By RICK A. RICHARDS, For General Aviation News
When Jessica Ward was a little girl, her dream was to be a commercial airline pilot. Instead of stick figures of her family, she drew stick figures of airplanes. “I knew for my whole life I wanted to be a pilot,” said Ward.
But so far, her dream is unfulfilled. As a student in flight science at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Ward discovered that she got violently ill with motion sickness each time she tried to fly a plane. She tried everything to cure it — traditional medicine, acupuncture, herbal remedies — but nothing worked. “I realized I wasn’t going to be a pilot,” she said. “It was the worst feeling ever knowing I wasn’t going to realize my dream.”
But instead of moping about it, she regrouped, changed her course of study and went into aviation management. Today, she may not be a pilot but she’s around pilots and airplanes every day as manager of Michigan City Municipal Airport (MGC) in Indiana. It’s a job that both excites and challenges her.
After graduating from college in 2005, Ward took a job as a restaurant manager in Kalamazoo, convinced she was heading toward managing restaurants, not airports. Then Matt Wills, a family friend, called her about a job opening he had heard about. “I wasn’t even looking for a job in my career field. He asked if I would be interested in being an assistant airport manager,” said Ward. “I asked where and all he knew was that it was somewhere in Indiana.”
She soon found out the job was in Michigan City. In 2007, Michigan City Municipal Airport was named Airport of the Year by the Aviation Association of Indiana (it also received the honor in 2005) and construction was wrapping up on a new airport terminal. Even better, the airport is just 10 miles from her hometown of Chesterton. She decided it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
She applied and was hired in June 2008. She figured that, as an assistant manager, she’d have some time to learn airport operations. But three months later, the airport manager left and Ward, 27, was promoted. “I had a lot to learn,” she admits.
Since coming on board, she has learned a lot about running an airport, from mowing grass and plowing snow, to being a sort of official greeter for the city when out-of-town guests arrive. Besides those kinds of day-to-day chores, she is responsible for the “safe and efficient operation” of the airport, making sure it complies with FAA and Indiana Department of Transportation regulations, managing the fueling operations, managing the airport’s financial affairs, including payroll, and compiling and signing off on all the reports and paperwork required by federal, state and local agencies. “It looks easy from the outside, but there’s a lot work in running an airport,” said Ward. “Unless you’re here, you don’t know what’s involved in it.”
Ward is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. She’s also at the forefront — with Michigan City Aviation Board members Tom Ringo, Greg Poulin, David Miller and Paul Sammann — of efforts to increase the length of the 4,100-foot runway to 5,000 feet. “That’s becoming the magic number for airports of this size,” said Ward. Even though the airport owns 285 acres of land north of the airport, the handful of acres it needs to lengthen its runway has been declared a wetland, making it maddeningly difficult to get the permits needed to start construction. It’s an effort that’s gone on for more than a decade. While Ward is optimistic the project will ultimately proceed, she added, “It’s going to take a long time — a long time.”
Even so, the airport is a busy place with 10,555 takeoffs and landings last year, an average of nearly 29 a day. While Michigan City Municipal Airport, like most general aviation airports, doesn’t charge landing and takeoff fees, it does generate money through the sale of fuel, hangar leases and tie-down fees. Last year, 44 planes were based at the airport. “We try to be as self sufficient as we can,” said Ward. “We mow our own grass, we plow our own snow and we take care of building maintenance and cleaning. We do our own electric work. The only thing the city does is maintain our car and truck.”
The car is a courtesy car that’s available for pilots who fly in. It’s a courtesy that has kept many pilots returning to Michigan City instead of switching to other nearby airports. “I remember one time a family arrived here to go blueberry picking,” said Ward. “They were from the Chicago area, and the father was a pilot. He and his wife had two little kids, but when they arrived, the courtesy car was gone. They didn’t have any way to get to a blueberry farm, so I drove them in my car. I dropped them off, gave them my cell phone number and picked them up when they were done. They really wanted to go blueberry picking and they couldn’t stick around the terminal for an hour and half with two little kids waiting for the courtesy car.”
It’s that kind of personal service Ward tries to provide everyone who visits the airport. And they don’t have to be out-of-town guests, either. Each morning a small group of local pilots gathers in the terminal for coffee and conversation just because they like the atmosphere.
Ward added that it doesn’t hurt to have the area’s lowest priced aviation fuel, either. She keeps on top of fuel prices at surrounding airports to make sure Michigan City is the choice for pilots who need to top off their tanks.
“There is a lot more to this job than I imagined,” said Ward. “It’s more demanding than it looks. A lot of the time I’m flying by the seat of my pants, but I love what I do.”
For more information: MGCAirport.com.