Marion County Airport, west of Ocala, Florida, is growing rapidly
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DUNNELLON — Brittney Owens was operating her wedding planning company, Southern Charm, two years ago when she decided to take her career to new heights and become a private pilot.
Owens is now a pilot for Central Florida Skydiving, one of several aviation-related operations based out of Marion County Airport, located north of County Road 484 near Dunnellon Field.
“It’s a blast (and a) responsibility,” Owens said of picking up skydivers in the air and watching them jump out the door of the Cessna 182 at around 90 mph.
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She accumulates flight hours in order to pursue her career in commercial aviation. Owens, 31, now holds his instrument pilot and commercial pilot license and is working on his multi-engine rating.
Owens trained as a private pilot, instrument pilot and commercial pilot with Federal Aviation Administration Gold Seal Flight Instructor Steve Mace of Ocala, currently an Airbus A320 pilot with Orlando-based Spirit Airlines.
Mace’s Cessna 172 “Trusty Trudy”, used to teach flying lessons, is kept in a hangar at the Marion County airport.
Mace, 50, moved to the Ocala area in 1992 and worked at Ocala International Airport as a refueller and flew fixed-wing aircraft for UF Health Shands Hospital in the 1990s.
He has been teaching pilots from the age of 16 and is teaching his son Michael, 22, to fly.
Mace likes Marion County Airport in Dunnellon because he thinks it’s “old fashioned and down to earth”.
Owens took his final license exams from Troy Townsend, operator of FliteChek.com, which is based at the airport. Townsend is an FAA DPE, or Designated Pilot Examiner.
Townsend praised the location and airport amenities. He said it gave people a place to enjoy “the freedom to fly, which we take for granted but doesn’t happen in some countries”.
You can call it Marion County Airport or just X-35
The airport, commonly referred to as X-35 by pilots, which is its FAA designation, has become a haven for private and sport aviation activities.
The 800-acre facility dates back to World War II and features two lighted runways, measuring 5,000 and 4,702 feet.
The facility is “pilot controlled”, which means there is no on-site control tower. The flyers communicate on a common designated radio frequency to announce their presence and intentions.
According to https://airport.marionfl.org/home-airport, pilots can radio control runway lighting and get weather advisories from the facility.
The airport has 48 hangars, ranging from $250 per month and up, and 51 stowage spaces that cost $50 per month, the website says.
Current fuel prices are available via a link on the site.
A computer program, VirTower, picks up signals from equipment installed in most aircraft to provide data such as location, altitude and direction of travel. Pilots can call Jacksonville Control for instrument landing information, such as bad weather.
Chris Helme, vice president of the local Sun Country Aero Club, which has a Cessna 172 as its club plane, said the Marion County airport is a regular stopover for band members.
Marion County Airport has seen many improvement projects over the years, with other projects
Marion County Airport Manager Mike Grawe, an Air Force veteran and private pilot, has spearheaded projects including a $2.9 million 20-hangar unit project and added $220,000 worth of upgraded landing lights during its four years at the facility.
Future plans include parallel taxiways for both runways, a $4.5 million project to improve safety; a new $1.1 million aircraft fueling station; an additional $3 million worth of Group “T” style aircraft hangars; and more commercial and private sheds, Grawe said.
Data from an FAA.gov portal indicates that in 2018, the 12-month activity ending in September 2018, included 23,162 local general aviation aircraft operations and 15,441 “roving” general aviation aircraft. .
Grawe estimates that aircraft activity has increased by about a third at the airport, and he points to a 33% increase in fuel sales at the airport from 2018 to 2021.
He added that aircraft activity update figures will be available in August, and the figures will be more accurate as they are based on data from VirTower.
Drone and remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) programs are also part of future plans.
Prices for aviation gasoline and jet fuel are said to be “very competitive” and sections of the airport lounge are open 24 hours a day, Grawe said.
“I want to continue to grow and inspire people’s passion for aviation and provide flight opportunities for everyone,” Grawe said.
Grawe and his management team, including Stanley Roberts, Airport Operations Technical Manager, and Jerry Stone, Airport Operations Technician, fostered a welcoming atmosphere for all who love to fly and attract flight instruction, aircraft repair aircraft, maintenance, upgrade and other businesses.
Business at the airport is getting better – literally
Central Florida Skydive established operations at Marion County Airport in September 2021 after reviewing four other airports.
Company owner Donnie Hickey has over 9,400 jumps under his belt. He said tandem jumps start at $189 and a video made by 20-year-old Payton Candales, who is part of the company and has at least 386 jumps in his career to date, is starting to show. $60.
“It floats, it doesn’t fall,” Hickey said of the skydiving feel.
ITEC, a nonprofit faith-based research and development organization founded in 1996, has been based at Marion County Airport for several years.
Founder Steve Saint developed the Maverick, an FAA “certified flying car,” according to itecusa.org. It is intended to allow missionaries to travel to isolated areas where transportation is a “significant obstacle”.
The organization has designed a lightweight portable dental chair for transport on mission.
ITEC is continuing to develop several types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), including those to deliver vital medical supplies like snakebite treatments to GPS-specified locations that might otherwise be inaccessible, according to Bruce Van Fleet with ITEC.
Roy Beisswenger operates Easy Flight, a training center for powered parachutes. Beisswenger was inducted into the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Ultralight Hall of Fame in 2021.
The association says Beisswenger is the only FAA Gold Seal instructor to win the award using powered parachutes “exclusively.”
Dan Hansen, 65, from Inverness, a powered parachute pilot, said the view was “incredible” from the open cockpit machines.
Oscar Mollineaux, from New Jersey, took a vacation to travel here and attend East Flight School. He said he “absolutely loves” flying in the powered parachute.
Jesse Saint, son of ITEC founder Steve Saint, operates Saint Aviation (saintaviation.com) out of Marion County Airport.
The company installs Dynon-branded digital avionics equipment for “panel upgrades”, complete with GPS, “moving maps” and flight information. Units range from $20,000 to $70,000.
Jim Hoekenga of Sebring made the hour-long flight to Dunnellon for Saint to set up a unit in his Cessna 172.
“It’s a nice airport, nice long runways. I’ll be back,” he said.
Other companies now based at the Marion County airport include Fly All Things, a flight instruction school that also offers an accelerated 62-hour flight training program by Bo Feldman; Mount Up With Wings Aviation, an aircraft rental company operated by Randy Dorsey; and Aero Aggregates, which transforms “post-consumer recycled glass into material that can be used in infrastructure and commercial construction,” according to an online article by the Ocala Metropolitan Chamber and the Economic Partnership.