The new director of the Lake Wales Municipal Airport plans to use his military experience and skills to improve the airport.
Alex Vacha, 27, was hired this month by the city to run operations at the airport.
“We’re fortunate to have a very enthusiastic, hardworking young guy,” City Manager Kenneth Fields said. “As he put it, it’s his dream job.”
Vacha said it is a job he has dreamed about since high school.
“Since I was in high school, I knew I was going to work in aviation,” he said. “I think they wanted somebody who was in a position to prove himself because, if I can succeed, I can prove my value and they get an improved airport.”
Fields said Vacha is energetic and the management experience he gained while running medivac operations for the Army in Kosov is “exactly what we need in Lake Wales.”
Vacha is the city’s first airport manager. Previously, Betty Hill oversaw the airport as the fixed base operator through her business, Florida Skydiving Center, which had a contract with the city to manage the facility.
Vacha said he looks forward to staying with the airport long-term to see how it grows.
“It’s an exciting time,” he said. “That being young part of it is fun because I could stay and see the changes and watch the growth happen and be one of the guys that have been here since the ground level. I want to see this place grow and make a difference in the city and in the state.”
The right fit
Originally from Indian Rocks Beach, Vacha graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics.
Vacha, who is planning to commute from his home in Tampa where he lives with his wife, Marissa, went to work for Hillsborough County Public Schools, teaching underage GED students for three years. He is the oldest of five siblings and said watching over them made him feel like he could be a good teacher.
“I started doing it part-time but fell in love with it,” Vacha said.
But his teaching career was interrupted in 2014. Vacha participated in JROTC in high school and joined the Army Reserves afterwards. During his second year of teaching, he was called to serve in Kosovo, in the former Yugoslavia. Vacha was promoted to first lieutenant and ran the medivac operations.
“I was basically running operations there and building flight schedules and shuffling crew rest cycles,” Vacha said. “When I got back from my deployment last summer, I knew that I wanted to be an airport manager because that’s pretty much what I was doing overseas.”
Vacha began routinely searching airport websites for open positions. When he saw the Lake Wales job was open, Vacha said he knew his experience with Hillsborough County schools and his military background made him the ideal person for the job.
“(Airport managers) need to be able to handle leases agreements and customer service and I have that, working with the School District, teachers, parents and kids,” he said. “But all that pilot knowledge that I have with talking on the radios and getting in and out of airports is a piece that maybe not a lot of airport managers have.”
Vacha said skydiving has been the main focus of the airport but he is hoping to change that.
“We love the skydiving operation, it’s fantastic, but we also need to allow general aviation aircraft to come to Lake Wales,” he said.
To accommodate more air traffic, Vacha said he is looking to add a pilots’ lounge, increase aircraft parking and provide fliers transportation to restaurants and other sites in Lake Wales.
Eric Farewell, a member of the Airport Advisory Board, said he is looking forward to the changes Vacha will make.
“He’s very open to the idea of Lake Wales being more focused on other things in the aviation business,” Farewell said. “I have to say I’m extremely excited. It’s exciting to see the city move forward with growth and development.”
Farewell said Hill’s biggest interest is in her skydiving business and running that while managing the airport was “too much of a task.”
Hill ran the airport for 20 years before Vacha was hired. She was originally given a 10-year lease with four five-year extensions, but was required to give 90 days’ notice that she wanted the lease extended.
Hill said she missed last year’s deadline because her mother was in the hospital and she lost track of time.
“I didn’t know what day it was,” she said.
The City Commission voted in September to unanimously to extend Hill’s lease at the airport by 90 days past the contract’s expiration date. However, after receiving a strongly worded letter from the Federal Aviation Administration and Florida Department of Transportation recommending services be put out to bid since Hill was issued a notice of termination, the commission did so.
“I thought maybe it would have been courteous to send me a letter letting me know I needed to renew my contract,” Hill said.
Fields announced in January that it would be better for the city financially to hire an airport manager rather than find a new fixed base operator.
In the last five years, the city annually allocated between $1,900 and $1,700 from the general fund to the airport. Fields said, if the city took over fuel sales and leasing agreements, the airport could be self-sufficient and no longer reliant on money from the general fund.
Fields also said it would benefit Hill.
“Having a separate airport manager gives (Hill) the opportunity to grow her business,” Fields said.
But Hill said being in charge of the airport did not interfere with her skydiving business, which is at the airport.
“I can multitask,” Hill said. “I’ve been doing this for 45 years.”
The Lake Wales Municipal Airport has 485 acres, most of it unused.
Vacha said he’d like to fill up some of that space.
“We want to bring in aviation development and non-aviation, industrial development,” he said. “We have a lot of property for lease available, we can develop the infrastructure and the city manager is totally on board to get the roads and plumbing that we may need for development.”
But Vacha said his main goal is to attract planes to Lake Wales that might otherwise choose to land in Bartow, Winter Haven or Lakeland.
Fields and the commission have made development at the airport a priority. A $486,000 project to expand the east-west runway by 1,000 feet is near the end of the planning stages, Vacha said.
Fields said the airport’s proximity to the CSX facility in Winter Haven could jump-start business.
“My vision and what we’re looking to improve is to make it friendly, put Lake Wales on the map as a place to visit and market us and show what the city can do for everyone,” Vacha said. “I guess the biggest goal I have is to make it a place you want to go to.”
— Lance Ferguson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-401-6962. Follow @Lance_Ferguson on Twitter.