Melissa Huffman got her foot in the door at Virgil I. Grissom Memorial Airport (KBFR) in Bedford, Ind., a few years ago by cleaning up the place. Today, she is the airport assistant manager.
Huffman said a chance meeting with Grissom Airport Manager Ray Sexton at the local store where she was working marked the start of her career in aviation.
“He invited me out to the airport and I looked at his Cessna 150,” she explained. “I was looking for a second job and he said they needed someone to clean up the terminal. I started cleaning once a week. I also started flight training.”
She was soon named assistant manager at the airport and recently completed her third year in the job. She is still flying and aims to take her private pilot check ride before the end of the year.
Huffman, 23, recalled the introductory flight Sexton arranged for her.
“I went up with Tony Newbold, an instructor who has been here for a long time,” she said. “It was my first time ever in an airplane. I thought it was crazy, but he let me have the controls to fly. He let me fly it the whole time and showed me maneuvers. He did the takeoff and landing, of course. I came back from that first flight grinning ear to ear and I’ve been hooked ever since. My first flight was in 2012 and I started lessons right away. I soloed on Oct. 8, 2013, and I have 36 hours in my logbook now and also an empty wallet.”
“When the instructor came back he said she was a natural, so I have just tried to help her get started in aviation,” Sexton said.
That start included learning the job from the ground up at Grissom Airport, which is named for one of the original Project Mercury astronauts, the late Virgil “Gus” Grissom, who learned to fly in Bedford.
“I needed someone who could pick up the airport business and go with it, like fueling planes, renting hangars out and all the other work,” Sexton explained. “Within a couple of months, Melissa was doing it all. She does an excellent job.”
During a typical week, Huffman handles office and front counter duties in the terminal, car rental, does the mail, helps cut the grass, dispatches and manages two rental aircraft and fuels incoming aircraft.
“I also shadow Ray in a lot of stuff,” she said. “We check the runways regularly. We’ll go out in the evening and check the lights. We check to make sure nothing is out there on the runway surface. There’s just a lot to learn.”
Sexton said Huffman will do well as an airport manager.
“I’ve taught her everything she needs to know to operate when I’m away,” he said. “We’ve been working on how the lights work, how to take the lens off and put in new bulbs. And she has been checking the sealant on our new runway 24-6. She can now operate the radio and talk with incoming aircraft. We have some aircraft without radios and she’s on the air talking to other pilots, letting them know who is in the pattern. She knows how to bring a plane in and where to park it.”
Huffman said she would like to continue her aviation education, but doesn’t have the money at the moment.
“I have thought about doing online aviation courses and getting my degree in aviation management,” she said. “But I just don’t have the funds. If I had the money I’d like to get my degree.”
She said the money hurdle stopped her from pursuing a flying job with UPS.
“It was the same for the charter jobs,” she said. “But I have found a local businessman who has encouraged me to get my ratings and fly him to his operations in different parts of the country. But right now I need to complete my three hours of night flying and the long and short cross countries before doing my private pilot check ride. I do know that I am going to finish my pilot training. That was my New Year’s resolution and I’m going to keep it.”
“He flew a P-51 and served in Japan during the occupation,” she said. “I have collected all his military records.”
She keeps a thick sheath of military forms and faded photocopies in her office at the airport. The forms and records document the flying career of Lieutenant Joseph Huffman, U.S. Army Air Corps.
“This is my grandfather’s Master Pilot log book,” Huffman said, holding out the battered, black military flight log.
Other items in the folder include personnel records and pay vouchers.
The records show that Huffman of Bismarck, Ill., was promoted to Second Lieutenant on Jan. 7, 1944, the day he began his preflight training in San Antonio, Texas. He was at Hicks Field in Fort Worth, Texas, for nine weeks of primary flight training, then Advanced Flying School in Victoria, Texas, followed by P-40 training in Georgia. His final training before shipping overseas in 1944 was practice reconnaissance missions in P-40s and P-51s at Key Field in Meridian, Miss.
In Japan Huffman flew reconnaissance missions in his P-51 with the 49th Fighter Group and served as a unit assistant commanding officer.
“His decorations included the American Theater Ribbon with Bronze Battle Star, the Army of Occupation Ribbon, Japan, and the Victory Medal,” Melissa said, pointing out the citations in his service record. “After the war he showed us the pictures from his unit. They called him Huffy. One of the pilots he flew with in the U.S. was George Gobel, the comedian who was later on television. After the war he flew an Aeronca Chief and an Aeronca 7AC from Vermillion County Airport in Danville, Ill.”
She said one of her biggest regrets is that her grandfather never got to fly with her. He died in 2011, about a year before she began flight training.
“I think he would be proud and very excited for me,” Huffman said. “He would probably have been the first to go up with me once I got my license.”