So you’re tired of paying someone else every time you want to fly your airplane. Instead, imagine having your own airfield, to take off and land as you please.
Once you’ve got the land, clear and level it, smooth it out and roll it flat, then seed it or turf it with the right kind of grass. To get started, you just need enough real estate, sufficient funds and a working knowledge of the FAA rules and regulations.
As a passionate avgeek and pilot, I’d love to have my own runway. In fact, one day, I plan to build my own grass landing strip so I can go flying whenever I want!
What Land Do You Need?
At the very minimum, your runway will need to be 2,500 feet long, with a width of 50 feet. That’s assuming you will be flying a small, single-engine airplane such as a Cessna 172. If you need to get a heavier plane in and out of there, think bigger.
To accommodate a personal jet aircraft, you need a rectangular strip of land, 3,200 feet long. The width should be at least 75 feet if the land is open and clear. If the land is wooded, the clear strip must be at least 200 feet wide as a safe margin.
If there is a crosswind during take-off or landing, your aircraft may wander significantly from the runway centerline during the ground roll. If there are obstructions such as trees close to the runway, that’s a hazard you can well do without.
If you don’t already have a plot of ground sizeable enough to satisfy the above requirements, you’ll need to buy or lease the land you need. Choosing the right site is the most important step - it will affect everything else.
When selecting a site, consider how flat it is, and how much work will be needed to level it. A slope of two percent is acceptable along the length of the runway. Side to side, it needs to be level, to ensure safe arrivals and departures.
Also think about wind direction. You want the prevailing wind to be along the length of your airstrip, not across it, or you will be condemning yourself to extremely hair-raising landings, especially dangerous if there are trees adjacent to the runway.
Look at multiple sites, keeping all of the above in mind. The more clearing and leveling that needs to be done, the more you will have to spend. If you can find an area that ticks most of the boxes, you’re in a good place.
Don’t forget obstacle clearance. Once you’ve decided on the site, the orientation of your strip needs to take into account any tall buildings, high terrain, power lines and the like, as well as the prevailing wind.
With all the above in mind, you might need to spend a long time looking at different locations. Think of it as time invested wisely. A thousand hours spent choosing the right site could prolong your life by years, at the end of a tough flight in deteriorating weather.
Imagine the scenario. You’re tired after circling, waiting for a thunderstorm to clear your airstrip. You got a knock-down deal on a flat piece of land with an old water tower nearby, and the prevailing wind puts that tower smack on approach, between you and the runway threshold.
So, either continue to circle, fuel reserves critical, or risk a gusty tailwind landing on wet grass, which can increase your landing roll hugely. The lesson is, choose your plot of land well, taking into account the typical winds, and you will be glad you did.
As a rule of thumb, no obstacle in the approach or departure path should be more than one foot high for every twenty feet distance from the end of the runway. Consider the sides of the runway too - obstacles can cause disruption to air flow, making safe takeoffs and landings harder.
Drainage is an important factor. You cannot operate safely from or into a runway contaminated by water. If our plot of land is completely level, make sure it is not prone to flooding. Visit the site during wet weather, to check it does not get waterlogged.
If the land has a lot of clay in the soil, it is unlikely to drain well, and could become a muddy quagmire in a storm. If grass grows well on your strip, the clay content is probably low. Drainage should be good. Grass strips didn’t get their name for nothing!
How accessible is the site? It’s likely to be out of town, so how easy is it to get to? Does it have good access by road? Consider accessibility for fuel delivery and maintenance services, as well as ease of getting to the site yourself.
Although it’s not a pleasant thought, you should consider accessibility of the site to the emergency services, too, such as the fire department and ambulances. Proximity of help, if something does go wrong on takeoff or landing, could make a real difference to the outcome.
If your site is on high ground, remember the altitude will affect your airplane’s performance adversely. As well as the altitude, check the mean maximum temperature in the summer months. Hot air also reduces aircraft performance, which means longer take-off rolls and poorer climb rates for obstacle clearance.
