Little Airport That Could

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Brainard Sealed Deal For Big Convention
October 1, 2007
By ERIC GERSHON, Courant Staff Writer

For this jackpot, Hartford has Brainard Airport to thank.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association – the world’s largest pilots group – originally planned to hold its 2007 convention in Atlantic City. But when New Jersey’s seaside gambling capital decided to close its secondary airport, the 413,000-member AOPA started scouting other East Coast sites.

Hartford’s shiny new convention center made it a contender. But it was the state-owned Brainard – which itself has been threatened with closure – that helped seal the deal. AOPA typically needs multiple airports to handle the large number of participants who fly themselves to the event, plus room for showcasing scores of display aircraft.

Together, Bradley International Airport and Brainard can do the heavy lifting, with other small airports as backup.

“Without Brainard, Hartford would have been a much harder sell,” said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for AOPA, which is expecting 10,000 people to attend its convention Thursday through Saturday in Hartford. “It was a huge factor for us.”

And so it happened that Brainard – targeted for redevelopment as a non-aviation facility – helped the 2-year-old Connecticut Convention Center book what will likely be its biggest convention ever, weather permitting.

“This has opened my eyes as to what an asset Brainard is,” said H. Scott Phelps, president of the Greater Hartford Convention & Visitors Bureau. The airport, Hartford’s first, is now part of the bureau’s standard pitch to convention planners, he said.

State transportation officials said they are preparing for 1,800 private aircraft to fly into the area during the three-day convention – more than typically fly into Bradley in a month. Officials say Bradley and Brainard will be able to provide parking for 600 aircraft at a time.

About 70 show aircraft, including restored antiques and recent designs, will be on display at Brainard, and open to the public. These planes start arriving today.

No New England city has ever hosted a national AOPA convention, but roughly 33,000 active pilots live within 100 miles of Hartford, the association said.

To prepare for the onslaught of aircraft, the airports and their fixed-base operators – companies that provide services for private aircraft – have imported extra help from around the country, ordered extra fuel trucks and, at Brainard, closed a spare runway for use as an aircraft parking lot.

Regional airports in Simsbury, Windham and elsewhere may offer overflow parking, if necessary.

“It’s a real opportunity to shine,” said Stephen Korta, the former state transportation commissioner who is Bradley’s acting administrator.

The same could be said for Hartford and its region, which will get a chance to present themselves to an affluent group of conventioneers. AOPA alternates the site of its convention between the East Coast and California.

“Not all the attendees go to every event, so they’ll be out and about, even on the opening night,” Phelps said.

Conveniently, he said, the International Jazz Festival will also be underway in Hartford.

So far, conventioneers have booked about 5,700 hotel rooms for the convention, officials said. All told, AOPA’s event is expected to pump $10 million into the local economy.

Most of the action will be at the convention center itself, where more than 580 exhibitors will advertise products and services, from aircraft equipment to flight instruction, and experts will lead seminars on safety (among them, “Mistakes Pilots Make: Top Five Accident Causes” and “The Ups and Downs of Takeoffs and Landings”), jokes (“Rod Machado’s Aviation Humor”) and emerging aircraft types (“Very Light Jets”).

Other scheduled seminars include “Buying Your First Airplane,” “Fly-in Destinations in the East” and “What You Should Know About Aging Airplanes.”

An association of female pilots has planned a breakfast with astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, at the Marriott Hotel next to the Convention Center.

Erik Lindbergh, a grandson of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, is scheduled to participate in a talk for non-pilots called “Invitation to Fly.” Growing the number of licensed pilots in the United States (and its own membership) is a major goal for AOPA.

Another chief goal of the association: preserving small airports like Brainard, the subject of the convention’s Friday general session, “Where Will You Land?”

Like other small airports in Connecticut and nationwide, Brainard has caught the eye of developers. Just last year the Metropolitan District Commission proposed closing it to make way for a mixed-use development that would include housing and light industry supported by a trash-to-energy plant.

The state Department Of Transportation flatly opposes closing Brainard, but the MDC plan remains under discussion, and Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez favors the redevelopment of Brainard’s neighborhood.

But Perez spokesman Sarah Barr said this doesn’t necessarily conflict with the continued operation of the airport.

“The city feels the airport plays a role in maximizing the potential of the area,” she said.