Many of us begin our day by watching the garage door open.
It’s creaking sound usually doesn’t mean anything special: time for another morning commute, or maybe some yard work if it’s the weekend. But for Jack Schulte, the sound of the garage door opening inspires brings up far less mundane feelings.
“It makes me ready,” he says. “To break the surly bonds of gravity.”
Schulte's garage is as big as some houses; big enough to park his two small planes. It would look bizarre in Casper or Cheyenne, but it is normal at the Alpine Airpark community, where homes frequently cost more than a million dollars and come with a parking spot for your plane. “Airpark” is the most common name for a planned community built around private aviation, and here in Alpine flying is as casual and relaxed as a Sunday drive. And the safety check is a good yell to get everyone out of the way.
Schulte says he flies every day that weather allows, and I can see why: we go for a late morning cruise, and the rolling forests and craggy mountains below us are breathtaking.
After a while Jack’s wife, Marion, gets on the radio to give us the OK to come back down, checking air traffic and the automated weather. From her upstairs balcony, she’s the flight controller for the whole town.
“When a plane comes in I can tell them what the winds are doing. But typically I am just saying hello, and welcome,” she says. “People love it because where on earth do you fly into an airport and people say ‘hey! good to have you back!”
Marion’s also a realtor at the airpark, and she says the community has grown from seven homes in 2007 to more than seventy today. People come from all over the country, and the world to live in Alpine Airpark--Marion herself is originally from New Zealand. Usually over sixty retired, and wealthy enough to afford the Jackson real estate market, they come together over a shared passion for all things flight.
Stan Dardis and his wife Sharon built their Alpine home after moving to Wyoming from Minneapolis.
“I honestly [thought] I had good friends,” Stan says. “Until I discovered coming to Alpine Airpark. These are truly good friends. We don’t care what we have done in the past. We talk about what our common interests and values are now.”
Wyoming’s Alpine airpark has only been around for the last decade or so. But airparks have been a fixture in the U.S. since World War II, when hundreds of thousands of men picked up the skills--and for some, a passion for piloting planes. Some of those men built airparks to keep it up after the war. There are about 600 airparks in the US today.
Ben Sclair grew up on one of the country’s older airparks, in Washington state.
“I grew up flying airplanes. I guess I don’t remember learning to actually fly an airplane. I just started at a very young age, my dad saying: ‘here hold this. Keep the wings level, and go that direction.’”
Sclair also runs the website Living With Your Plane, which has information and real estate listings for airparks across the country. He says the airpark that he grew up on, and most others, are a lot less ritzy than the one in Alpine. “Until I was six or seven we lived in a double wide manufactured home,” he says. “We had a hangar, and a double wide.”
Sclair says business has been good for airpark realtors of late. But, he says, the survival of airpark communities like Alpine’s faces an uphill battle. The rising cost of small planes, fuel, insurance, and pilot training has meant the number of private pilots in America has been dropping by about five to ten thousand every year since its peak in the 1980s.
Jack Schulte admits there are a lot of gray hairs around. He’s sixty-six and didn’t start learning to fly until his fifties. But, he says being able to wake up and fly every day keeps him young.
“For me it's a dream come true. At this stage in my life to have something that gives me so much enjoyment and satisfaction is a great blessing.”