By Michael Davidson
Dr. David D. Callender is a walking — and flying — encyclopedia of local aviation history.
He remembers the day 50 years ago when President Dwight Eisenhower came to
“Flying`s been a way of life for me,” said Callender, who, when earthbound, is an orthodontist.
So, of course, he didn`t plan to miss the airport`s 50th anniversary celebration. The event, which was Friday, was held 50 years to the day that a gaggle of local politicians and businessmen joined Eisenhower to celebrate the opening.
“We wanted a name that reflected our region,” airport manager Kenny Maenpa said.
The anniversary arrived while the airport is recovering from some tough times.
The year 2008 was the slowest for the airport in the past 12 years, Maenpa said. Fuel sales and operations, defined as takeoffs, landings, touch-and-goes or flyovers, both fell by nearly 20 percent.
Private plane owners were hit by a double whammy — the cost of fuel skyrocketed in the first half of 2008, and in the fall the economy tanked. Companies that own planes were hit hard, as were hobbyists who scrimped and saved to buy their planes.
But those same indicators show activity is picking up this year.
“Getting through this recent economic downturn has been a challenge. I`ve seen things I haven`t seen in my career. To get through that is the biggest challenge we`ve gone through,” Maenpa said.
The airport handled about 128,000 takeoffs, landings or flyovers last year, making it one of the four busiest airports in the state.
The hard times of 2008 didn`t stop the airport from thinking about its future. It is reviewing its master plan and hopes to add hangars, warehouses and support facilities in its south and east areas.
The biggest recent development is the addition of a new control tower south of the runway.
The air traffic control tower is the property of the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA paid for the tower`s construction; it also will train and employ air traffic controllers and operate the tower when it opens in the spring. The cost of the project is about $14 million, Maenpa said.
The tower will be 125-feet tall and boast state-of-the-art digital equipment. It also will have improved backup systems and a 7,000-square-foot support facility.
All the new tower lacks are some of the quirks of the old tower, which was built in 1967 according to a design that had not changed much since World War II, Maenpa said. The old tower will close when the new one goes on line and likely will be demolished, he said.
The architects did not seem to take into account factors such as sight lines, amenities or the airport`s future growth.
“It just was a nice central location,” Maenpa said.
They probably had other things on their minds. For the first seven years, the airport didn`t have flight controllers, Callender said. That resulted in tragic consequences.
“We had two mid-air accidents. … That motivated (the airport`s oversight board) to get busy,” Callender said.
As a result the old tower has some oddities. The tower is north of the runway, which means controllers look into the sun. And because the runway slopes, its far western end is nearly eye level with the controllers.
Construction work on the new tower is nearly complete, and the builders are expected to turn it over to the FAA in August. After that, the electronics systems will be installed. The transition to the new tower will be complete next spring.