The Mattituck airport — Southold Town’s only public airstrip — is under contract and expected to be sold later this month, according to owners Jay and Cindy Wickham.
Mr. Wickham said Wednesday he believes the property’s new owners will continue to operate it as an airstrip for local pilots — for the time being.
“It’s bittersweet but it’s OK,” Mr. Wickham said. “I am beyond optimistic that it’ll be in good hands. Whether it’s an airport or not, whatever’s done there will be done faithfully and it’ll be done the right way.”
The Wickhams announced the impending sale in a letter to customers dated June 3. A downturn in the private aviation industry, as well as the demise of manufacturing jobs related to the family’s former engine shop, led to the airport’s sale, Mr. Wickham said.
“We had our heyday here with the engines and our reputation … it was a really good run,” he said. “But now the heyday is done.”
The airport’s new owner has not been disclosed and Mr. Wickham declined to share the expected selling price.
“It’s been purchased by local residents, so it’s not going to be done by out-of-towners,” he said. “It’s going to remain as it is for a while. I’m not sure how long.”
Mr. Wickham, who lives around the corner from the airport, said his priority over the past three years has been finding a buyer who wouldn’t “wreck everything around the area here.”
“I don’t think I’d sell it to anyone who do anything bad to it, because I’m still here,” he said.
The letters were sent this week to the pilots who use the airport’s hangar informing them that the property will be sold. According to the letter, the new owner plans to demolish all buildings on the property except the carriage house, car barn and the newest hangars.
Aircraft owners will need to move their planes by Sept. 30 and the runway will be excavated in October, the letter states.
“An era of aviation on the North Fork [is] coming to an end,” said pilot Joe Pagano, who rents space in the airport’s hangars.
Mr. Wickham’s father, Parker Wickham, built the airport on a 16-acre former potato farm in 1946 when he returned to the North Fork after serving at an Army Air Corps base in the Mojave Desert, according to his obituary in The Suffolk Times.
The time Parker Wickham spent working to maintain the Army facility’s fleet of planes inspired him to open an airport in Mattituck. When he asked to use part of his family’s potato farm for the venture, his father reportedly said, “Come on home. There’s no money in potatoes, anyhow.”
The 2,200-foot runway was originally a stretch of mowed grass that was later paved over.
Jay Wickham said he remembers fixing irrigation piping next to the airport property as a child.
“I grew up there. I was sweeping floors and doing stuff in there when I was 7 or 8 years old,” he said.
Parker Wickham also established an engine overhaul shop on the property. The company, which later became Teledyne Mattituck Services, was sold by the family in 1984 and repurchased by family members four years later. The business was sold again in 1999.
According to Jay Wickham, the company employed a total of 350 people over the years, at one time employing nearly 70 workers at once.
Parker Wickham died in 2011 after passing the airport property on to his son. One year after the airport founder’s death, the motor repair facility on the property was shut down by its owners, putting 20 people out of work.
“We had a good run,” Jay Wickham said. “We had fun. We enjoyed what we did.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation had designated the airport as a Superfund site, stating that elevated chemical levels related to the site’s previous use as an engine repair shop had contaminated the land. By December 2014, the site was removed from the list after the DEC could find no remaining environmental concerns there.
For years, rumors have spread of the airport’s impending sale. Jay Wickham said the decision to close following the deaths of his parents in 2011 wasn’t easy.
“It was one of those things where you keep it until you can’t keep it,” he said. “The thing is, airports don’t make a lot of money.”
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said Wednesday that he would like the property to continue as an airport, but noted that the aviation industry has struggled across Long Island.
“The fact is, we don’t have the pilots we used to have,” he said.
Mr. Russell said the town was asked several years ago to purchase the land and decided it was cost-prohibitive to do so.
“You can’t really spend that kind of money and maintain that kind of facility for a handful of pilots,” he said.
The supervisor said the facility had been a good employer of “highly skilled staff” years ago and called the airport a “unique” feature of Southold Town. Any change to the property’s use by the new owners would need to be approved by the town, he said.
But Mr. Russell hopes it won’t come to that.
“I think if we lose it, we’ll never have another airport,” he said.
Photo: The Mattituck airport in a 2012. (Credit: The Suffolk Times, file)