The success of Indiana’s small regional airports ebb and flow in tune with the economy. Most airports have seen downturns in business and aero tourism the past few years, but they're also reaping the benefits that come from involved local sponsors and pilots.
“A lot of times, on a Saturday morning, pilots do what we like to call ‘go out for the $100 hamburger,’” says Putnam County Regional Airport spokesman J.R. Scott.
The ‘hundred-dollar hamburger’ he’s talking about is slang in the pilot community. The phrase stems from the long-ago cost of operating a small plane to fly round-trip to and from a restaurant. Many pilots made that kind of journey for the airport’s annual appreciation days this summer.
But, it was much more appealing to fly to Greencastle’s regional airport when it had a restaurant, hotel, bar and conference center on the field, Scott says. Those services have since been diminished or closed down completely.
Dozens of other airports around Indiana face the same kind of issue – how to improve when money and income sources are scarce.
One way to do that is the Airport Development Fund – a grant available to federally-funded public use airports where three entities split an improvement project’s cost. There are 65 airports in the national airport systems plan, and 70 in the Indiana Department of Transportation’s state plan.
Under the grant, the federal government fronts 90-percent of a project’s cost, and INDOT splits the remaining 10-percent with the local airport sponsor.
“When the airports are constantly improving themselves and taking advantage of those great federal programs out there, the FAA does not have an attitude of build-it-and-they-will-come,” INDOT Aviation Manager Martin Blake says. “It’s we’re-helping-you-build-and-maintain-it-because-they’re-already-there.”
Blake says INDOT hopes to release the latest edition of Indiana Airports’ Economic Impact Study this fall. When it was last released in 2012, general aviation airports reportedly contributed to more than five billion of the state’s $14 billion in economic output.
Municipalities, such as the City of Frankfort, want a bigger piece of that economic pie. Officials there approved a multi-million dollar hangar project this year in hopes of bringing in more corporate jets.
Frankfort Mayor Chris McBarnes says the airport was a sticking point with ConAgra Foods executives. He hopes the accessibility, plus the short drive from Frankfort to Indianapolis, attracts more attention.
“If the Superbowl ever comes back to Indianapolis, we want to be in the running,” McBarnes says. “If celebrities are flying in G6 jets, we want to be in the running for them to fly into Frankfort and to be able to house their jets here.”
Back in Greencastle, J.R. Scott says the airport is the reason global material handling manufacturer Crown Equipment planted its business in Putnam County.
Scott says a runway can be as important as Main Street, and local officials are noticing.
“The airport’s going to be their first impression of the Greencastle community, of Putnam County, and we want that to be a positive and reflect positively, our community to them,” he says.
For privately-owned airports -- such as Franklin’s Flying Field -- federal grants can’t be applied, and there’s no local sponsor trying to hook corporate jets. Instead, manager Robert Cohen is using the money he makes from building rent, flight school and selling planes on the side to rehabilitate the airport.
Cohen says when he was a child, the airport hosted fly-ins every year but the practice eventually stopped and the airport was abandoned. He says it’s going to take years, but he’s got the same goal as other pilots – to make sure as many as possible can enjoy the airport.
“I want them to come back out,” Cohen says. “That’s about it – come out, hang out, see cool planes. Enjoy the community we have here.”
Cohen says it’s been at least a decade since the field drew in a big fly-in crowd of more than 600 people. In Putnam County, a few thousand people turned out for the airport appreciation days.