Macomb TownshipJune 19, 2012
Flight school perseveres through time and sprawl
By Robert Guttersohn
C & G Staff Writer
RAY TOWNSHIP — More than six decades ago, when Berz Flight Training instructors first flew over northern Oakland County with their trainees, the land below them was flat, rectangular farmland, and the runway was grass flanked by trees and barns.
“It was a farm that they basically put an airstrip on,” said Cindy Stahl-Yuhas, the business developer for Berz Flight Training, which is now located at Ray Community Airport. She and husband Todd Yuhas now run the school, instructing future pilots and renting out planes to licensed pilots.
The farm was owned by Milt Berz, who dubbed his property the Birmingham-Berz Airport.
“They just put a grass strip, and there you go — now we’re an airport,” Stahlo-Yuhas said, nothing that is how several private airports were founded in the middle of the 20th century.
Despite its rudimentary beginnings, 65 years later the Berz Flight Training now employs four instructors at an airport that houses 110 planes. Based at a small, ranch-style home set on the edge of the community airport, the school licenses on average 15 new pilots annually and trains up to 40 students at a time throughout the year.
“I’ve thought of becoming a shrink,” Yuhas said of the experience of training both men and women to fly in his 1970s era Piper. One story that sticks in his memory is when one of his trainees confessed his sins after Yuhas taught him to stall the plane.
“That’s the oddest thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said.
The school has weathered the economic downturn, which Yuhas described as “brutal” to the business. “We’re just starting to recover this year from the recession,” Stahlo-Yuhas said.
But the two say they never really expected to make much money in the aviation business.
“If you pay attention to all of the negatives, depressions steps in, and you stop doing what you do, to be honest,” Yuhas said. “Like most business owners, people that are in business do it because they enjoy what they do, not because they’re going to get rich. It’s really a romantic endeavor.”
Besides, Yuhas says, after more than 25 years of flying, it’s all he knows. “It’s something you become completely engrossed in,” he said.
His wife feels the same way.
“I cannot remember a time when I didn’t want to learn how to fly,” Stahlo-Yuhas said. “Even in my earliest memories, I remember airplanes and being fascinated by them. I finally decided to go learn and fly.”
The small local airport from which they fly is one of only a handful left, surviving the urban sprawl that has gobbled others.
“The sad part is, they’re all disappearing,” she said. “Land is always worth more for residential than it is a farm.”
Airports and farms, she said, have had similar histories in metro Detroit. Their owners sell and move north, then sell and move north again as they face more sprawl.
“Airport land, in a lot of ways, is similar in value to farm land,” Stahlo-Yuhas said. “In fact it may even be less valuable than farmland because it’s even harder to make a living off of it.”
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued Detroit-regional sectional chart was unfolded before her. The few surviving small, private airports sitting at the hem of an ever-sprawling metropolitan area were plotted on it.
“It’s amazing to me Oakland-Troy is still there, to be honest,” she said, referring to the now publicly owned airport that was Berz’s first location. “I find it astounding it’s managed to survive.”
Berz has survived over its 65-year history by jumping from one location to another, one step ahead of sprawl and development. Its roots in Birmingham began when Milt Berz himself was learning to fly.
“He had a big piece of farm property. He was learning to fly, and he got sick of driving to Pontiac Airport,” Yuhas said. “It’s that simple.” As the planes flying from the Berz’s Birmingham airport evolved, so did the landscape beneath it, transforming slowly from farmland to suburbia.
In 1972, Milt Berz along with his son Milt Berz Jr., both of whom are now deceased, sold the original airport in 1972 and with nine other investors bought land in Macomb Township at 22 Mile and Hayes roads for a new airport, which would be called Berz-Macomb Airport.
The airport resided there until 2003, when the heirs of the original investors, under pressure to sell to retail and residential developers spreading north along the Hayes Road corridor, convinced Berz Jr. to sell.
On a recent flight from Ray Community Airport over metro Detroit, Yuhas — who looks the part of a pilot with slicked back hair, aviator glasses and a toothpick dangling from the side of his mouth — reminisced on the conversation he had with Berz Jr. after selling the Macomb airport.
Berz Jr. announced that he was getting out of the airport business in the nick of time, and Yuhas offered to buy the school and continue it in Ray Township at the 146-acre airport.
Now, the married couple believes they have found a permanent home for the flight school.
Unlike the two other airports, Ray Community Airport is split among 80 different owners and is overseen by a board of directors on which Stahlo-Yuhas sits. “So that will make it very difficult for a developer to come along and buy us out,” she said.
On top of that, township officials have worked at keeping Ray Township a farming community. “Developers have tried to get into Ray, and Ray has been pushing back,” Stahlo-Yuhas said. “We’re a farming community. That’s what we want to be.”
But if developers do eventually make their way into the township and encroach on the airport, as they did at the flight school’s previous two locations, Yuhas and his wife have one more option left.
“There’s only one other place to go, and that’s move to Florida and do something else,” Yuhas said.
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