When opportunity knocks…do something

Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com.

It seems like an obvious axiom of business. When opportunity knocks, answer the door, say “Hello,” invite it in and make it a hot cup of tea, or an ice cold glass of the same if it’s summer. Do something. Don’t just stand there like a dunce wondering if this enormous, entirely conspicuous, flashing neon sign labeled, “opportunity” is directed at you.

Be bold. Make an assumption and run with it. Yep, it seems obvious to me, too. But the reality at airports across this mighty land suggests otherwise.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll certainly say it again: I believe my home airport, Gilbert Field (GIF) in Winter Haven, Fla., is the finest airport in America. And why not. I live where I do specifically to have the option of operating out of this airport. I would hope all pilots and aviation enthusiasts would feel as passionately about their home field. And if you don’t believe your home field is the best airport on the planet, I believe you should saddle up, enlist a bunch of like-minded folks, and do what has to be done to make it the best darned airport you can.

Of course not everyone feels that way. Sadly, that includes the municipal leaders of my small city – at least those who exist in the past tense. The overall feeling about the airport was that it was a burden, a millstone around the neck of an otherwise wonderful town. The status quo at city hall was that the airport was dragging us down, depleting us of critical cash, and crippling morale in the city.

None of that was true, of course. But if you insist on seeing the dark underbelly of every golden opportunity, you can turn a day at the beach into a root canal-like drag with hardly any effort. Gloom and doom just seems to come naturally to some folks. I have no idea why.

Now you would think that a city with an airport that lies within spitting distance of an event as significant and successful as Sun ‘n Fun would exhaust every opportunity to make the most of that annual pilgrimage of pilots. But you’d be wrong. For decades the powers that be here in my home town didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when Sun ‘n Fun came to town. We didn’t market the field or its services. We didn’t extend our hours, or at least not so you’d notice. We didn’t roll out the red carpet in any way. And we certainly didn’t leave the light on for you.

Tom Bodett would have been ashamed of us.

We also didn’t send anyone to Sun ‘n Fun to find out what this general aviation deal was all about. We didn’t send our airport manager, or our city manager, or even a water meter reader with a Kodak Instamatic and a notepad to record his (or her) findings.

For reasons that defy explanation, my fair city was so convinced that airports were a pointless waste of time, energy, and resources that we neglected to notice that something in the neighborhood of $25 million or more was flying right past our airport every Spring and landing 15 miles away.

That has changed. I’m pleased to say that it has changed in a big way. Because like you, I know that aviation is big business. Fortunately, the big brains down at city hall know it now, too. And all it took was a lot of talk, a bunch of motivated aviation enthusiasts heading to the polls on election day, and a couple guys who were naive enough to run for office and win.

Presto-chango, Winter Haven ‘s Gilbert Field is a whole new place. At least it’s transitioning nicely into a remarkably different destination. We’re not where we need to be yet, but we’re on the right track, thankfully.

The recognition that customer service was actually important has led to a new FBO signing up to take over the day-to-day operations an FBO is responsible for. That process is underway, and it’s happening with the full support and enthusiastic backing of the city government.

Not only did out city manager attend Sun ‘n Fun proper last year. He spent a day at the Splash-In on Lake Agnes, beside Fantasy of Flight, too. He may make a return trip this year. But better than that, our economic development director will be attending the show, with our airport manager in tow. Why? To find out what this whole general aviation brew-ha-ha is all about.

My advice to them was this, “Go do whatever appeals to you. Don’t try to fit in, just enjoy yourself. You’ll figure out what works and what doesn’t all on your own.”

Back on Gilbert Field, it’s more than just attitudes that are changing. Our old FBO, the one that’s phasing out and turning over the reins to the new guys in the coming months, has committed to extending their hours of operation for Sun ‘n Fun. The restaurant on the field has consented to extending their hours, too. And considering they make the best roast beef sandwich in the world (ask for “The Rocky,” you’ll love it) those extended hours will be appreciated by more hungry folks than I will ever bring in to eat at my table.

Even the availability of maintenance has improved. Our ambitious newest resident, Propellerhead Aviation, is offering 24 hour aircraft maintenance on the field throughout the show dates – including nitrogen, oxygen, major airframe and engine repairs on normal category aircraft and LSAs.

The point of all this is not that my home airport has made a dramatic about face. It has. But more important than that is the realization that any airport can do the same thing, if the community that uses and supports the field bands together and insists on it. I certainly cannot take the credit for making Gilbert Field take general aviation more seriously. In fact, it’s fair to say that I am little more than a cheerleader for a great team with winning potential. I’m just glad the potential was finally realized by others who had the authority, and the ability, to really make the most of what we had all along.

Opportunity knocked, which spurred the tenants and users of Gilbert Field to answer the door, invite it in, offer it a comfy seat, and encourage it to settle in and hang around for a while. If we can do it, you can do it, too.

Although the path may be uphill, there is a point when the path widens, the obstacles fall away, and you find yourself standing on the mountaintop. We Gilbert Fielders are almost there, and we’re making progress on a daily basis. I hope you can follow in our footsteps and create similar changes on your fields.

The expression suggests, “The more the merrier.” I think there’s truth in that slogan. Let’s find out, shall we?

You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com


  1. says

    Jamie – you hit the “nail on the head”! No matter WHAT the business, and especially the FBO
    or Aviation Retail Provider, a creative and aggressive marketing effort gets results! With the exception of the “high end” FBO chains, I’ve always felt the FBO AND the airport, economic development folks, grossly fail in working TOGETHER toward a common goal; create an ECONOMIC and SOCIAL benefit at your “underulitilized” GA airport! I think your efforts have demonstrated a valued point; stress the benefits and the results will come!

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