Safety, Originality on an Even Scale at Unique North Carolina Community

Want to land at Mountain Air? You’ll need a few things first.

Mountain Air’s private airstrip is the highest elevation runway east of the Mississippi River. [Courtesy: Mountain Air]

The destination community of Mountain Air sits 4,436 feet high in the North Carolina Blue Ridge Mountains. The community’s 2,900-by-50-foot asphalt runway (2NC0) welcomes residents and their guests seeking an adventurous, communal respite from the world.

The private airstrip—the highest elevation runway east of the Mississippi River—is a unique challenge for those flying in and out of it. To help assuage related concerns, the Mountain Air POA (Property Owners Association) takes safety seriously, so much so that the association has developed a process for prospective aviators flying in. 

On top of requiring permission to land at the airport, the group requires that a number of safeguards are followed to ensure the highest level of safety for first-time and returning pilots flying in. 

Capt. Tim Plunkett, the association’s acting safety officer, shared the process with FLYING:

  1. Landing at Mountain Air is not recommended for new or rusty pilots.
  2. Study takeoff and landing procedures, videos, and the airport policy and procedures on this webpage.
  3. Complete a registration process that includes questions related to both the airplane and the pilot.
  4. Have a minimum $1 million worth of liability insurance on the aircraft intended to be flown in, and send related information to the Mountain Air POA. 
  5. A pilot from the association will contact the applicant with further instructions.

Most of the time, Plunkett will be the one that reaches out to aviators hoping to fly into Mountain Air. 

“My job is to determine if we will let this person land here, based on how they will abide by our safety rules,” Plunkett says. “We have to do this because of our unique operating environment.”

Uniqueness Always a Hope for Mountain Air

“Mountain Air was never envisioned to be just like any other fly-in community,” says Kristen Lee, of BD Creative, a firm that assists Mountain Air with its marketing. “It was designed from the beginning to leverage the land and provide spectacular views from all the homes. [It’s] not just another home on a runway community.”

“We truly have an atmosphere of safety up here.”

Capt. Tim Plunkett, safety officer, Mountain Air POA

But that’s not to say aviation wasn’t front of mind from the start.

“The developers all had an aviation background, from a B-25 pilot in World War II, a retired airline pilot, and several with private pilot licenses,” Lee said. “They always wanted the community to have an aviation focus. The developer even named the major restaurant on property after the first to fly, calling it Orville and Wilbur’s Bar & Grill, and [it’s] right next to the runway and a short walk from the ramp.”

And as far as residences themselves go, Lee says the community has a little something for everybody. 

“We have over 100 custom homes, over 100 neighborhood homes, and over 200 condominium units. There are about 200 homesites also in the community for development.” 

Experience Helps Foster Safety

Being a part-time resident of the community for nearly five years, Plunkett has ample experience flying into 2NC0. This helps him assess others’ willingness to operate safely. 

Plunkett is also a 40,000-plus-hour pilot that held a long career as an airline pilot, military aviator, and test pilot. As a CFI, he gives “free training to any pilot that lives on the mountain. And free approach and landing training.” 

He says that his and fellow Mountain Air pilots’ varied experiences are integral to the safety culture that they have cultivated within the community. One program that has contributed to this focus is the briefings that occur at least quarterly, if not monthly. During these discussions, resident pilots have the chance to brush up on meteorology and other topics pertinent to high elevation aircraft operations. 

“We truly have an atmosphere of safety up here,” Plunkett says. 

Another program the POA created that Plunkett is very proud of is the Airport Response Team, or ART. This is an all-volunteer group that serves as “neighbors helping neighbors.” The group assists with anything ranging from conducting ground crew operations when needed, as well as immediate medical attention during an emergency. 

The latter was the inspiration for ART. 

“We are isolated here on the mountaintop and it takes about 25 to 30 minutes for fire or medical personnel to respond from the nearest town at the base of the mountain [Burnsville, North Carolina],” Plunkett says. 

Consequently, this natural delay did not sit well for Plunkett, who lobbied for such a team to be formed. The group currently consists of two doctors, four nurses, and an emergency medical technician. Their assistance has not been needed on top of the mountain yet, but their expertise is appreciated by those who call Mountain Air home. 

The community is typically seen as more of a golfing or mixed-interest community than one with a wholly aviation identity. But aviation enthusiasm is still apparent. [Courtesy: Mountain Air]

Typically, people fly into the airport to either conveniently reach their home (driving in is also an option), or visit friends there. Plunkett estimates that about 30 percent of the community’s residents are pilots. His pressurized Cessna P337H Skymaster is just one of the many that operate at the high-altitude runway

“We have a myriad of planes that fly into here. Cirrus, and other piston singles, and then Barons, Aztecs on the twin side, for example. There are also Pilatus PC-12s and Mitsubishi MU-2s, as well as others.”

Only about a third of Mountain Air residents are pilots. The community is typically seen as more of a golfing or mixed-interest community than one with a wholly aviation identity. But Plunkett says that doesn’t mean that the enthusiasm for flight isn’t apparent.

This unbridled love for the sky and flying has come to the point that Mountain Air has been able to dedicate improvements specifically aimed at the runway. It’s recently been entirely refurbished. A visual approach slope indicator was added, new markings were painted, and an instrument approach is in the works. 

There is also on-field routine maintenance service with an on-call A&P mechanic and AWOS-type weather information is available via radio. 

That said, there is one common airport offering that Plunkett does not anticipate adding, and for good reason: fuel. While fuel is the lifeblood for airplane propulsion, weight is the antithesis to flight. Having 100LL and JET-A available on-field only encourages the possibility of overweighting one’s plane. With there being several airports within a 35 nm radius with fuel services, those operating at Mountain Air can refuel close by and takeoff lighter. 

“Landing at Mountain Air is literally like landing on an aircraft carrier. There is a terrain drop away at the end of the runway. Then, you are already several thousand feet in the air. This is helpful for single engine pistons especially.”

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.

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