airport, thereby making the commute from grass strip to work an easy proposition. Unfortunately, the process always ended the same (which I’m told is the definition of insanity): continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results. Perhaps a wiser course of action would be to explore buying property to build a house and my own grass strip. After all, the private strips dotting the sectionals today were built by ambitious individuals who defied admonitions from a spouse and other family members and ignored the snicker of neighbors. And who knows, perhaps the culmination of building a grass strip would unfold like the plot theme from the movie Field of Dreams. I certainly wouldn’t expect “Shoeless” Joe Jackson to come walking out of a cornfield with baseball glove in hand, but a visit from the apparition of Glenn Curtiss would make for quite an interesting hangar tale. Hollywood fiction aside, just what does it take to make a grass strip a reality? And what will the neighbors think — especially those whose property you might need to overfly at treetop level to land?

georgia air strip
Swaid Rahn spent seven years building his grass airport on 18 acres in Georgia.Swaid Rahn

In the Zone

While you might surmise that a reasonable first step is to consult the FAR-AIM for regulations governing the development of a new airport, the FAA won’t be the chief concern. Granted, at some point you’ll need to consult FAR 157.3 and submit the requisite paperwork, but we’ll get to that later.

Actually, the place to begin the odyssey is with local municipalities to explore zoning issues. Search for any applicable zoning ordinances governing land use, noise statutes, overflight, environmental impact and a host of other items dreamed up by local lawmakers that may adversely affect your ability to build a landing zone on your own property. While researching local ordinances — quietly, so as not to set off any premature alarm bells — it might even behoove you to investigate circumstances surrounding other types of variances issued within the same municipality. If for some reason a zoning commission was willing to bend, tweak or otherwise turn a blind eye to zoning code in a prior case for one resident, that precedent might benefit you should there be opposition to your plan.

Now would be a good time to mention that you’ll also want to engage the services of a qualified aviation attorney to help establish both a clearance easement and an avigation easement.

Once you've cleared the first hurdle of obtaining local permission to use your existing or desired land for the purpose of aircraft operations, contact your state's department of transportation aeronautical division to discern what resources and requirements exist at the state level. While you are unlikely to discover any state funding available for private-use airports to help offset your costs, there is always a possibility that certain modifications (perhaps runway length or type) or concessions (such as granting public access) in your development plan might make your airport eligible for funding. And without a doubt, the state will have some form of paperwork to complete, so the earlier you get in touch with the state the better. Consult the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association website for a listing of states' and territories' aeronautical agencies, with web links and key contact information. For more information, visit AOPA.

Rules and Regs

The federal regulations that govern the construction of an airfield are found under FAR Part 157 and include FAA Forms 7480-1, Notice for Construction, Alteration and Deactivation of Airports.

Technically, you need not inform the FAA what you’re doing on your own land, providing the airspace above is not Class B, Class C or Class D to the surface and the property in question is not inside the 30-mile radius of a Class B primary airport. However, in this case, the FAA can be your friend (insert your chuckle here), meaning that if you do decide to build a grass strip and complete the requisite forms notifying the FAA of your intentions, the agency will help prevent surrounding property owners from building structures or the local cellular provider from erecting a 200-foot tower with guy-wires that might interfere with your takeoff and landing corridors.

Now would be a good time to mention that you’ll also want to engage the services of a qualified aviation attorney to help establish both a clearance easement and an avigation easement. The clearance easement will limit the height of nearby structures and may require vegetation and natural growth to remain trimmed to a prescribed height by adjacent property owners. The avigation easement permits free flights over the adjoining land — where the neighbors live — especially at low altitude for takeoff and landing. There are no hard and fast guidelines governing when and how to successfully butter up your neighbors, so use your best judgment and apply butter liberally. Start the buttering process well in advance of hatching your plan, and repeat as necessary.

Land Grab

So how much acreage is actually needed to build a grass strip? Naturally, the answer to that question hinges on what you plan on flying. Some aircraft require a longer takeoff roll to reach rotation speed. Other aircraft require a longer landing roll due to higher stall and landing speeds. In every case, grass wet from rain or dew will increase landing distance by as much as 30 percent. Obstacle clearance for takeoff and landing also comes into play. And with all things aviation-related, you’ll also want to build yourself a comfortable safety margin.

For the sake of illustration, below is a table showing takeoff and landing distances of some randomly selected popular aircraft.

grass air strip
Creating your very own grass landing strip takes planning and perseverance.Flying

This information is for basic illustration purposes only. Unless you already own enough land to recover a space shuttle, there are dozens of natural and human factors that need to be considered and carefully calculated when determining the optimal minimum length of a grass strip and the land required to build on. For example, fixed and variable items like actual sea level altitude and potential worst-case density altitudes must be considered. Are there permanent obstacles in the approach and landing corridors? How does a runway slope affect operations in one direction versus the other? How will local weather patterns potentially affect runway surface conditions at different times of the day and year? How are your short-field takeoff and landing skills? How precisely do you manage airspeed and momentum? Can you hit a specific landing spot consistently at the target airspeed and get stopped in short order? Do you know how much longer a takeoff roll is at max gross weight versus when you’re flying solo? How is your feel for braking on wet grass? What is the balanced field length? Where will you likely end up if you lose the engine on takeoff and need to land straight ahead?

