As Leesburg Executive Airport held its annual airshow on Sept. 26, it closed out its golden anniversary year. To mark this occasion, Leesburg Today and members of the Leesburg Airport Commission have developed a three-part history of the development of aviation in Loudoun County, focusing on the airports that have inhabited Leesburg.
In our final installment, we examine the current status of Leesburg Executive Airport and interview pilots and managers about the future of the field.
On To The Future
The town manager’s office assumed direct operation of the airport in 1993, and for the first time in its history, a full-time town employee was on site every day. Juan Rivera, now managing the Manassas Airport, was the first manager recruited by the town. Rivera left his part-time job in Hanover, and began building a lean organizational structure to usher the airport into the new millennium.
The Airport Commission had many new members after the 1992 election, including local businessmen Dan Moats and Steve Hutchens, and they embarked on a five-year, $16.5 million improvement plan in 1994. In 1989, Leesburg Airport Commission Chairman Stanley Caulkins had gently reminded local pilots in a local newspaper interview that “the airport is a business for the town.” Thus, the focus towards corporate aviation operations had to continue, despite resistance from local pilots. Led by Caulkins, the new members lobbied for airport improvements to refocus the business operations of the field. When local political support was lacking, the members even went to existing leaseholders in the field, negotiating pre-payments on leases to fund the town’s portion of the improvements.
The New ‘Executive Airport’
The first round of changes, completed in 1999, included adding 1,000 feet to the existing 4,500-foot runway, moving the taxiway to accommodate larger aircraft, and installing a new localizer guidance system allowing for operations in a wider range of weather conditions. In 1997, the town received U.S. Customs Service approval for international landing rights. And in 2000, the airport’s name was changed to Leesburg Executive Airport At Godfrey Field to highlight the business focus.
The second round of changes included a new terminal building dedicated May 12, 2004, named in honor of Caulkins, who had served on the town’s Airport Commission for more than 25 years. And, with much lobbying by Moats and Hutchens, assistance from Congressman Frank Wolf resulted in the commissioning of a full Instrument Landing System (ILS) in 2011. The ceremonial first approach was flown by flight school owner Robert Hepp of Aviation Adventures with Mayor Kristen Umstattd and Caulkins on board.
New hangar construction began in 2009 with 10 new T-hangars and six new executive hangars at the airport, bringing the total hangar space to 96 T-hangars and 11 executive aircraft hangers.
Adapting To Security Requirements
The events of Sept. 11, 2001, were a shock to the aviation industry, but airports in the National Capital Region took another hit in February 2003 when the Bush administration imposed an “Air Defense Zone” around the area in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. Originally intended to be temporary, the new Special Flight Rules Area was made permanent in 2009. These restrictions required background checks, flight plans and mandatory communications procedures for all aircraft within 35 miles of Washington, D.C.
“Starting in 2003, Leesburg Airport suffered a 35 percent loss in fuel sales, year over year,” said Dennis Boykin, the current chairman of the Airport Commission. “It’s only been about a year now since we’ve returned to pre-9/11 levels of operations. To a great extent, that’s been fostered by a positive and forward-looking FAA staff function inside the Homeland Security organization, who looks out for the interests of our airport, and balances perceived security requirements with the economic realities of running this airport.”
Leesburg Airport since 2011 has operated under special rules for radar codes that allow flights to come and go without flight plans—a huge boon for the flight schools based at the field.
A second and more subtle impact has been the withdrawal of customs services from the field. Citing lack of staff and increased requirements at Dulles Airport, Customs and Border Patrol officials have withdrawn support from Leesburg. The current airport manager, Scott Coffman, is continuing to try and restore this service.
Focusing On Commerce And Economic Development
Boykin, a retired Army officer and local business owner, has served on the commission since 2004, and has been chairman since 2006. He’s seen his share of changes in the field.
“When I first moved to Leesburg in 2000, I saw leaders like Dan Moats and Steve Hutchens lose their seats on the commission due to election results, and I saw Stanley Caulkins relegated to a backseat,” Boykin said. “I took a lesson that the focus of my civic efforts needed to be the airport, and only the airport. Consequently, ever since then I’ve tried to be as bipartisan as I can in dealing with local officials.”
That bipartisanship was put to the test when the Peterson Companies proposed a $450 million development in 2004 known as Crosstrails on the property immediately adjacent to the airport. “Crosstrails became our rallying cry for three years,” Boykin said, “requiring us to get much more in touch with both the Leesburg Town Council and the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.” The residential component of Crosstrails, which earned the dedicated opposition of the town staff, town council, and the county planning staff, resulted in the rejection of the rezoning in 2007.
“We took a lesson from that episode that we needed to do a better job of educating local leaders of the economic impact of the airport,” Boykin said, “so with the help of our vice chairman, Tom Toth, and other members of the commission, we’ve instituted a briefing for every candidate for local office during each election cycle. That way, everyone starts with a clean sheet of accurate information about the field.”
Another part of the Crosstrails application included a proffer of 40 acres on the west side. “One member of the Commission jokingly asked if it included a mule,” Boykin said. “But after the rezoning was denied, the town went forward and purchased that 40-acre parcel. It’ll be awhile before we can develop that. We have to work in concert with Peterson, as the utilities and streets surrounding our new property will be built on their schedule. Our vision is a corporate jet center that will dovetail nicely with what we expect will be an office and commercial center.”
The Airport’s Future
Coffman is busy coordinating the next hangar project with the town’s finance department, while also hosting a first-ever in the U.S. remote Air Traffic Control Tower test.
“We’re partnering with the FAA, Saab Sensis, the Virginia Department of Aviation and the National Association of Air Traffic controllers to show the effectiveness of this new technology,” Coffman said. “With 130,000 operations per year, we need an air traffic control tower as soon as possible, but the $8M price tag is beyond our reach, and the FAA isn’t starting new towers right now. We see this new technology as our best way forward to provide the best service possible for Leesburg Executive Airport.”
When asked to predict the future for the airport, Boykin said, “We’ll continue to follow the leadership principles espoused by Stanley Caulkins, George Hammerly and their fellow Airport Commission members when they took a bold step for a small town and built a new field. Airports are more about commerce than they are about airplanes, and with aircraft simulators on site, software development going on in our tenants’ offices, and EIT moving in developing new avionics, Leesburg Executive will stay at the leading edge of technology.”