Slated for closure in 2003 but pardoned through the influence of pilots, nearby residents and historians, the future of Smith Field — Fort Wayne’s “other” airport — is not only secure, but bright.
“It’s a very viable airport, and it serves businesses on the north end and a need in the community for flight instruction,” Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority Executive Director Scott Hinderman said of the 230-acre plot between Cook and Ludwig roads that opened in 1925. But the city’s first airport, once visited by such aviation pioneers as Charles Lindbergh and Jimmy Doolittle, was considered so irrelevantly obsolete by the end of the 20th century that Hinderman’s predecessors thought few would object to its demise.
The resulting grass-roots group Smith Field ForEver proved them wrong — and events of the subsequent decade seems to have justified not only the group’s name, but its mission as well.
The Airport Authority has invested more than $8.5 million in Smith Field since 2004, Hinderman said, and that doesn’t include the $2.3 million Ivy Tech spent to build its 21,000-square-foot aviation maintenance facility in 2011. Nor does it include other improvements that are already underway or planned for 2016 and future years.
Sweet Aviation, which occupies the 10,000-square-foot, $1.75 million facility the authority built for Ivy Tech in 2006, broke ground in early December on a 10,000-square-foot hangar that will cost about $1 million and accommodate about 12 planes, according to General Manager Joel Pierce. The Airport Authority, meanwhile, will spend about $850,000 next year on new hangars to store another 12 planes, allowing the removal of aging, dilapidated structures.
As a general aviation airport, Smith Field handles mostly smaller propeller-driven planes and the occasional small jet. But as technology improves, the airport’s two runways — each about 3,100 feet — will be able to accommodate an increased variety of craft. Even now, statistics illustrate how the decision to spare the field from extinction has paid off.
*Annual operations are still not near the 32,600 enjoyed in 1988 but are considerably more plentiful than in the early 2000s, when operations of about 8,500 fueled the closing proposal. Operations have increased in each of the last three years, from 16,723 in 2012 to nearly 19,000 in 2014. Fuel sales are up dramatically, from 31,386 gallons in 2003 to more than 67,500 in 2015 — much of it consumed by planes based at other airports.
But while Smith Field’s future appears secure, the same cannot be said for all of its historic structures, which helped closing opponents place the airport on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. Its main hangar, built in 1930, is seldom used, in poor shape and would be expensive to repair, Hinderman said. The future is also uncertain for a light beacon dating back to 1928, but a round “carousel” hangar built in the 1960s could be moved to a more useful location. Currently it sits near the historic hangar and the now-empty former terminal on the airport’s southeast side.
Longer-term, Hinderman said, other hangars could be built and a longer 4,400-foot runway is still in the plan — a project that would require the removal of some homes east of the field. “Right now there’s no need, but if we see growth” that could change, he added.
Pierce, meanwhile, said Sweet Aviation’s new hangar, which is scheduled for completion next year, will allow it to expand its maintenance business. A graduate of Ivy Tech’s maintenance program, he has seen first-hand how the college and Sweet Aviation have teamed with the Airport Authority to chart a course for the airport few of its staunchest advocates would have dreamed possible just a few years ago.
One of those supporters was Smith Field ForEver activist Dr. Stephen Hatch, who died in 2011 when a plane he was piloting crashed in Michigan. Hatch had founded Smith Field Air Services in 2003, and following his death the company was purchased and renamed by Chuck Surack, founder of Sweetwater Sound.
“I think (what’s happening) is the fulfillment of all we dreamed of, and more,” said Dave DeWald, who worked with Hatch and others to save Smith Field. “The (aviation) board was led to believe there wasn’t a future in single-engine prop planes, but we had a vision for it. And now people from all over the Midwest are coming to learn how to fly helicopters.”
Still more proof that although Smith Field has had its downs, things are heading up.