Take a look at a nomograph for the area you have selected - this is a chart with scales of pressure and temperature that helps you calculate the increase in runway length needed for different conditions at a given altitude. As a rule, high-altitude fields need longer runways.
Preparing the Land
In addition to the purchase or lease of the land, you must factor in the cost of getting the site ready for conversion into a grass airstrip. You will need to clear and level the proposed runway area completely, as per the dimensions above.
If there are no trees to remove, and you have the time and expertise, you could set about clearing and leveling the ground yourself, with a suitable tractor, equipped first with a scraper blade, then with a tractor rake.
The scraper blade, an angled, curved steel plate that is usually mounted behind the driving wheels, drags along the ground behind the tractor, moving soil, pebbles and small plants, leaving a level strip behind it. Expect to make several passes up and down the runway, to cover the whole width.
The tractor rake, a steel comb which is also mounted behind the tractor, removes any stones, debris, broken roots, leaves and other contamination from your freshly scraped runway surface. One you have finished raking, the airstrip will be ready to be seeded with the grass of your choice.
In terms of budget, there would be the hire of the equipment and the fuel costs, plus of course your time, in terms of what else it is stopping you doing, and that might impact on your productivity and earning potential.
Trees present more of a challenge than site leveling. For established trees with deep roots, you will need a bulldozer to knock down and uproot the obstructions, and to fill in the resulting craters. If there are any ditches crossing your runway, you will need to tile across the gully.
Tiling means bridging the ditch with concrete slabs, then covering the bridge with a layer of topsoil to provide an uninterrupted grass strip, once it is seeded with the chosen type of grass. Some major civil airfields - such as Manchester EGCC in the UK - have runways that include bridges.
You might want to consider putting a drainage pipe under your runway, if there is a large ditch across the land to start with. That will avoid water running across your airstrip if there are heavy rains, and it could pay dividends in reduced erosion of the surface over time.
Large tree roots should be grubbed out and cleared to a minimum depth of twelve inches. All potential basins and impressions should be leveled with fill dirt, to avoid collecting water. Allow time to accomplish that properly, and it will pay off in the reliability of your runway.
Look out for the lines of old fences, because the soil texture will be different and a ridge may have been created. When grading the land, make sure any ridges are flattened, and spread the soil into the ground around the ridge.
Be vigilant for animal burrows. Fill in any that you find, with fill dirt, and compact the fill thoroughly. If animals return and burrow under your runway after you start using it, the resulting subsidence can be dangerous to you and your aircraft, and may result in expensive damage.
Expect clearing and leveling the site to take several months if there is a lot to remove and you are prepared to do it yourself. If you need to bring in contractors to relieve the load or compress the time frame, you will have to build that into your budget.
Once the land is cleared, you will need sand, gravel and topsoil to fill in any holes and make a firm, smooth surface for your grass runway. Tip the sand and gravel evenly along the strip, smooth it off and pack it down by rolling it until it is even and flat.
You should certainly consider adding a slight camber, when grading your runway. If the centerline is elevated approximately six inches higher than the edges, drainage will be enhanced and your takeoff and landing rolls will be more stable, safer and more easily controllable.
Paperwork, Rules and Regulations
To repurpose a piece of land as a private airfield in the USA, you will need to complete some paperwork for the Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees all civil aviation in the country.
The relevant document for this is the FAA Notice of Construction, Alteration, Activation and Deactivation of Airports.
In addition to keeping track of all active airfields, public and private, the FAA needs to determine the potential effect on the operation of existing airports nearby, including possible encroachment upon traffic patterns. Also, there may be other proposals pending in your area, which may have an effect.
After departure from your airstrip, and during your approach, your aircraft could conflict with traffic in and out of other airports in close proximity. That could represent a hazard to commercial civil aviation, which the FAA is duty bound to protect.
To fix the location of your airstrip in the FAA’s files, you will need to provide the geodetic coordinates (latitude and longitude) of the landing area. You will also need to locate and make a list of any VFR airfields within twenty nautical miles (twenty-three statute miles).
