Building Your Own 'Field of Dreams'

A runway in your backyard offers perhaps the ultimate in privacy and convenience. Here’s what you have to consider, do, and spend to make it a reality.

Arthur Jones, the founder of fitness companies Nautilus and MedX, was an animal lover who kept elephants, rhinos, and a gorilla on his estate, Jumbolair, near Ocala, Florida. An accomplished pilot, he’d fly the animals in on a Boeing 707 and later on his 747 jumbo jet because the 707 “wasn’t big enough for the elephants.” 

Jones bought the original 80-acre estate in 1980, added hundreds of surrounding acres, and built its centerpiece: a 7,550-foot-long runway large enough for the 747 and its pachyderm passengers. Before he died in 2007, he lost control of a large part of the estate to an ex-wife who had begun to develop it into an uber-affluent fly-in community with residents including the actor-pilot John Travolta. 

Having your own backyard runway is perhaps the ultimate in privacy and convenience, and now, in light of the pandemic, travel health safety. In addition to Jones and Travolta, the people who have had them range from world-famous hoteliers such as the late Barron Hilton—whose 5,500-foot-long runway was part of his 7,100-acre Flying M Nevada ranch—to California car dealer Cal Worthington, who flew a Learjet 35 from his spread. Private grass strips akin to a flying farmer’s back 40 and smaller fly-in communities that cater primarily to piston-powered airplanes are commonplace. 

In fact, while the number of public-use airports in the U.S. dropped from 5,145 to 5,080 between 2014 and 2019, the number of private-use airports, including seaplane bases and heliports, actually increased during the period from 13,863 to 14,556. Private airports are so prevalent in Texas—with 1,643—that the state’s Department of Transportation has issued its own how-to guide for farm and ranch airport construction. 

Considerations and Costs

The federal legal requirements for private airports are relatively slim and are contained in Part 157 of the Federal Aviation Regulations. You must submit basic location information and a schematic so the FAA can ensure that your runway won’t produce traffic conflicts with any airports nearby or adjacent airspace and that natural or manmade obstacles (think cell towers) won’t create a safety issue. Supplying your information also allows the FAA to add your facility to navigation charts and its airport database. 

Of course, meeting federal requirements is just a small part of the job of turning your airport dream into a reality. You need to consider matters such as prevailing winds, soil composition and stability, drainage, elevation grade, runway length and markings, lighting, approaches, obstacles, and building setbacks.

The mechanics and expense associated with building your own “field of dreams” can vary dramatically, so even a ballpark estimate of total cost requires getting an engineer’s report for your site, counsels Tyler Wheeler of Lone Star Paving in Austin, Texas. Variables include the size and weight of the aircraft, the coldness of the climate, whether the runway will be paved, and the weather in which you’ll use it. Other pesky matters include local zoning restrictions, state legal requirements, environmental regulations (if you want to install your own fuel farm), and the amount of required base layer—typically gravel—and how far it must be transported.. 

In mild and warm weather, most business turboprops—such as King Airs and Pilatus PC-12s—and some light jets do fine on unpaved strips as short as or shorter than 3,000 feet, provided that the dirt or grass is dry and that the aircraft are approved to land on such a surface. But as you move up to larger models, there is less latitude for unpaved operations.

Granted, a midsize Hawker 800 bizjet can easily navigate rough gravel, dirt, and hardened turf surfaces. (That has made it a drug smuggler’s favorite. A YouTube video from 2020 that shows one taking off from a short, narrow, bumpy, tree-lined dirt strip in Guatemala became an instant pilot cult classic.) But typically, for aircraft this size and above, you’ll need some sort of pavement. And that adds complexity—and expense. 

Building a 5,000-by-75-foot runway and accompanying ramp and taxiway that can accommodate a large-cabin business jet can cost $10 million or more in a colder climate once you factor in surveying, permitting, engineering, marking, designing a GPS instrument approach, and installation of lighting, a fuel farm, and a hangar. And it can take years to navigate the state and local regulatory labyrinth, depending on where you live and how litigious the neighbors are. 

