In 2003, Jimmy Phillips, 81, Villa Ridge, was asked to fill in for a few months at Washington Regional Airport. Thirteen years later, he’s still there.
Phillips, an electrician by trade, retired in 2000 after 45 years on the job and was looking forward to doing nothing in between trips to Florida and riding his Harley.
“I don’t need the money,” Phillips said. “But, I enjoy this and it keeps me busy. I’ll probably be out here till they get rid of me or I croak.”
Phillips said he was originally approached by a friend of his at the Hummingbird Club in Washington.
“He told me to go talk to the manager and see if I was interested,” Phillips said. “I walked in, introduced myself and I was hired. That was it.”
Unlike most people who work at airports and around aviation, Phillips says he never really paid much attention to planes and really isn’t that much of a fan of being in the air.
“I don’t fly,” Phillips said. “Every once in a while if one of the pilots out here needs someone to go up with them I will, but that’s not too often.”
Since he prefers both feet on the ground, Phillips spends most of his time at the airport on a tractor or mower constantly grooming the 145 acres of airport property.
“People ask me how long it takes me to get it done,” Phillips said. “I tell them I never get it finished. Once I get down to one end, I start back on the other end again.”
In addition to the almost constant mowing, Phillips is also responsible for preparing planes for their owners to fly and refueling other planes bringing people to Franklin and Warren counties for business or pleasure.
He explained there are about 40 planes hangared at the airport and an owner may call in the morning or the day before they plan on going for a flight.
Phillips will get the paperwork and go to the hangar and hook onto the plane with the sophisticated transport machine (a John Deere riding mower) and pull the plane to the tarmac and have it ready to fly once the owner arrives.
He added the same is done in reverse when a plane returns after a day of flying or a trip. The only difference is the plane is fueled up before being put back into the hangar to save time on the next trip out.
“The busiest time is the spring and summer, but it varies,” Phillips said. “When you don’t expect it to be busy, that’s when you get slammed. If an owner calls, we can have a plane ready to fly in about 20 or 30 minutes.”
In addition to owners’ aircraft the airport is also a hub for business travelers in and out of Franklin County.
Each year, the airport accommodates several corporate and government aircraft including Gov. Jay Nixon’s when he visits the area.
While the planes are on the ground, Phillips and others get them refueled and moved to a ready position for their return flight.
“Back before the recession we were busy all day and into the night,” Phillips said. “We would have three or four planes lined up waiting for fuel. A lot of planes stop here just for fuel because ours is cheaper than other places.”
One day Phillips said the airport received a call from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers asking exactly how long the runway was.
“They were bringing in some bigger jets with about 70 people on them,” Phillips said. “I knew the runway was 5,000 feet long. Turns out it is 5,000 feet, 2 inches long. The pilot told me he would have no problem taking off, but he needed to know exactly how long it was so he could get the plane stopped.”
Boats and Bikes
When not on a tractor at the airport, Phillips can usually be found on his motorcycle or in his boat.
“I started with a canoe when I was a Boy Scout,” Phillips said. “When you get into boats you get ‘foot-itis.’ You always want to go bigger and bigger. I went all the way up to a 30-footer at Lake of the Ozarks, now I’m back to my canoe.”
Phillips has also downsized his motorcycle in recent years after having several different styles and sizes throughout his life.
“I’ve always been into motorcycles,” he said. “I don’t ride as often as I used to.”
In the Navy
Phillips admits his love of boating as a young man prompted him to join the U.S. Navy in 1953, his last year of high school.
Phillips served six years, some of which were in a combat zone.
Phillips was placed on board the USS Plymouth Rock which was a landing craft designed to deliver troops and equipment to beachheads during the Suez Crisis in 1956.
A lesser-known skirmish involving U.S. troops that took place in between the Korean Conflict and things in Vietnam escalated.
The Suez Crisis, also named the Tripartite Aggression and the Kadesh Operation, was an invasion of Egypt in late 1956 by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France.
“We had about 300 Marines on board our amphibious landing craft,” Phillips said. “Ours was a little different from other landing craft since all of the equipment was down in the belly of the ship.”
Despite being assigned to the beachmasters, which put him even more in harm’s way, Phillips said he was never shot at and never really felt like he was in danger.
“I never realized I was in combat zones till years later,” Phillips said. “I went to the VA for something and they told me I had 21 months of combat service.”
Because of his veteran status, Phillips has been asked several times to go on the honor flight with other Franklin County vets to Washington, D.C.
“I really don’t feel like I deserve it,” Phillips said. “I see a lot of vets that may not make it as long I plan on, so I want them to go first. I guess I’ll eventually go before I get too old to enjoy it. But for now, I’ll wait.”
During the colder months, Phillips and a friend travel to the Gulf Coast of Florida for several weeks at a time and enjoy the snowbird lifestyle.
The small town of Perdido Key, which is nestled between the well-known tourist spots of Gulf Shores and Pensacola, is home for a few weeks but once the weather back here at home begins to warm and the grass begins to green, Phillips will be back on his tractor and keeping the planes flying.