By Andrew Theen
HILLSBORO — His arms buried deep in the guts of a Cessna 182RG’s engine, Danny Stark captured the essence of three generations of Stark men.
Stark, 27, is a mechanic at Twin Oaks Airpark. His father, Bob, also was a mechanic at the airport founded in 1972 by Danny’s late grandparents, Herb and Ruth Stark.
“I’ve never had another job,” Danny said in his straight-ahead style, like a plane jetting down the tarmac.
Growing up on an airfield was a dream but also his only reality, he said. He started working on planes as a 5-year-old, helping with oil changes.
“It’s just an industry that’s based on trust,” he said. “That’s probably the best part of it for me.”
For four decades, the family-owned and-operated business nestled among alpaca farms and berry fields south of Hillsboro has provided a place for pilots to store their planes and for students to learn the joys of aviation.
On Saturday, the Stark family wants the community to come out and celebrate the airport’s 40th anniversary, learn about aviation and share a barbecue.
“The customers are the ones that have made this survive,” Bob Stark said.
A fresh start
Bob Stark, 60, and his father were looking for a fresh start after their airstrip in Tigard was closed due to a county zoning battle in 1969. They found a suitable property along River Road that formerly was home to a dairy farm.
“The airport has evolved as we could afford it,” Bob said. “We expanded it.”
The first runway was dirt and rock. “We couldn’t afford to pave the whole thing so we paved half of it,” Bob said.
Bob met his wife, Betty, at the airport in 1980. She grew up nearby, hitched a plane ride with a neighbor boy and ending up meeting Bob. She joked that she married an airport, not a man. Bob and Betty complete each other’s sentences and thoughts in the way longtime married couples who also work together can.
Betty, 59, disputed the runway story; she thought they paved only one-third of it.
Since the airport’s start, Bob Stark has been the omnipresent figure whom experienced pilots and novices trusted with their lives up in the skies.
He recalled a plane inspection years back. “I’m not going to take my kids in it,” he told the customer, “So I’m not going to sign off on it.”
Bob handed off the maintenance side of the business to Danny and his wife, Hannah, a year ago.
He and Betty are contemplating retirement. They recently moved out of the family ranch home on the 70-acre plot to a home across the street, allowing the younger Starks and their three children to move in.
“We’re supposed to be retired,” Betty said. “But I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
Small airport, strong community
Oregon is home to many small airstrips and airports. All told, the state has 97 public airports, according to Matthew Maass, state airport manager with the Oregon Department of Aviation.
According to the most recent Oregon aviation plan in 2007, Twin Oaks was one of 37 categorized as “remote access or emergency service,” meaning they primarily support single-engine and general aviation aircraft. The Starks operate one of 15 public airports that are privately owned.
About 135 airplanes rent space in nine hangars alongside the 2,400-foot runway. The airport sees 35 to 50 takeoffs and landings daily. That’s modest compared to the 214,243 recorded last year at Hillsboro Airport less than 10 miles away.
Their location protects them from future development. The Tualatin River forms the southern border of the property. River Road butts up against the ranch home on the northern end.
Danny said the family business was all about relationships with the customer. “There has to be a community at the airport or else I don’t think it will thrive,” he said.
Martha and Tom Sampson agreed. The couple have kept a plane at Twin Oaks for seven or eight years, they said. “These guys make it look so easy,” Tom said of running the airstrip.
Seeing family members mowing the grass and maintaining the planes is a welcome sight. “That family atmosphere makes it a great community to fly out of.”
The Sampsons are helping to organize the 40th anniversary bash, and said they wanted the community to see that aviation is safe, correcting what Martha called a misconception about the industry.
Ups and downs
Time moves fast out at Twin Oaks, Danny said. It wasn’t too long ago that he was the son on his father’s lap, taxiing planes down the runway.
Bob’s youngest, Emily, just got hired at SkyWest Airlines as a regional pilot. Bob and Betty were pleased, in an understated way. Emily, 24, was the last pilot Bob trained.
Like any business, there have been ups and downs.
September 11th was perhaps the scariest, as planes were grounded nationwide for days, Bob recalled. For 10 days, Bob said, “We didn’t have an airplane move. Are we out of business?” he wondered.
But that too passed. The flight instructors come and go; clients, too.
The Starks are a constant. They’re always there to answer the phone, or help pilots with mechanical problems.
The airport has three employees who are not Starks. Danny has a full-time mechanic on staff and an administrative assistant. Bob and Betty hired a worker, too.
Betty described the rationale for never having a lot of employees outside of family. “I can’t see paying somebody to mow the grass. Or clean the toilets,” she said.
Bob retorted, “Well that’s kind of what we enjoy doing, though.” Then Betty quipped, “Well I don’t enjoy doing toilets, but somebody has to do it.”
For 40 years, that somebody has been a Stark.