Pilots, city seek solutions

FAIRMONT – The town hall meeting at Fairmont Municipal Airport drew a crowd Tuesday night to discuss improvements local pilots would like to see implemented at the facility, from maintenance to management.

The meeting followed the City Council’s decision in June to terminate its fixed-base operator and maintenance agreements with Five Lakes Aviation. The contract, originally for five years, will instead end after one year, on Sept. 30. In the meantime, the city is examining the protocols at the airport and deciding where change needs to take place.

Because of the time needed to research the task, recruit candidates and conduct interviews, the city will likely hire an interim manager to run the facility before a more permanent solution is reached, city administrator Mike Humpal told the group gathered Tuesday night.

“We want to keep things positive; we’re not here to talk about the past,” said Councilman Terry Anderson, who was joined by fellow council members Chad Askeland and Darin Rahm.

“We’re going to change the management,” Humpal said. “Whether we stick with a fixed-base operator or switch the model … we want to hear what you have to say.”

Pilot Dan Fullerton didn’t pull any punches.

“Fire the advisory board,” he said, his unhappiness stemming in part from the board failing to make a recommendation on whether to terminate Five Lakes Aviation. Fullerton also noted that three of five board members are employed by Kahler Automation, which in his opinion, gives too much clout to one corporation.

The tone quickly turned defensive, when a member of the advisory board took exception to Fullerton’s comments, but the meeting was quickly redirected, and the session carried on without contention.

Many of the pilots present wanted to see the fixed-base operator serve as an ambassador for the community. Professionalism was stressed, with pilot Pat Beemer suggesting airport employees wear uniforms so they are readily identified by anyone flying into the airport.

Beemer had a list of recommendations that seemed popular with his peers, from requiring the fixed-base operator to provide flight instruction, to having a certified mechanic available to service planes, to upgrading the oil disposal facility, to power-brushing the tarmac on a regular basis, to fixing the hangars to prevent water from pooling inside them.

“This is my airport, and I want to see it continue in a more professional manner,” he said.

Appearance was a frequent theme. Pilot Verlus Burkhart asked that something be done about the weeds growing on the property and one of the buildings that needs to be painted. Sharon Burkhart suggested updated furniture for the interior and better signage for the site.

“We’re not advertising where our airport is,” she said.

All agreed the airport should be better promoted so the community understands how crucial the facility is to the local economy.

“We have a whole lot of corporations that would not be here without this airport,” said retired pilot and businessman Ernie Nuss.

Humpal agreed: “Half the people in Fairmont don’t understand the number of corporations that take off and land here on a weekly basis.”

One way for pilots to be more involved in promoting the facility would be to form an association, pilot Mark Raven said. It could be a way to raise funds, develop a sense of community, and discuss issues.

“We could get things out in the open,” he said.

Other suggestions included:

o Adding a designated grass landing strip.

o Installing a better security system for the hangars.

o Inviting speakers for regular safety presentations.

o Scheduling fun activities to draw more people out to the airport and potentially increase interest in piloting.

o Changing the name to Fairmont Regional Airport to reflect the wide radius of users frequenting the facility.

o Building private hangars to rent.

“A lot of these things are not the FBO’s responsibility,” Fullerton pointed out, asking what the city was willing to do. “… What’s your commitment to make those things happen?”

Humpal said many of the concerns brought up Tuesday were contracted to Five Lakes Aviation. Going forward, the city can take control back and find a better way to maintain the property. For instance, the city sprays all its parks two times a year for weeds. Rather than paying someone else to do that at the airport, the parks department could possibly take on the task.

Denny Militello, who sat on the original airport advisory board, pointed out that if the city took care of the grounds, the fixed-base operator could focus on aviation-oriented things, like serving pilots and running a flight school.

The meeting ended with enthusiastic applause, after Humpal asked the pilots to continue giving the city their input, as well as some time, to turn things around at the airport.

“I think what you’re seeing is a commitment our City Council to improve this facility,” Humpal said. “… Will it happen overnight? No. But we will work toward it diligently.”