All of the above and more will be part of determining the amount of linear space you need for your grass strip. Sadly, most parcels of property are not long narrow tracts that resemble runways. But once you have a feel for the requirements needed for your aircraft, skill and the local conditions, you can commence searching for acreage with a linear run that will accommodate your desire.

Green Acres

Acreage is defined in terms of square feet — 43,560, to be exact. For the sake of illustration, we’ll construct an imaginary grass strip using the familiar dimensions of an American football field, which is about 1.3 acres (57,600 square feet, end zone to end zone), with a linear dimension of 360 feet.

Certainly, many a bush pilot can set down and take off in much less space. I’ve even seen extremely talented backcountry pilots land, perform a 180-degree turn and take off again without ever letting the tailwheel touch the ground. But for those pilots among our rank who are mere mortals, a bit of extra space keeps the heart rate, and passengers, relaxed.

The most altruistic reason for putting yourself on the map is of course to aid fellow aviators by providing safe-harbor options in the event of an in-flight emergency.

Proficient pilots of most tube-and-fabric products, the sportiest LSAs and STOL aircraft of any ilk can theoretically get in and out of a 1-acre football field. But even the most rusty pilots among us don’t need a 160-foot-wide runway — the width of an American football field. So if we divide the field into four equal tracks along the length axis, we could convert the surplus width of our proverbial 160-foot-wide football field into length. Then, with the four sections placed end to end, the resulting real estate at one-quarter of the width of the football field (40 feet) is now 1,440 feet long — now we’re getting somewhere. Better still, if we divide our football field into sections 20 feet wide (the width of a normal two-lane road), that creates a runway length of 2,880 feet from the same original 1.3 acres.

So, in theory, if you could carve out a linear parcel of land that is relatively straight and flat (with access to a road), you could create a private grass strip on roughly 1 acre of land. However, you’d quickly realize two things: First, 20 feet times 2,880 feet isn’t a typical or practical configuration for random parcels of land, and second, 20 feet is enough runway width for undercarriage but doesn’t account for wingspan, obstruction clearance and safety margin, so you’ll still need more land around the runway. Twenty feet of clearance on each side of the runway turns the 1-acre runway into a 3-acre parcel with a respectable grass strip measuring 60 feet by 2,880 feet.

georgia air strip
Be sure to hone your soft-field landing skills before completing your project.Swaid Rahn

Cleared to Land

After you’ve cleared the legal hurdles, cleared the land, constructed a safe runway and popped the celebratory bottle of Champagne that has since aged a few more years in the process of building your strip, you’ll want to submit FAA Form 5010-5, Airport Master Record. Since the airport is on private property, you can decide whether you’d like it to appear on the VFR sectional like so many mysterious restricted airfields that dot the maps.

While the use is private, there are various benefits to making the existence of the strip public even if use of the strip remains private. The most altruistic reason for putting yourself on the map is of course to aid fellow aviators by providing safe-harbor options in the event of an in-flight emergency. Perhaps the best part of revealing a private strip to your fellow pilots is conjuring a name and having it printed on sectionals for the aviation world to see. We’ll leave the creative naming convention up to you, but feel free to send Flying a note and tell us what you’d name your private strip and the genesis of the name.

Crowning Achievement

There are, of course, myriad other things to consider about the property you purchase and prep, such as soil stability, grading a crown for drainage, local bird and wildlife activity, prevailing wind direction and more. And if one of your considerations is building a paved runway rather than a grass strip, I’ll just say this: Get a rotary-wing ticket and purchase a helicopter instead; it will be infinitely cheaper, easier and equally fun.

Q&A with a Grass-Strip Builder

Swaid Rahn is the quintessential grass-strip owner, manager and caretaker. Having grown up with flying in his DNA, Rahn is a high-time pilot, air racer, ATP, A&P and runway builder. He has competed and won his class at the Reno Air Races, and even in far-off places like Thailand. He now runs a repair station from his grass strip (2GA2) in Georgia, where he repairs, restores and rebuilds general aviation aircraft.

Never satisfied with the status quo, Rahn spent seven years building an intersecting grass runway to complement the original strip on his ancestral property. Rahn even plans to illuminate the new strip using LED runway lighting.

How much time and money did you invest in your grass strip?

It took me seven years from start to finish, working on the strip when I had the time. It’s difficult to give you a total cost, but consider this: I put 2,000 hours on an excavator. I’ve dug thousands of stumps. We had 600 pines trees planted per acre, times 18, so you can do the math on that. We moved 57,000 cubic yards of dirt. A guy who did the final grading told me he normally gets $10 per cubic yard to move dirt, so I saved that money. It’s not for the fainthearted.

How much land did you use for your new strip?

The new runway is 3,800 feet by 200 feet. It sits on 18 acres.

I flew over a neighborhood adjacent to your property. How have neighbors responded to living next to a runway?

I’ve been fortunate. The runway was here before the houses, and I’ve never had a complaint about noise. I think the air conditioners [beside each house] make more noise than comes from the runway.

What insurance considerations or implications are there?

Nothing out of the ordinary. Just a release from liability and an insurance rider on my hangar policy.

What advice do you have for anyone considering building his or her own grass strip?

It’s like eating an elephant. Take one bite at a time. Don’t get too worked up on trying to meet a schedule.