Insurers May Balk

Of course, all this is academic if your finance company or insurer requires you to operate only from “public use” airports. 

Insurers typically won’t look at underwriting a large business jet to be flown from a privately owned airport unless it has an FAA-approved, paved runway, says Matt Drummelsmith, president of Aviation Specialty Insurance. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but Drummelsmith stresses the need for those contemplating the use of private runways to work with their insurers. 

Associated risk factors he identifies that would impact insurability include not only the airport’s design and equipment but also the frequency of aircraft operations. For “mom and pop” grass strips hosting a small piston aircraft infrequently, airport liability insurance premiums can be as little as $1,500 to $2,000 a year, Drummelsmith says. That number can increase significantly if the airplane is larger, however. 

But Drummelsmith notes that even if you fly a light jet such as a Pilatus PC-24 that is certified to land on grass, your insurance company might not go along with the plan. As for having friends fly in, even if they sign hold-harmless agreements in advance, you are still likely liable for any damage to their aircraft if it results from negligent or substandard maintenance or operation of the field, such as not attending to potholes. 

Drummelsmith emphasizes the need to disclose plans to operate out of private airstrips—either your own or someone else’s—ahead of time “so that the proper underwriting can take effect.” While he describes private runways as “a very small part” of his business, he says that customer inquiries about insuring them has been on the upswing since the beginning of the pandemic.  

The Helipad Option

Even if the math, insurance, regulation, and politics don’t add up to a case for building your own runway, you might still be able to fly from home if you have a helipad. And a surprising number of people do—from the U.S. President landing on the White House lawn (a convenience first enjoyed by President Eisenhower in 1957) to the humble Australian stockman herding cattle with his small, two-seat Robinson R22. 

But here again—understanding local restrictions and practicing good neighborhood relations are key. You’ll want to schedule departures and arrivals that are neither too early in the day nor too late at night and select approach and departure paths that minimize the noise impact on nearby property owners. 

It also doesn’t hurt to offer them free rides. The late inventor Forrest Bird kept three helicopters at his lakefront Idaho estate and every summer would fly delighted neighborhood children. So on those occasions when he needed some solitary rotor therapy, the locals looked the other way. 

“I counsel clients, ‘Never let your neighbors find out about your heliport on the evening news,’” says Rex Alexander, president of Five-Alpha, a consulting firm that specializes in heliport, helipad, and vertiport development. “Because if you do, you’ll have a Facebook page dedicated to stopping it.” 

Alexander stresses that being proactive, consultive, and solicitous with the neighbors can eliminate the need for, or at least streamline, any related zoning committee or city council scrutiny and required approvals. The longer that process drags out, the higher the costs, he says. 

“The decisions that people make when it comes to not wanting a heliport are based on what they find on the Internet,” Alexander adds. “And we all know how accurate everything on the Internet can be. The people who succeed [in building a heliport/helipad] put together a community outreach campaign.”

Building your own helipad and associated infrastructure is significantly cheaper than constructing a runway. The landing zone can be as small as a 40-by-40-foot mowed patch of grass in the backyard. You can easily keep the budget below $60,000 to pave, fence, and light a pad capable of accommodating a large single-engine turbine helicopter. 

Naturally, if you want to fly in something bigger and add enhancements, such as automated wind reporting and fueling, those costs will increase. And if you want to place your helipad atop any sort of a structure, such as a garage or office building, the price tag will really soar, due not only to the associated engineering costs but also the potential need for safety equipment such as automatic fire-suppression systems. And as with your own runway, the FAA must be notified and provided with data, in this case including a city map, a helipad/heliport layout plan, and a landing-area sketch. 

That said, few things are more convenient than alighting from your private jet, walking a few feet to a waiting helicopter, and reaching your front door in a fraction of the time required to drive to the airport. Unless, of course, the airport itself is in your backyard.