The story is a familiar one. In fact, it’s nearly universal. The local airport is languishing. From the perspective of the municipality that owns the field, it’s an underperforming business entity populated by a collection of spoiled individuals who feel entitled and tend to be territorial. Taken from the point of view shared by so many users and tenants, the airport has become an increasingly restrictive — and largely over-priced — facility that is far less inviting than it once was.
This is most assuredly not a match made in heaven. Fortunately, it’s not a lost cause, either. Like any complex relationship between disparate individuals, a little work is required. Some sacrifice might be called for, and it’s just possible that somebody might have to eat a heaping helping of humble pie somewhere along the way. But if both parties are willing to roll up their sleeves and take a new look at the necessities of management and interaction between the participants, there just might be a new day dawning for this previously gloomy outpost for aviators.
For all its sunshine, balmy temperatures, and GA friendly environment, central Florida has its share of misdirected airports. One such field is near my home. In fact the proximity of my suburban homestead to that airport is why I live where I do. Almost 20 years ago I accepted my first flying job as a newly minted flight instructor at Gilbert Field (GIF) in Winter Haven, Florida. The place struck a chord with me, so after chasing better flying jobs up and down the east coast for a time, my wife and I settled here to raise a family. After years of being a gypsy, this is home for us. And we’re not alone. Located beside Gilbert Field is Eagles Landing, an airport community that blazed a trail for aviation enthusiasts who felt as if they just couldn’t get enough airplane noise in their lives. The iconic Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base is nestled on Lake Jessie at the opposite end of the field For many residents of this small city, the airport is what drew us to this spot.
What has put us off that decision is the same issue that many airport users fight on a daily basis across the country. Our local authority had a tendency to be oppressive, deaf, or disinterested when an airport tenant or user had a question, or a complaint, or an idea regarding how the airport could be enhanced for the benefit of the community. Like so many cities, the people who held positions of authority in Winter Haven had grand ideas about airline feeders bringing riches to town. And like so many cities, those people had no background in or understanding of aviation. Still, they had little interest in what the users had to say, even when they were men and women of significant talent who were knowledgeable and civic minded.
All that changed in September. In an uncharacteristically show of strength, this airport community banded together and ran a candidate for public office. Working as a block, the users and tenants who had been so often forgotten — or outright dismissed — during previous discussions with City Hall got behind their candidate in a big way. They posted signs in their yards, attended gatherings to bolster support, drove through town waving banners, and ferried voters to the polls on election day. The result was that a fresh-faced political newcomer swept into office, beating a two-term incumbent with 61% of the vote. That candidate is a CFI and an A&P who describes himself as “a guy who likes airplanes.” His name and face happen to be identical to mine.
During that process it didn’t go without notice that the political winds were shifting. And so the airport, historically the red-headed step-child of local politics, became a hot topic on the campaign trail. With two seats up for election, the airport community grilled the candidates for the other seat with great vigor. In the end, and after a hard-fought run-off election, another newcomer tapped by the airport community took the remaining incumbent’s seat.
In a city with a five-seat commission, the airport community’s enthusiastic, overt support of two candidates created a shift in policy, process, and perception that is rarely seen in local politics. Today, less than four months after those two new commissioners were seated, Winter Haven has a new city manager, a new attitude, and an airport that is more to the liking of the users and tenants than it has been in decades. For the first time ever, Gilbert Field will welcome campers onto the field throughout Sun ‘n Fun, which occurs only 14 miles to the west. The city administration is now openly and actively courting flight schools, aircraft manufacturers, distributors, overhaul shops, and entrepreneurs of all types to come visit the field. When that happens, we are not at all shy about suggesting that perhaps the many benefits of central Florida would make Gilbert Field a good home for those businesses.
This is a radical change for this small city. In the past the city took the position that aviation was a loser industry. It sucks up cash and spits out attitude, but surely no good could come from courting the aviation market.
I take the opposite position, of course. I maintain that there is no better opportunity for a city to attract jobs of real merit than at the airport. There is no better anti-drug program on the planet for our kids than access to an airport. And there is no better emergency response facility than an airport can offer.
Time will tell which position is the more accurate. Personally, I’m betting on Gilbert Field, and the power of a united aviation community.
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’s also writing a new blog called “Politics and Pilots.” You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.