BURNSVILLE, N.C. — An early, fall afternoon in the North Carolina mountains offers up blue skies and far-off peaks. Somewhere to the left, a strong, buzzing sound grows louder and louder. And then, with little notice other than a few strategically-placed blinking red lights, a four-seat Cessna accelerates down a 2,875-foot runway, taking off between holes Nos. 5 and 6 and angles up toward a distant cloud.
Yes, a runway.
Located 30 minutes north of Asheville is one of western North Carolina’s hallmark private communities -- Mountain Air. At 4,400 feet above sea level, the community boasts the highest runway east of the Rocky Mountains.
Building a private community on a mountaintop is difficult. Putting in a landing strip is even harder. Actually landing a plane just might be the hardest.
“While not an impossible runway to land on, it’s definitely challenging, but I love how I can land my plane and walk to my house,” said Ken Durkee, member and former Mountain Air Pilots’ Association president. “I was the second person to land on the mountain back 27 years ago … just a piece of asphalt on the side of a mountain.”
A former military pilot, Durkee remains heavily involved in Mountain Air’s strict safety standards. His tutorial videos have become the gold standard and essential to executing a successful approach and take off. On a good day, the runway can accommodate planes ranging from single engines to small jets. The high season – June, July and August – brings 25-30 planes a month. Shoulder months bring 10-15 planes each.
For those who choose to enter the old fashioned way, the drive in is unassuming. A country back road snakes through fields and barns, and drops you off at the base of the mountain. Put the wrong address into your GPS, and you might find yourself wandering down a dirt road. Once through the gate, steep switchbacks and sweeping views guide you to the top.
“Stick to the yellow line,” a security guard called out. “Nowhere to go but up.”
Established in 1990, Mountain Air was the combined vision of the Banks and Young families. Bill Banks was in the timber business, while his son, Randy, was a developer by trade. Earl Young, and his son, Sam, made their names moving earth. Together, the families developed a plan, cleared the land and carved out roads.
The winding Scott Pool course design takes full advantage of the varied vistas. (Photo: Mountain Air)
Mountain Air quickly established itself as unique.
It still is. And every member knows it. Like a wink and a nod shared between family, friends and other members. The views alone have been known to close deals in an afternoon. Because as they say, once you’re here, you just know.
Today, more than 400 property owners enjoy Mountain Air.
“We didn’t golf and we didn’t fly planes, but we loved the mountains … still do,” said Steve, who with his wife Claudia, has been a Mountain Air member since 1998. “Now we call it adult summer camp.”
There are more non-pilots than pilots living at Mountain Air, but everyone loves when a plane is approaching the mountain. With the airstrip located right beside the pool and clubhouse, kids spend warm, summer days with faces pressed against the pool fence, waiting and watching.
When King Airs, Cessnas and Bonanzas aren’t landing and taking off, the runway creates the perfect stretch for July Fourth activities, movie nights and antique car and plane shows. And it seems there’s always something going on up here with kids and grandkids.
As with all private communities these days, a younger audience is beginning to find their way here. One of Mountain Air’s newest members is a 30-something business executive and trained pilot from Kentucky. He can fly directly from Louisville to Mountain Air in 90 minutes. Otherwise it’s a six-hour drive.
Not to be outdone by a private airport, Mountain Air’s 6,425-yard, par-71 golf course is one of those you have to play to believe. The 1990 Scott Pool design makes the most of the area’s 360-degree views. Starting at the top of the mountain, the front nine welcomes you with panoramic views, while the back nine challenges every lie with exciting elevation changes and undulating fairways that hide generous fairways.
Owning a plane isn’t a prerequisite for membership at Mountain Air, but, like a boat, it’s good to have friends with one.
Patrick Rhyne has spent the last 20 years building luxury and private community brands across the United States, Mexico and Caribbean. He lives in Asheville, N.C.