Nonprofit Works to Keep Backcountry Fun Available

The Recreational Aviation Foundation supports general aviation by preserving, improving, and creating airstrips for recreational access.

A starry look at part of Ryan Field, a private airstrip owned by the RAF one mile southeast of West Glacier, Montana. Courtesy: RAF

Have you ever flown over a particularly picturesque portion of the backcountry and wondered to yourself, “Wow, this would be a great place to land at and explore?” Or flew into a rudimentary airstrip and thought of ways that it could be made better?

The Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) works to support general aviation through the guiding purpose of preserving, improving, and creating airstrips for recreational access. Through targeted efforts, the group has been able to help spark a renewed interest in this type of flying, as well as ensure the continued existence of public-use airfields.

Humble Beginnings

The RAF is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) charitable, all volunteer-led organization that was founded in 2003 by a group of half a dozen or so Montana-based pilots. John McKenna Jr. is RAF’s chairman and a founding member. He said his group answered a calling.

“We knew that if someone didn’t get busy being a voice for public land airstrips in the West [where our efforts started], these opportunities would soon disappear,” he said.

“And once they are gone, they are gone forever.”

He said that the original group of aviation enthusiasts asked a simple question” “If not us who, and if not now, when?” Since that question was posed, the group’s mission has largely remained the same, although it has grown in scope and scale. In its nearly 20 years, the RAF has helped create, operate, and preserve dozens of airstrips in 24 states, from Maine to California and from Alaska to Georgia.

Helping With a ‘National Concern’

Even prior to the RAF’s formal incorporation, its founding members were actively involved in airstrip preservation. Once organized as a collective body, though, these aviation enthusiasts were better able to focus their efforts on what McKenna calls the “national concern” of airstrip closures.

John McKenna, Jr. Contributed photo

“The Recreational Aviation Foundation does for aviation what Duck’s Unlimited does for conservation,” he said.

Put another way, in much the same way that the waterfowl interest group protects wetlands and associated habitats from misuse, the foundation works to keep airstrips viable and operational.

In addition to preserving existing ones, the RAF also focuses on the improvement of airstrips.

These improvements manifest themselves in differing forms, depending on the needs of certain airstrips and those that fly into them.

Some recent airstrip improvements have included:

The RAF will typically take the lead on coordination of these improvements, but they’ll also assist other entities with their efforts.

The group also sponsors a grant program (administered through volunteer state liaisons) for public use airstrips to incorporate desired recreational improvements themselves.

“The goal of these grants is to provide amenities that make the chosen airport more enjoyable and see more use,” McKenna said.

One facility that was recently impacted by this grant program was Kern Valley Airport (L05) in California. Through a grant from the RAF, the airstrip’s managing body was able to add a shower house to the property.

Some folks from the RAF work on the addition of a pavilion at Trigger Gap (17A) in Arkansas. Courtesy: RAF

Creating Airstrips

While it’s true that the RAF is also involved with the creation of airstrips, it happens less frequently than preservation or improvement work. As McKenna says, it “can sometimes be an uphill battle” and lasts upwards of a decade.

“Creation” comes in varying forms, as the term encompasses creating airstrips that previously didn’t exist. According to McKenna, it also includes “ones that were either closed and now reopened or ones that were going to go away or fall into unfriendly ownership.”

The RAF creates airstrips on both public and private land, although most are on government-owned land. This acreage is typically controlled by one of the three organizations:

  • The Bureau of Land Management
  • The United States Forest Service
  • The National Park Service
An aerial look at Ryan Field, Ryan Field, a private airstrip owned by the RAF one mile southeast of West Glacier, Montana. Courtesy: RAF

Typically, the RAF will make a use case with whichever agency is responsible for the acreage, requesting that an airstrip is added to improve accessibility and functionality.

McKenna notes that the RAF has learned that to best influence these agencies’ decision making, it’s imperative they get into conversations about the land’s planned use as early as possible.

“If you aren’t there early, you aren’t in the conversation at all,” he said. “And by being in the conversation from the beginning, it leaves the discussion open for aviation to be in the plan. And a lot of our job is educating public land managers that we are a worthwhile, low-impact user.”

While most of their work is done within the public space, the RAF also will occasionally partner with private entities to create public-use airstrips. Most often, this process begins when the organization receives land donations, where they have been entrusted with all aspects of owning, developing, and maintaining the property as a functional airstrip.

“The centerpiece of RAF airstrip acquisitions is Ryan Field Airport (2MT1). This donation by Ben and Butchie Ryan includes 152 acres of land surrounded by U.S. Forest Service lands and only two miles from Glacier National Park,” McKenna said.

“The RAF just substantially improved the camping onsite with the addition of a multipurpose barn complete with showers and flushable toilets, as well as two camper-type cabins.”

This flagship airstrip, as well as others across the country, can be found within the organization’s curated airfield guide.

What the Group is Up to Now

At the moment, the RAF is involved in an increasing number of airstrip-related projects, including:

  • Las Trancas Airport (17CL) in California
  • A private holding in Wisconsin that is similar to Ryan Field in Montana
  • Recent funding received for upgrading United States Forest Service (USFS) airstrips across the country

Even with the RAF’s dedicated work over the years, general aviation access as we know it will cease to exist without continued support. As the foundation’s website cautions, and implores aviators to support their cause:

“... Your recreational opportunities—whether cross-country or backcountry—will continue to diminish as airfields are closed or their use is restricted. Earning your pilot certificate wasn’t easy. Creating new airstrips isn’t easy either. Nothing worthwhile ever is.”

Grant Boyd is a private pilot with eight years of experience in aviation business, including marketing, writing, customer service, and sales. Boyd holds a Bachelor's and a Master's of Business Administration degree, both from Wichita State University, and a Doctor of Education degree from Oklahoma State University. He was chosen as a NBAA Business Aviation "Top 40 Under 40" award recipient in 2020.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter