Making the airport work for all of us

Like a lot of cities and towns in America, my city has a program in place that is designed to help business professionals segue into becoming civic leaders. The program is called, fittingly enough, Leadership Winter Haven, and it is operated through the local Chamber of Commerce. It is a formalized, seven-month long program that allows each leadership class to get up close and personal with aspects of the city and its economy that they might not normally be exposed to. Periodically they take a day-long excursion to see and interact with such varied economic facets of our area as tourism, technology, city and county government, education, light industry, media, and agriculture. Last week they visited Gilbert Field, our airport.

I was scheduled to make a brief presentation to the group, but since life has a way of throwing curve balls at us, I found myself stuck between two tasks. I had the option of being late to my own presentation while I delivered my daughter to school after an orthodontist appointment, or my daughter could be even later to school than we’d planned, which would be inconvenient for her, but it would allow me to be on time to speak to the class.

Guess who got the short end of that stick?

My daughter is 13 years old, a member of the Civil Air Patrol, and very much dedicated to the idea that she will attend either The US Naval Academy at Annapolis or the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Her ultimate goal is to fly fighters, but her goal last week was no more complicated than to get to school. She’s happy and comfortable at the airport, but a serious fact-finding mission for 15 businessmen and women seated at an oversized conference table is not her idea of a day at the park.

I’m proud of my girl. Sho sat quietly out of the way while the airport director got things rolling. I stood off to the side, waiting for my turn to tell this collection of local professionals why the airport is important to them, even if they have no interest in airplanes, helicopters, airships, or air travel in general. I was loaded for bear and ready to go. My daughter wasn’t, however. So it was something of a surprise to her when the airport director mentioned the Civil Air Patrol squadron that is based on the field, and called on my little girl to give an impromptu presentation on what CAP is all about.

Now I can tell you in all honesty that if someone in a position of authority had pointed me out at 13 years of age, and suggested that I should stand up and give a short speech to an assembly of some of the most important businessmen and women in town, I would have wet my pants, thrown up on my own shoes, and left the room in tears. That’s a best case scenario, of course. It might have been worse.

My daughter didn’t do that. She stood up, spoke in a reasonably strong, clear voice, and told that gathering of adults exactly what the role of the Civil Air Patrol is. She talked about the goals she and her squadron mates were setting for themselves, and how the Civil Air Patrol helps teach them leadership skills by providing hypothetical and actual scenarios where it’s essential that they work together in a coordinated manner.

She did just fine, and I was understandably proud of her. My turn came next so I took my place at the head of the table and spoke my piece. I moved around the room, blabbered away in an over-caffienated blur of words, and generally extolled the virtues of general aviation by pointing out aspects of the industry they had never thought of before. All of which is pretty much a daily routine for me.

I left the room knowing we’d done reasonably well. We hadn’t bowled them over, though. The group’s previous stop for the day had been at the police training facility, where two of the group asked to be Tazed, for reasons that are entirely beyond me. The police on duty, having an excellent sense of humor and no compunction at all about dropping a banker or a real estate developer to the ground, fulfilled their wishes and provided the tools that made a duo dance with high voltage excitement.

I knew my daughter and I hadn’t made that kind of an impression, and I wasn’t going to try, either. So I gathered up the girl and mosied down the hall toward the main exit, leaving the cheerful group gathered around the Redbird simulator. One lucky businessman was attempting to fly direct from GIF to London’s Heathrow before moving on to their next stop. Time constraints being what they were, I thought his chances of completing the flight were slim. I encouraged the attempt though.

The next day I had a meeting at a local advertising and marketing agency for a completely non-aviation reason. Again, I found myself seated in a conference room surrounded by businessmen and women, in a completely different part of town. I recognized one of those businessmen as a participant in the Leadership Winter Haven class that I’d spoken to at the airport the day before. We shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and then he gave me the best gift I could have ever hoped for. He leaned over and said, “You known, I’ve never been to our airport before but I was just in awe after that visit yesterday.”

Now I don’t honestly know if he was impressed by the airport director, or my daughter, or me. In fact I have no idea what he thought was so awe inspiring about the airport I call home. I don’t care, either. A win is a win, and I’ll take ’em in any form they happen to take.

I find real solace in knowing that a businessman who hadn’t had enough interest in the airport to visit in the two or three decades he’s been in town now describes his impression of the place as, “awe.” Perhaps he’ll become a flight student at the local flight school, or maybe he won’t. It could be that he’ll bring his significant other, or a few good friends out to enjoy lunch at the restaurant on the field. Then again, he may not. Whatever the case, he gives every indication that he will be back. More importantly, his attitude about the airport has shifted from blasé to enthusiastic.

With a few more transitions like that, we can truly start to make the airport work for everyone in its own way. I’m pretty enthused about that to be honest with you. Because I don’t have any desire to direct the public at large as to what they should find worthwhile about the airport, I just want them to experience it first-hand and find out what the place has to offer. I have every confidence they’ll find something that works for them, given the chance.

Now, I wonder what other groups we can invite out to the airport for a visit? I also wonder how much school my daughter can miss to fulfill the speaking engagements I’m going to have to commit her to.

This is going to be a busy, productive, and celebratory year. I can just feel it.

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 also is an owner and contributor to You can reach Jamie at

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  1. Chris says

    This actually makes a lot of sense.  Consider an airport from a non-pilot’s point of view.  From the average citizen’s perspective, a small airport is just a large area that makes noise, inconveniently so if you live near it.  They know airplanes go there to take off and land, but that’s about it.  The average non-aviation person has no idea WHY those airplanes go there (or anywhere else), who flies them or who gets flown in them, who works at the airport, or the amount of money or jobs the airport is generating for the community.  They just know the airport is where the planes land, and most haven’t put an further thought into it.

    Now you take a non-aviation type and bring them down, show them a coherent presentation on what the airport is about, how many jobs it creates, how much money and tourism it brings into the area, and top it off with a little girl that’s barely in high school but is already serving her community in CAP, you have a recipe for success.  Because what used to just be ‘the place where airplanes take off from’ is now real and accessible to those people, and they know it’s a place that provides positive benefits for the community. 

    You’re also lucky in that the visitors hadn’t already decided that they hate the airport before they visited it.  That counts for a lot :)

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