VFR, of course, stands for Visual Flight Rules, i.e. operating an aircraft while being able to see the ground at all times, and being able to avoid obstacles and other aircraft visually. To do this, the weather must be clear enough for Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC) to prevail.
You will need to provide a list of all obstructions within three nautical miles of your airstrip. An obstruction is any object that might have an effect on the use of air space, such as tall buildings, terrain that is significantly higher than your airfield’s elevation, tower cranes or weather balloons.
You must submit a list of all churches, schools and residential communities within two miles of your airstrip, and you must list all waste disposal sites within five nautical miles of the landing area. All of the above must be submitted to the FAA ninety days before you start building.
The rules require that there must be signage to show the presence of a private airstrip. The runway must have proper markings and lighting, so everyone can see it is a working private airfield with an active runway.
The landing strip must be clearly marked to make it visible from the air. One way of doing this is to use old tires, half-buried and upright, in lines parallel with the runway. Painting the side walls of the tires in bright colors makes them easier to spot from the air.
FAA regulations prohibit any commercial use of your airstrip. If you are unsure whether your project is within the rules, you are advised to contact the FAA directly and ask them. It is better to get all that cleared in advance, rather than invest heavily and be unable to proceed.
In addition to the FAA regulations, there may be local procedures to follow, such as building permits, or rules around the zoning of land. Contact local government officials in your area before you begin, to ensure you are operating within all the rules.
How Much Will It Cost?
A private grass airstrip, for your own use, is the least expensive kind of runway to build and maintain, orders of magnitude less expensive than a commercial airport development that is designed to handle heavy airline traffic.
It is possible to build a private grass runway for as little as $15,000, if you already have the right land and it does not need a large amount of clearing (for example, of trees or rocks) or drainage work.
If your land does not need too much preparation, you can think in terms of around $400 per acre to build your private grass runway. To estimate the actual cost of your own particular venture, survey the land carefully to assess the extent of the need for grading and drainage.
Grading means smoothing out the land by filling in holes and leveling off any bumps. Budget for around $1 per square foot, for the parts of the airstrip that need treatment covering the cost of the fill dirt. Sandy soil is more stable and requires less maintenance over time.
Laying turf is the fastest way to get your runway covered in grass, but you will need to weight it down carefully, with sandbags or other ballast, to get it to take.
Turf comes at between $1 and $2 per square foot. Some airfield owners these days are opting for artificial turf, which does away with the need for seeding, but is of course more expensive than traditional turf in the first instance.
One disadvantage of artificial turf is that any damaged sections must be replaced with a new piece of the same material, whereas, in many cases, natural grass can re-colonise a rutted or otherwise damaged area that has been regraded, or the patch can be re-seeded inexpensively.
You should be able to get grass seed, to seed your runway, for around $1.50 per 100 square feet. In a subsequent paragraph, we will look at the types of grass seed you should order. A mixture of different types is best, chosen for the runway surface properties we want.
The grass runway surface will degrade with time and with use, so you will need to re-grade it every so often. A stable surface made of sandy soil will reduce the frequency of re-grading over the years.
Drainage is well worth getting right, from the word go. Be prepared to spend out on culverts and drainage ditches, especially if your airstrip is at a low level compared with the surrounding land, and if the climate in your area is wet.
To save a truckload of dollars, try to find a site that is naturally well drained, and at a higher level than the surrounding land. Otherwise, the cost of your project could increase enormously.
How Long Will It Take?
The time it will take to complete your grass runway project depends a lot on the state of the land when you start. Clearing the land properly can take anything from a few days to several weeks if there are deeply rooted trees to remove.
Many hands make light work, and so do many bulldozers and graders. If your project has a deadline and a larger budget, consider getting a team of contractors in to do the land clearing, which will give your venture a good boost.
If the land has been used for livestock grazing, and is already flat and level, it may only need to be mowed and bladed to facilitate good drainage, and it can be ready for use as an airstrip very quickly.
