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Small airport looks to 'HUGE' future Longer runway to let corporate jets use Buffalo-Lancaster

The runway at Buffalo-Lancaster Airport isn't long enough for small corporate jets like the one used by car dealer Billy Fucillo, which predictably has the word "HUGE" painted across its tail section.

But next year or in 2010, the little airport founded in 1965 by a bakery owner and a welder will lengthen its 3,200-foot runway to 5,500 feet. And that would allow jets like Fucillo's to land there.

Today, the airstrip is a blend of two worlds: sleek, new multimillion-dollar improvements juxtaposed with the airstrip's rough-and-tumble origins as a place where people of modest means could revel in flying, camaraderie and tinkering with small private planes.

Outside its Walden Avenue entrance, visitors are greeted by a charming hand-wrought metal sign topped by a red biplane with its propeller spinning gaily in the breeze.

The sign was made by one of the airport's founders -- 91-year-old Don Griffiths, who still mows the grass and shows up daily to admire a 1946 Taylorcraft he has restored.

It's parked next to the Funk aircraft "Uncle Don" is working on right now, one of only 200 estimated to survive worldwide.

Those who might fret that the arrival of much bigger planes will change the small-town, chummy feel of the airfield and its two barbecue grills parked outside a heated hangar need not worry, said Eric Wobschall, airport manager.

"Our bread and butter are all these little airplanes," he said, leaning back in a chair while a group of what Wobschall calls "grass-roots" pilots sat huddled over coffee and intense conversation at a nearby table.

"We're always going to have a family-oriented airport. Everybody here thinks of this as their airport."

But even a modest number of corporate jets on site will qualify the privately owned airport for additional federal funding.

Federal and state dollars have been key to reviving Buffalo-Lancaster Airport, which like many other small airports fell on hard times in the 1980s and dwindled to just 18 based aircraft. By last November, however, the airport was celebrating the completion of $4 million in upgrades.

Since 1992, when the Federal Aviation Administration designated it a "reliever" airport for Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga, Buffalo-Lancaster Airport has enjoyed a steady flow of federal and state funding for improvements.

Bob Miller, a flight instructor at other area airports for eight years, wanted to move to a growth-oriented airport with room to expand. That, he said, attracted him to Buffalo-Lancaster Airport, which he also lauded for a fun, pleasant and nonpolitical ambience in which everyone works together as a team.

Does he worry about the advent of bigger planes on the field? "Not at all," Miller said. "Jet guys all came from our ranks."

Having the bigger planes on the runway also provides a natural career path for his students.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody," he said.

Last year the airport added an 18,000-square-foot heated utility
hangar, designed to handle smaller corporate planes, plus a parallel taxiway and a shiny new security fence stretching 1.6 miles to enclose most of the airport's 36 acres. The work included water and sewer improvements.

Sixty small aircraft are now based at the airport, Wobschall says. A new T-hangar is full, and the airport hopes to add another new one next year to accommodate a waiting list.

Wobschall said inquiries from owners of small corporate jets have been numerous and steady, too, ever since the airport announced plans to extend the runway.

Unlike the Akron Airport -- another local "reliever" airstrip, which has had some problems with its neighbors -- Wobschall said neighbors have raised few complaints in the almost 10 years he has managed Buffalo-Lancaster Airport.

The airport's somewhat remote location helps insulate it. It is bordered on one long side by Walden Avenue and on its south side by railroad tracks. "The trains make more noise than the planes," he said.

As for the advent of smaller corporate jets, the number of takeoffs and landings projected for Buffalo-Lancaster Airport will amount to only a handful per day, he said, noting that "corporate jets are quieter" than the smaller aircraft now using the airport.

e-mail: iliguori@buffnews.com

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