Amazing things can happen if you just take the time to open your door, invite the neighbors over for a burger, and let them experience for themselves what lights a fire in your belly.
Case in point…Bartow Municipal Airport (BOW) is located smack dab in the middle of the Florida panhandle. It’s not far from the tourist draws of Disney World, Universal Studios, Legoland, or the miles and miles of pristine beaches that stretch out on the east and west coast of the state. But it’s far enough from those population dense destinations that it’s surrounded by green landscapes, open spaces, and a relaxed atmosphere that has an undeniable appeal.
Opened in 1941, the airport became an important resource when war broke out. Untold numbers of pilots learned to fly from the runways that criss-cross the wide expanse of land at Bartow. After the war, the government gifted the property to the city of Bartow, with the provision that it be used as an airport.
In 1964 the city petitioned to be allowed to create an industrial park on land adjacent to the airport, and it was granted that privilege. As a result, Bartow Municipal has been self-supporting for much of its history.
Of course, like most airports dedicated to general aviation, Bartow is not exactly a hotbed of aeronautical activity on a day-to-day basis. The maintenance shop is open and has an excellent reputation. Other businesses survive there as well. It’s the home for the Sheriff’s Department aircraft, and helicopters that shuttle injured parties to trauma centers lickety-split, when time is of the essence. And the city-owned FBO does a bit of flight training and aircraft rental, too.
Yet, management hopes for more, as management should. And so an idea was hatched, planning took place, partners were rounded up, and volunteers were gratefully accepted. The decision was made to hold an Open House.
The idea isn’t an extraordinary one, but it makes sense. There may be no better way to show off what you’ve got than by throwing the doors open, inviting everyone in town, and maybe throwing in a bit of holiday cheer at the same time. Timing matters, after all. And Bartow did an exemplary job of pulling off the open house it held.
Scheduled for 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. on the first Saturday in December, the weather was ideal. Nearly 100 airplanes flew in from the surrounding area, including a gaggle of P-51s, a truly unique Fleet biplane, a handful of homebuilts, and an impressive collection of classic designs that may appear unremarkable to the casual observer, but have a tight hold on the hearts of those who fly them.
Students from the local military academy provided expert direction to overflow automotive traffic that streamed in from the four-lane highway running past the field. The occupants of those cars spilled out and either walked the short distance to the ramp, or caught a golf-cart shuttle to the same location.
Dazzled by the eye-candy on display, many wandered the ramp ooing and ahhing at the diversity of aircraft scattered about. A helicopter kept busy hauling riders into the sky, as did a big, lumbering New Standard biplane capable of carrying four passengers at a time. Between them, dozens of visitors had the chance to experience flight for the first time, in a general aviation aircraft, right over their home territory.
Before lunchtime rolled around, Santa taxied up in a classic twin, deplaning to the delight of a gaggle of rambunctious but largely well-behaved children, and distributing gifts to those lucky boys and girls.
This is what a successful interaction with the public looks like. Bartow Airport, the management team that oversees it, the businesses that populate its grounds, the local college that boasts an aerospace program, the restaurant that is housed there, and the independent providers who work there, all came together for a day — just one day — to make a statement about the airport and general aviation.
The statement was this: We’re here. We’re open. We’re available to you any time you want to stop in for a bite to eat, an interesting conversation, and maybe even the chance to get behind the controls of an aircraft and fly. Welcome!
That’s an easy message to communicate. And it’s one that is well received by the visitor, many of whom have rarely, if ever, been on the grounds of a general aviation airport.
If the mission was to involve the public, it worked. If it was to encourage activity on the airport, it did. If it was to show how the airport can deliver real value to the public at large, they knocked it out of the park. And best of all — any airport in America could do substantially the same thing.
In Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, the message was clear: Build it and they will come. Bartow Municipal is just the latest facility to put an aviation-oriented twist on the message and expand it in a meaningful way. Sure, build it. But an explicit invitation to come by and hang out for a while wouldn’t hurt, either.
It’s something to think about for your field and your town. A new year is just around the corner. Let’s make something of it, shall we?