If the land needs to be graded and you can get an expert to do it, your strip can be perfectly flat and level in two days. Expect to pay for the service, but it will likely be a wise investment because you avoid the learning curve.
As a general rule, doing it yourself will take longer but will save budget. Buying in professional help assures a quality result in a shorter time frame but that comes at a price.
Turfing and Seeding
Your project was always going to be a grass airstrip, but why do we put grass on runways? Perhaps that’s the wrong question. We should be asking, why do we remove the grass from some runways but leave it on others?
Major commercial airfields have concrete runways, which cost a fortune to construct and are built to withstand the pounding they get from hundreds of tons of heavy airliner thumping down onto them, hour after hour, day in, day out.
The surface of a commercial runway must be smoothed and grooved, to make it suitable for safe operation and resistant to water contamination in adverse weather. Those runways require regular, frequent inspection and removal of anything that should not be there.
Grass is nature’s self-maintaining surface. No grooves are needed, because the sandy soil particles beneath the grass provide an ideal medium for rain water to percolate away. Moreover, the grass binds the soil particles and prevents erosion by wind and water.
Turfing is the fastest way to add grass to your runway, once the surface has been cleared, graded and smoothed. Take professional advice on laying the turf, so that it is properly aerated and will ‘take’, i.e. bind securely to the soil below it, rather than curl and dry out.
Choosing the right grass is important. Your runway grass should develop a deep root system, anchoring it firmly to the soil bed. The grass should form a dense top mat, making a tough, sound-deadening surface for your airplane to roll along.
Once the turf is in place, apply fertilizer to encourage the grass to recover quickly from damage, especially in the touchdown zones and along the tracks your airplane’s wheels will follow. Seed the strip regularly, to keep the grass dense and luxuriant, protecting the land beneath.
Which Grass Should I Use?
If you play golf, that might be a good question to ask the groundsman at your golf club. Grasses that are good on fairways and greens can also suit grass runways. In both cases, we are looking for a smooth, matted surface that offers little resistance to things rolling over it.
When you want to sink a long putt on the eighteenth green, you want the ball to roll straight and true, and keep going until it drops into the hole. When you touch down the main gear of your airplane on your newly-mown grass strip, you want a similarly predictable experience.
Grass types that put down deep roots, anchoring the sandy topsoil to create a springy landing surface, and knit together into a robust carpet of blades, are the ones to go for. Ideally, you want the grass to be slow-growing, to reduce the frequency of mowing.
You also want the grass to be able to spread into adjacent areas that are not so densely covered. Think of it as a kind of auto-repair mechanism, should your runway suffer abrasions that remove part of the grass carpet.
When you seed your runway, either at the start of its life, or at a 5-year maintenance session, you want the grass to establish quickly, so the runway is serviceable as soon as possible. We recommend a mixture of creeping red fescue, perennial rye, Kentucky bluegrass and white clover.
By combining the above grass types in your seeding mixture, you get the best of all worlds. You can take advantage of the properties each has to offer, giving you a runway surface ideal for your airplane’s needs, all the year round, without the need for excessive spending on maintenance.
You would be well advised to add a wind cone to your runway, bright colored for high visibility. This will help you decide the better direction for departure or arrival. Also, if a pilot in distress needs to land on your runway, they can take the surface wind into account too.
We mentioned lighting earlier, in the FAA section. You could install solar-powered LED runway lighting, to make your airstrip easier to see at a distance, when weather conditions are toward the lower acceptable limits of VMC.
If you don’t already have one, consider adding a shelter or hangar for your airplane. That will eat further into your budget but it will preserve the value of your aircraft, protecting it from sun and rain damage, birdlime contamination and wind.
Also think about taxiways, to get your airplane to and from your new runway. Grass taxiways don’t need to be as robust as grass runways. There is no need to add a camber with a raised center, and no need to grade and smooth them to the same perfection as the runway itself.
