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Recreational-use clause could ease Trade Wind Airport’s insurance burden

Trade Wind Airport’s 2,200-foot turf strip in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, on Martha’s Vineyard, has been a destination for general aviation pilots since the 1930s. Recently, though, the field’s fans have grown concerned that its owners might close the runway due to rising insurance rates. A group of savvy pilots says state law is on their side.

The turf Runway 6/24 at Trade Wind Airport. Photo by Jonathan Welsh.

Pilots often are surprised to find that Martha’s Vineyard has three airports within its 100-square-mile footprint. Typically, Trade Wind is the last one they discover, often by chance, after Martha’s Vineyard Airport at Vineyard Haven or Katama Airpark in Edgartown, and that is a big part of the field’s charm. Located on County Road, with its single hangar visible to passersby, the private strip, which requires permission for landing, hides in plain sight with few recognizing it as an active airport.

Nonpilot visitors regularly mistake Trade Wind Airport for a park and use its runway and taxiway as dog runs. Pilots complained for years about the danger of people walking dogs on the runway or unknowingly crossing the field as an airplane is attempting to land or take off.

“I once had an encounter with a group of people standing right in the middle of the runway,” said Michael Nagle, a pilot, skydiver, and retired priest who helps to manage the airport. “I flew by and motioned for them to clear the runway, but they just smiled and waved back.”

After Nagle circled a few times, the trespassers got the message. Later the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank Commission, which owns the airport, added a perimeter fence to dissuade people from entering the property. That mostly ended the conflict between pilots and the public.

Today, however, the airport faces a more serious problem that is familiar across many forms of aviation: mounting insurance expenses. Maureen Hill, office manager at the Land Bank, said the airport’s insurance is due for renewal in November, and months ago its insurance carrier gave notice that rates were going up—“way up,” Hill said. As a result, the commission sent questionnaires to pilots who had filed for permission to use the field. The survey sought to determine how many people use Trade Wind and how often they land there. Once granted, permission lasts for the calendar year and must be renewed thereafter. For some pilots, the questionnaire was the first sign of serious trouble.

While the Land Bank said it has no plans to close the airport, local pilots began looking for solutions. One of those pilots, Bill Brine, director of the Recreational Aviation Foundation, noted that Massachusetts law includes a recreational-use statute that limits the liability of property owners who allow others to use their land for recreational activities without charge. The airport should qualify, Brine said, because there is no fee for using the field. Hill said the commission plans to take bids for its next airport insurance policy, hoping to reduce its premium significantly.

Michael Nagle, who helps manage Trade Wind Airport, unlocks the lone hangar where he keeps his Ximango motorglider and other aircraft. Photo by Jonathan Welsh.

Acquiring recreational-use statutes that specify aviation use has long been a focus for the RAF and one that AOPA often works jointly with the RAF’s state directors to secure. “The best thing individual pilots can do to support airfields like Trade Wind is to use them,” says AOPA Eastern Regional Manager Sean Collins. “The old axiom may sound corny, but its truth is a sounding bell for general aviation—that which we don’t use, we stand to lose. In lieu of hitting the same old $100 hamburger haunt, challenge yourself to fly somewhere off the beaten path.”

Trade Wind cannot come close to matching the number of operations at Martha’s Vineyard Airport or Katama, but it is a lovely place to visit and has a following among pilots who use it regularly. Its proximity to Oak Bluffs, known as a fun spot on the island, adds to its appeal. Perhaps most of all, Trade Wind stands out because of its history. The late Carolyn Cullen, a decorated member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of World War II, a captain in the Massachusetts Air National Guard, and a longtime instructor, owned and ran the airport for more than 40 years. People associated with Trade Wind still talk about her.

For pilots of light aircraft like Cessna 172s, vintage taildraggers, light sport models, and ultralights, Trade Wind feels like home while bigger airports can be less inviting. The grass at Trade Wind, thick, sturdy, and a bit lumpy, makes it ideal for basic airplanes with good short-field performance.

Just make sure you are out before dark. Overnight stays are forbidden on the field and the lone hangar is not available to the public. It is reserved for Nagle’s airplanes.

Jonathan Welsh
Jonathan Welsh
Digital Media Content Producer
Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot, career journalist and lifelong aviation enthusiast who previously worked as a writer and editor with Flying Magazine and the Wall Street Journal.
Topics: Advocacy, Airport Advocacy

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