Work was completed on 12 new closed-door hangars at the Washington Regional Airport earlier this year. If you didn’t realize that, Ray Frankenberg II, owner of Washington Aviation Inc., the airport’s fixed based operator or FBO, isn’t too surprised.
The airport isn’t used by the majority of area residents, and out of sight often means out of mind.
But at the same time, many residents don’t realize how big an impact the airport has on the broader community, said Frankenberg. It is one of the biggest contributors to economic and commercial growth in the region.
Consider these numbers:
There are 33 of 68 industries that are frequent users of the airport to support their businesses, which represents more than 4,479 industrial jobs.
There are over 1,237 jobs supported by the medical profession, which uses the airport in the transfer of donated organs and also in transporting very sick patients to treatment centers, like the Mayo Clinic.
And there are over 2,000 jobs supported by the retail industry, and these retailers often use the Washington Regional Airport to send managers to and from other locations for training purposes.
Frankenberg believes one of the biggest myths about the Washington airport is that it’s a playground for wealthy business owners. While that may have been true to some extent at one time, it surely isn’t today, he stressed.
“We’ve made the commitment that this is going to be a business airport for the businesses and commerce in the community, so therefore the tax dollars that are spent here are generating jobs,” said Frankenberg. “Almost all of the hangars here — 90 percent of them — are housing business aircraft.
“There used to be business aircraft that were toys, but none of these are toys. They’re all used in business.”
The city of Washington, which helps fund the airport, walks a fine line between giving preference to businesses as much as possible without discriminating, said Frankenberg.
“We surely don’t want 42 aircraft that do nothing but fly weekends,” he remarked. “We want aircraft that are generating money for the area.”
Benefits Business, Law Enforcement
Frankenberg cited his own business, BFA in Washington, as an example of how the airport aids in expanding sales.
“We do business in 29 states . . . and the airport was a big portion of that growth,” said Frankenberg.
“As a father and an engineer, I was able to attend a council meeting in Wisconsin, leave that meeting and be home before midnight, get up the next day and take my kids to school.
“To fly commercial these days, we leave for Lambert (Airport in St. Louis) . . . hours before our take-off time. We plan on security, landing, getting a rental car . . . to get out of there. Where as here, the business owners can leave a meeting, a conference, drive right out here, hop on the plane, take off and go.”
And while there are manufacturers here who don’t necessarily rely on the airport for their own employees, their customers or suppliers may need to fly in to look at the plant, to tour the facility, maybe check on the quality control.
These are often quick one-hour or so meetings that may need to be held multiple times in the course of a single day, said Frankenberg.
“If you try that with commercial aviation, you just can’t do it.”
The airport also plays a role in bringing higher-paying, upper-management jobs to the community.
“If (a major retailer) is going to have a regional manager, they want him to be in a town with an aircraft that he can get in and out of,” said Frankenberg. “The airport allows those support jobs in our community.”
Law enforcement is another industry that benefits from the airport.
“If they’re going to do a search and rescue operation, they’re going to need a base to come out of in that area, to run the helicopters or aircraft out of,” said Frankenberg.
“We have had the Secret Service here, parked here all day when the president was in the St. Louis area.”
The governor also has used the Washington airport to fly in and out of the area.
Benefits Health Care
In terms of the health care industry, using the airport may not be a daily occurrence, but when it’s needed, it’s such a huge value to those patients and families, said Frankenberg.
“It’s difficult for them to negotiate commercial travel,” he remarked. “The whole ‘standing in line to get searched’ thing doesn’t work for people who are ill.”
Helicopters, which can land on the helipad at the hospital, are used for shorter distances, like from an accident scene to the nearest hospital.
Airplanes and runways are needed for going longer distances, said Frankenberg.
“The cost of using a helicopter gets really high, plus they’re slow,” he commented. “If you go to Mayo Clinic, it might take you an hour to fly it with an airplane or jet compared to four hours on a helicopter.”
Another plus that the airport provides is the on-site automated weather observing system, which reports how high the clouds are, what the winds are and what the temperatures are, all critical information to flying in and out safely when there is bad weather.
The Washington Regional Airport is funded by city, state and federal transportation dollars, which are used in maintenance and capital improvements, said Frankenberg.
The property where the airport is located in Southern Warren County is owned by the city of Washington, but the airport itself is federally owned — as are all of the airports in the United States, he noted.
That doesn’t include the buildings, but the pavement.
“The property is owned by the city of Washington. The pavement is controlled by the federal government,” Frankenberg explained.
The city of Washington has an airport board that meets monthly to review operations and expansions at the airport. They are Washington Aviation Inc.’s (WAI) boss.
“Ultimately the city council votes on any money spent here,” said Frankenberg.
WAI maintains the grass, does minor maintenance on the hangars and basically coordinates all the flying needs of the community, said Frankenberg.
“We know mechanics who will come here and work on the plane or whom they can take their plane to. We know several charter operations. We also know several restaurants in town that provide catering for aircraft. When a business jet comes in, those pilots don’t necessarily get the chance to just go eat at lunch, so we will bring them food . . .
