At storied Polly Ranch Estates, residents’ backyard is an active runway

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There is something different about Polly Ranch Estates, a 65-year-old neighborhood in Friendswood.

“Oh, this is heaven,” said Debbie Gary, who became a resident in 2002.

Heaven is an apt choice of words because Polly Ranch is a place where looking skyward is perfectly normal—to watch for incoming planes.

Polly Ranch is one of a rare breed of “air park” neighborhoods. There are a handful in the Houston area: Song Bird Ranch in Rosharon and Dry Creek in Cypress, for example. The online listing site Living With Your Plane has over 600 air parks in the United States in its database, though not all of them belong to neighborhoods.

Polly Ranch has about 250 homes, but only 50 or so are located along the 22-foot-wide, 2,800-foot-long private runway. Imagine homes along a bay front, but instead of boats at a dock there are planes sitting in hangars.

Residents include former and active commercial and military pilots, astronauts, and engineers—people who know their way around a hangar. Some planes are built from kits or are experimental builds, but there are also restored military craft in the neighborhood.

Safety first

“You have to be really proficient to land here. You have to know what you’re doing,” said Jim Garrett, who is the president of the homeowners association and is a former Air Force pilot.

Accidents are extremely rare, he said, and there have been no injuries or property damage from pilot errors.

Only residents are allowed to take off and land, unless a pilot has prior permission. For some a flight is a quick and easy commute to business meetings as far away as Florida. For others it is just a fun way to get out of the house.

Gary, a retired air show pilot, said she enjoys taking friends up for a ride. She has two planes, including a Beechcraft Bonanza four-seater that she can do a few stunts in if guests and friends are up for it.

“I can take you up and do barrel rolls, things like that,” she said.

Flights are so routine the sounds become familiar.

“You know who’s taking off by the sound of their engine—‘Oh, that’s Jeff’s or, oh, that’s Mike,’” said Avril Forster, a hobbyist pilot herself. She and her husband, David Forster, moved to the neighborhood about 10 years ago from Calgary, Alberta, in Canada.

“It’s just us and our toys—in fact, from the air you can see on the top of our hangar, it says ‘toy box’,” Avril said.

David is also a hobbyist—his background is in petroleum land management—and builds his own planes. Neighbors bond over airplane shop talk, he said, and take pride in their unique pastime. Several pilots volunteer for Angel Flight, which provides rides to people around the country to get medical treatment. The neighborhood also regularly serves as a landing zone for Life Flight helicopters, he said.

Historical roots

Ironically, the man who created the neighborhood in 1953, Raymond Kliesing, was not a pilot himself. One of the first residents was a pilot, however, and the first runway was made from crushed sea shells. According to the HOA, a handful of residents blocked an effort in the early 1970s to get rid of the airstrip for more home sites, and so it remains a fixture of Polly Ranch today.

The community also has a private park named after astronaut Dave Brown, a resident of the neighborhood who died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. The park sits where Clear Creek and Chigger Creek merge.

On a recent Saturday in October, that is where the community invited residents and friends to gather and sign up for a free plane ride.

“We do this every other year. It’s to help remind people that the airstrip is here, that it’s safe and a fun part of our community,” Avril Forster said.

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Matt Dulin
Matt joined Community Impact Newspaper in January 2018. A graduate of the University of Houston, Matt was most recently the director of community outreach and engagement at the Columbia Missourian and a professor at the Missouri School of Journalism.
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