However, like the runway, your taxiways need to be clear of stones, roots, surface depressions and humps. Wear and tear on your airplane's tires during taxi may compromise safety on takeoff and landing. Safety is always priority number one in aviation.
Maintaining Your Runway
It is good to know what you are getting into, maintenance-wise, before you embark upon the venture. No runway, whether it be at a major international airport or a lightly-used grass strip on someone's farmland, is immune to wear and tear.
You will need to check the surface of your runway regularly for ruts and impressions caused by repeatedly landing your airplane on its surface. Imperfections can cause water to collect, which leads to further damage. Grass will not grow strongly if there is standing water.
You will need to mow your grass airstrip regularly, depending on the rate of growth of the type of grass. You will also need to trim the edges and check regularly that there is no damage or obstructions. If the runway is used infrequently, check it before each flight.
You should mow the grass on your runway if the blades of grass are longer than 2.5 inches in height. Long grass lengthens landing roll distance and creates significant resistance which can lengthen takeoff roll too.
If your schedule does not leave you enough time to do the maintenance yourself, you could get a contractor, who has experience and good references, to do them for you. You will need to factor this cost into your initial budget and ongoing maintenance expenses.
Expect your grass runway to need a complete overhaul approximately every five years, depending on how heavily it is used, the climate and rainfall, and any other issues such as long periods without rain that affect the quality of the grass and soil beneath.
The five-year service should include regrading the runway surface, then re-turfing and re-seeding, to restore it to a suitable condition for safe takeoffs and landings. Also, check the area around your airfield, in case obstacles such as new cell towers or electricity pylons have sprung up.
Would A Dirt Strip Be As Good?
Dirt airstrips are quick and dirty to make - just clear the land, grade it to remove dips and mounds, get rid of all the tree roots, and you are done. No need for all the turfing, weighting and seeding to complete a grass strip.
If your turf and seeding fail to take, and your grass dies off, you are left with a dirt runway by default. Can you just go right ahead and use that, without replacing the grass? Let’s think about the advantages and disadvantages of doing that.
Dirt runways wear out really fast and need constant maintenance. Without the grass to bind the soil particles together and maintain moisture at the surface, the runway will erode very quickly. As it wears away, your valuable, expensive-to-replace, sandy topsoil is being spread to the four winds.
Another disadvantage is the amount of dust and dirt that is thrown up into the air every time you take off or land. Some of that dirt will find its way into your airplane’s parts, necessitating more frequent servicing to maintain it in safe flying condition.
Eventually, you are sure to see the advantages of converting a dirt runway to a grass strip, so you may as well go ahead and plan to make it a grass strip from the outset.
Sharing the Good News
When your grass runway is complete, you will need to complete FAA form 5010-5, the Airport Master Record update, to officially log the existence of your airstrip. At that time, it will be your decision whether to list it on the VFR sectional so that other pilots will know of it.
Leave it off the VFR sectional, and only you and the FAA will know about your airstrip, and what its location is. Include it in the VFR sectional and you can rest knowing that your runway could save a fellow pilot who gets into difficulty and needs a place to land.
Another advantage of registering your airfield is that it prohibits electricity companies from running power lines over your land. If the land is registered as an airstrip, they have to route the power lines around it.
If you do decide to list your strip in the FAA VFR sectional, you get to choose a name for the field. That certainly puts your airstrip on the map.
It’s Been Done Before
In 1930, Richard Fairey, an English engineer and airplane builder, offered the Vicar of Harmondsworth the sum of £15,000 (equivalent to $1.8 million in 2022) for a 150-acre site, on which he intended to build a grass runway and hangars.
Fairey named his field the Great West Aerodrome, which perhaps sounds a little pretentious. However, when you consider what that airfield went on to become, maybe prescient would be a better term. Fairey’s grass strip went on to become EGLL London Heathrow, the fourth busiest airport in the world today.
So now you know how to get started, building your own grass runway. There are literally thousands of privately-owned airfields all over the USA. Now that you’ve read this, perhaps that total is soon to increase by one.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood