The Dubois County Airport Authority received a grant in May to resurface the main taxiway at the airport. In addition, airport officials are planning a 500-foot extension to the runway, allowing larger aircraft and jet planes to take off with more fuel and heavier loads. Staff photo by Heather Rousseau
Andy Kippenbrock fueled a Best Home Furnishings aircraft using a mobile gas truck just before sunrise Feb. 20 at Huntingburg Airport. Airport manager Travis McQueen and Kippenbrock are the only two full-time employees at the facility. They use the mobile truck to provide quick access to fuel. Staff photo by Heather Rousseau
Sometime this year, John Campbell’s six-seat Piper Lance airplane will move into a new hangar on the south side of the Huntingburg Airport.
For Campbell, an information technology specialist who has piloted for close to 20 years, mostly for recreation, the move cannot come soon enough.
The airport’s communal hangars are full. Most weeks, Campbell leaves his plane on the tarmac because there is no other place for it.
He monitors the weather closely. If there is a possibility of hail, he calls the airport and pleads with staff to find a space to squeeze his plane so it isn’t damaged. Although the hangars are filled, not every spot is perpetually occupied. Aircraft land and take off each day. If a storm is brewing, airport workers make room for Campbell’s plane.
The give and take has been going on since March, when Campbell left his job in Knoxville, Tenn., to become the senior IT director at MasterBrand Cabinets. Eventually, he will move his wife and two children to Dubois County. But for now, his family is still in Tennessee. Each weekend, he flies home to visit them.
Campbell has considered storing his plane at a neighboring airport, perhaps in French Lick or Washington, where the hangars are less crowded. But that would lengthen his commute.
Soon, this problem will disappear. Last month, the Dubois County Council agreed to give the Huntingburg Airport $450,000 to build a new hangar that will house up to 10 planes.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the Aviation Association of Indiana, the Huntingburg Airport has an estimated economic impact of at least $8.7 million annually, much of which is derived from corporate aircraft.
Kimball International owns two jets — a 10-seat Cessna Citation Excel and a six-seat Cessna Citation Mustang — both of which are stored in a corporate hangar at the Huntingburg Airport. The company uses its planes to shuttle sales representatives and product development teams to business meetings and trade shows across the country. Customers are often flown in to close a business deal.
To travel commercial, “you’d be asking someone to basically take an entire day out of their work schedule to fly in, an entire day to fly out and probably a day in the middle there to actually have meetings, do tours and all that stuff,” Kimball spokesman Marty Vaught said.
With corporate aircraft, the company can pick someone up in New York or Los Angeles early in the morning, fly them to Dubois County, have a face-to-face meeting, then get them home in time for dinner with their family.
“We have found that if we can get customers into Jasper, into see us, meet us, see our plants, meet our people, visit the folks on the factory floor, we have about a 96 percent closure rate,” Vaught said.
“So in terms of how (the airport) benefits the average Joe on the street,” he added, “it is a tool and a means by which not only Kimball but all of those companies that have corporate aircraft are able to grow their business. And it benefits the quality of life of the entire county.”
The aviation industry has had few bright spots since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Flight traffic in Indiana has fallen more than 28 percent in the past decade, from 1.85 million takeoffs and landings in 2004 to 1.3 million last year, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Transportation.
But a different trend has taken hold at the Huntingburg Airport. Last year, 11,929 planes traveled through Dubois County, a 13 percent jump from the year before and the highest total since 2007.
Along with more flight activity, fuel sales have also taken off. The airport sold more than 94,000 gallons of jet fuel in the past year, shattering its annual projections.
Airport workers began refueling planes in March 2013. Dubois County Flight Services had served as the airport’s gas station for more than 20 years. But the company exited the jet fuel business to focus on flight instruction, plane rental, aircraft leasing and providing corporate flights for Jasper Engines & Transmissions.
After the handoff, airport officials lowered the price of jet fuel. Before long, pilots from across the region were coming to Huntingburg to buy gas.
“It’s completely analogous to when you drive your car,” said Dr. Jon Lowrey, a Jasper anesthesiologist who owns three planes, all housed at the airport in Dubois County. “You’re going to go to the place with the lowest gas price.”
Jet fuel in Huntingburg is more than $1 cheaper per gallon than in Louisville and 95 cents lower than in Bedford. And its rates are comparable to those in Washington, French Lick, Tell City, Evansville and Bloomington, according to airnav.com, which tracks prices.
“When they dropped the fuel prices, all of a sudden they got more pilots coming to Huntingburg buying more fuel,” Lowrey said. “It was as simple as that.”
Airport officials are also moving forward with plans to extend the 5,000-foot runway by 500 feet, a project that will cost $8.6 million.
The runway will also be widened from 75 to 100 feet. A longer, wider airstrip will allow a greater range of aircraft to take off and land. The Federal Aviation Administration will pay for 90 percent of the project. The airport and INDOT will split the rest of the cost.
The project has been discussed for more than a decade. In 2012, the airport’s governing board considered a range of options, including building a new 6,500-foot runway that would have cost more than $30 million and required moving U.S. 231. But that idea was scrapped after airport officials decided it was too expensive and cumbersome.
In the next year or so, the airport will begin acquiring land for the extension. It could be two or three years before construction begins, Airport Manager Travis McQueen said.
The airport began in 1939 as a grass strip runway. It was privately owned by local businessman Ed Schwartz, who had wanted to build an airfield between Huntingburg and Jasper, but the price of land in that part of the county was too steep.
Ownership changed hands several times before the City of Huntingburg bought the airport in 1967. The county took partial control of the facility in 1982 to expand the airport’s tax base. It remains a joint venture between Huntingburg and the county.
Today, the airport averages more than 30 takeoffs and landings a day. Two full-time employees refuel planes, mow the grass during the summer, clear ice and snow from the runway in the winter and direct plans upon arrival and before takeoff. McQueen, who has an aviation administration degree from Purdue University, has managed the airport since 2000. Cavernous hangars made of aluminum siding dot the taxiway.
Pilots pay between $100 and $175 a month to use the communal hangars. Rates for the new facility won’t be determined until after the project is put out to bid.
The facility’s total cost will be $540,000, of which the county will pay $450,000. The airport will pay the remaining $90,000 of the project. Construction is expected to begin in August and conclude by November or December, McQueen said.
Miles Recker is trying to wrap his mind around the concept of pressure altitude.
It’s a Thursday evening, and Miles, a shaggy-haired 17-year-old who lives near Ferdinand, is scribbling notes during a lecture on weather theory. Twice a week, students crowd into the airport’s public terminal for what’s known as ground school, a 40-hour introductory course on the mechanics of flying. It is the first step in becoming a pilot.
Flight instructors Eric Becher and Tyler Linder slowly walk the class through the paces of temperature inversion, density and dew point. But it’s clear that most are having trouble making sense of pressure altitude.
“Two-niner-niner-two is typically at zero, right?” Becher says. “Now we’re placing ourselves a thousand feet up higher than that. But the pressure is the same as if it was down here, right?” His words are met with blank stares.
Linder turns to Miles and asks, “OK, so what are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking I don’t know,” Recker says.
Linder is unfazed.
“OK, what’s standard atmosphere?” he asks.
“Two-niner-niner-two,” Recker replies.
“Now at what altitude is two-niner-niner-two?”
“But now we’re at an elevation of 1,000 feet so what should the pressure be at 1,000 feet?”
Miles furrows his brow deep in thought.
“It should be point-niner … two-niner-eight-two.”
“Two-eight-niner two,” Becher says, gently correcting his student.
“So at a thousand feet, it should be two-eight-niner two,” Linder says. “Everybody understand that?”
The students nod, slowly letting the information soak in.
The class is a joint partnership between the airport and Vincennes University Jasper Campus. When the ground school was formed earlier this year, organizers hoped six or seven students would sign up; 15 enrolled, the majority of whom live in Dubois County.
Some are only interested in flying recreationally. But others, like Recker, dream of jetting across the globe as a commercial airline pilot.
With more young people taking an interest in aviation, airport officials bought a Piper Warrior airplane last year for $900 through a surplus program. The plane will be used for flight instruction and for licensed pilots to rent for $130 an hour.
Airport attorney Phil Schneider is still fine-tuning the rental agreement. Officials hope to finalize the remaining details in the coming weeks.
Other youth programs are taking root at the airport. Soon, local high school students will begin building a plane in the airport’s shop area.
The program, known as Pathways to Flight, will be a school-sponsored activity that includes adult supervision. Students from across the county will be involved in building the 18-foot-long plane using a starter kit from Sonex Aircraft, an Oshkosh, Wis.-based manufacturer.
Organizers hope to raise $20,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies and tools. Donations can be made through the Dubois County Community Foundation. The project is expected to get under way this fall.
“Activity breeds activity,” Lowrey said. “If there’s nothing going on out at an airport, then nobody wants to go there, nobody has an interest in talking about it, and certainly no one wants to make any investment in it.”
“All it takes is a few people to form a kind of critical mass,” he added. “And people start to think positively about their airport instead of negatively. And ideas start to flow, and the attitude changes from a ‘We can’t do this. There’s too much liability,’ to an attitude of ‘We do this. We know there’s a way to do it.’”
The other week, Lowrey swung by the airport on a night when ground school was in session. He had heard the class was full but wanted to see it for himself. He smiled as he made his way toward the crowded public terminal.
If the airport is to sustain its success, he said, it must get more young people involved in aviation.
“It only takes one or two people who are enthusiastic and positive to get two more people who get four more who get eight more,” he said. “And that’s what happened.”