“We are basically the welcome to Washington group,” Frankenberg remarked.
Airport manager Kevin Hellmann agreed.
“That’s truly what it is, whatever they want. We will do our best to set it up and make sure it happens,” he remarked.
“Any of the bigger planes that come in . . . they will call us and give us a heads up . . . we accommodate what their needs are, so we know them all pretty well,” said Hellmann.
WAI asks a lot of questions of these pilots for security reasons, said Frankenberg, but also to serve them well.
“We will have a car sitting here warmed up waiting when they land in the middle of January,” he commented. “Enterprise and Hertz both drop off here, and we take care of scanning their credit cards and licenses so they don’t have to drive in . . . they can be on business right away.”
WAI has booked charter flights for businesses that are in town — once to get as far away as Winnipeg, Canada.
“That was unique in that they needed to leave an afternoon meeting here in Washington and make an evening meeting in Winnipeg, which is unheard of with commercial travel, so that had to be a charter operation,” said Frankenberg.
“It was not their company aircraft. It was one that we found from the region here.”
In the 1950s, the Washington Jaycees, among others, looked around for an airport site.
The Duncan family, which owned Zero Manufacturing Co., contributed to the push for an airport.
Planning for an airport began in the late ’60s, and construction began in 1971. Some governement funding was used, but also a lot of local funding, to build a 2,700-foot-long runway, said Frankenberg.
The runway was expanded to 3,300 feet in late ’80s/early ’90s. Some taxiways were added, followed by the first sets of hangars.
In 2000, doors were added to the hangars to keep birds and the tinder they can bring out to protect the aircraft, said Hellmann.
In 2004, an all new concrete runway was built to replace the older paved runway. It’s length is 5,000 feet, which allows for jets to land at the airport, said Hellmann.
New pavement around the hangers was added in 2011.
Currently, Washington Regional Airport has 36 “T” hangars (both open- and closed-door style), plus three spaces in the main hangar, as well as one private hangar.
The biggest aircraft kept at Washington Regional Airport are pressurized twin-engine aircraft, said Hellmann.
Frankenberg said the hope is that “through future funding” and expansion plans the Washington airport will have the ability to house jets.
“It takes bigger doors, bigger hangars, and it also takes for the structure to be built out of the floodplain,” he said. “We’re hoping to build a new terminal that’s above the floodplain and corporate hangars — that’s a big thing we’re hoping for.”
The airport layout plan (ALP) is currently being drawn up and is expected to be completed by the end of the year, said Frankenberg, noting that will make the airport available for the expansion funding.
“As you travel around the country and look at different terminal buildings, the amenities are unique,” said Frankenberg. “A lot of them want to be able to land here and have their meeting here (at the airport), so conference rooms are kind of important.”
Showers also would be included so people can freshen up.
“Some of the plans would require purchase of land, but the majority of the land is already owned as part of the airport,” said Frankenberg.
There is sometimes criticism about the airport’s location. People ask, “Why are we pumping money into a floodplain?” said Frankenberg.
But pilots are keenly sensitive to what happens if they have a mechanical problem or can’t make it to the field, he commented.
“Being in this flat river bottom is like having your own state of Illinois. You can just land anywhere, versus being in the hills of the Ozarks, which are really hard on an aircraft.”
Too Loud for Some, Fun for Others
There are some people who live close to the airport who are offended by the sound, said Frankenberg, who admits you can hear the aircraft taking off, and takeoffs are permitted 24 hours a day.
So how loud is it?
“There are certain times of day and weather conditions that will change the sound,” said Hellmann. “We have a pretty good relationship with the pilots. We like to keep the noise down. Nobody plays around out here.
“Very seldom do we get complaints.”
Frankenberg noted that WAI gives preference to the runway that provides the least sound and is the farthest away.
“There are some recreational pilots who come and go on weekends, and if someone feels the aircraft is too low, they can call the airport, we will find out who they are and let them know that we don’t appreciate that,” said Frankenberg.
However, the flip side of the story is that there are other people who like their proximity to the airport, said Hellmann.
“If you look up on that hillside, you see a park bench . . . they sit up there and just watch.
“Another gentleman, built a big deck so he can sit outside and watch the airport.”
There also are people who come to the pavilion at the airport just to watch planes come and go, said Frankenberg, who wants everyone to know that the airport welcomes them.
“Residents should know they can come to the airport, park in the lot and watch the planes,” he said.
“We do have wireless out here that’s free, so people can come out to watch the aircraft and play on their computer. The purpose of the wireless is for the pilots, but it is available to anyone.”
The airport also welcomes young people to tour the facility. High school students with a group called Young Eagles regularly make visits, and there are some teachers in the area who bring their classes.
Hellmann said he’s given tours to Boy Scouts, groups from the YMCA and daycare centers.
For more information, people can call WAI at 636-433-5454.