If it weren't for the constant news about the city's problems with commercial air service, Columbia Regional Airport might be a mirage, a myth or a figment of the imagination.
And that's no exaggeration.
But people like Randy Clark, Brenda Ravenscraft and Janet Ford wish it weren't that way.
"You've lived here all your life, and you don't know Columbia has an airport," Ford, manager of Columbia's Lockheed Martin flight service station, said with a laugh. "A lot of times, I've run across that personally."
Clark, general manager of Central Missouri Aviation, echoes Ford. He wants as many people as possible to discover what he's known for more than 30 years.
"It's real simple," Clark said during a recent tour of the airport. "We're 12 miles out of town. We're out of sight, out of mind."
That might be the case, but it would behoove the public to pay more attention. For one thing, a lot of the public's money is being thrown at the airport. The city manager's budget proposes spending $4.03 million on airport operations in fiscal 2009, an 11.4 percent decrease from this year. Much of that budget comes from a half-cent transportation sales tax that Columbians and others who shop here pay. This year, that tax will generate an estimated $1.1 million. And the federal government chips in, too. This year, it will spend $645,000 on capital projects to keep the airport up to snuff.
Money aside, it's important that people know that the airport - if not yet a hub for major flights - certainly is a hub of activity. There's the man from Central Missouri Aviation who's swapped handshakes with presidents and a prime minister. There's a post office facility that can sort more than a million pieces of mail a day. There are private pilots who come and go for business and pleasure. There's the woman who owns the only restaurant at the airport and relies on regulars to keep her in business. And there's the air traffic control tower where a four-man team directs pilots in and out of the airport using their instincts and tools no fancier than a set of binoculars.
In an effort to familiarize Columbia with everything that goes on at the airport, the Missourian spent several days interviewing the people behind the scenes and behind the headlines. Here are their stories.
Central Missouri Aviation
Randy Clark champions the airport's cause as if public relations is part of his job description.
He said the airport has certain benefits - a long runway, landing systems and good service (A plane that lands at CMA can be fueled in 10 minutes and up in the air in under half an hour.) - that allow it to compete with the rest of the country's airports.
Clark started working here in 1978, pumping gas into planes while studying art at Columbia College.
"I still do it on occasion," he said. "We're in a business where it's all about customer service."
Over the years, including the past 18 as general manager, Clark has met several presidents, the likes of Elton John and Margaret Thatcher, MU football teams and the many competitors that visit Columbia to tempt fate against the Tigers. He said he coaches his employees to treat everyone who lands at the airport like any other customer.
His favorite face-to-face meeting was with Thatcher, the former British prime minister who landed at the airport in 1996 before speaking at Westminster College in Fulton. She came to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech.
"I've just always had great respect for her, and it was neat to meet her in person," Clark said.
Central Missouri Aviation facility's seven hangars house 38 airplanes. One hangar, built in 2006 at a cost of $1.1 million, totals 18,750 square feet and opens with the heavy push and swing of a 28-foot door.
You can tell with just one conversation that Clark keeps mentally sharp on all things related to the airport. He can quickly list the private planes that rent hangar space from Central Missouri Aviation. He knows the names of the pilots, though that cannot be divulged, and has a handle on what each does for a living.
The planes inside belong to doctors, lawyers and a wine barrel maker, among others. Most of the aircraft are white and dolphin-shaped, with stripes of color splashed on their sides.
When crews and craft land outside Central Missouri Aviation's main building and hangars, ground workers meet the pilots to see what they need. It could be rest in one of the nearby lounges. Or fuel from an underground storage farm that contains 20,000 gallons of jet fuel and 12,000 gallons of general aviation gasoline.
"We're like a truck stop," Clark said. "Sometimes people tell us they're coming. Sometimes people just show up. So we meet them, greet them and try to accommodate them."
In addition to providing flight training, fuel and services for any pilot who has a need, Central Missouri Aviation rents space to Columbia Avionics. The company does electrical work on airplanes, refitting them with global positioning systems and other components that can cost up to half a million dollars and require stripping the plane down to its frame.
Columbia Avionics President Lance Fox told the Missourian he did not want to participate in an interview. "Avionics encompasses all of the navigational and communication systems in the airplane," Clark said. His sales pitch for Central Missouri Aviation, Columbia Avionics and Columbia Regional reveals a feeling of pride about an airport that for many is unknown, ignored or reviled.
Clark said that Columbia Regional Airport is indexed - meaning the Federal Aviation Administration recognizes it as a facility that operates with at least one airplane that can transport 30 or more passengers - and that it competes for people traveling between the East and West coasts.
"This may be the Columbia Regional Airport," Clark said. "But honest to God, this is a national airport out here."
Brenda Ravenscraft, owner and operator, wipes down the brown tables, pulling crumbs away and capturing them in her cloth. The restaurant's entrance is a set of stairs situated between brick walls. A neon sign tells customers that the restaurant is open.
It might be packed with 50 people, but the huge windows on one side of the Skyline Café make eating here a treat. Things start to feel spacious. Plus, unless you get the chance to sidle up to a window in the Kansas City or St. Louis airports, this might be the closest you can get to seeing an airplane take off into the blue sky.
Ravenscraft answers the phone, pulling it from her pocket and addressing the caller with a can-do attitude.
"Skyline Café, what can I get you?" she asks. "A taco salad. OK, it'll be ready in about 10 minutes."
Ravenscraft serves home-style desserts, tenderloins, hamburgers and fries that she cuts by hand.
During the 49-day gap in commercial air service that began when Mesa Air ended its flights to Kansas City in June, Ravenscraft's restaurant has been able to function from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. five days a week with only two people - herself and a cook.
A lunch special, including tax, runs $8.11 for meatloaf, mashed potatoes, greens and a drink. The plate comes from a small kitchen tucked in a corner behind two wooden bars.
When Mesaba Aviation starts its Northwest Airlines flights to Memphis on Tuesday, a sort of smorgasbord might be the first thing travelers see. Ravenscraft said she will have coffee and other refreshments, cinnamon rolls and muffins waiting outside her restaurant early that morning, so travelers won't have to trudge up the stairs with their luggage.
Ravenscraft said it's been hard to maintain the same level of business since commercial air service left Columbia. How does she compensate for the incalculable losses?
"Cry," Ravenscraft said. "You don't make it up. There's no way you can make it up."
But she is certainly trying. Ravenscraft picked up operation of the restaurant less than a year ago and said she intends to stay. She spends time building a clientele, regulars who know her cooking.
Joe Rutherford works as maintenance director at Central Missouri Aviation three days a week. He eats lunch at the Skyline on one or two of those days.
"It's convenience. It's Brenda's service," Rutherford said. "She puts out a good product."
He said he enjoys the restaurant's desserts and specials.
"It's whatever you fancy," Rutherford said. And it beats putting change in a vending machine or driving 15 minutes into town on an empty stomach.
Ravenscraft said that while she enjoys running the Skyline, she's also planning to add catering to her business. She appreciates the loyalty many of her customers show.
"I'm happy here," she said. "I've met a lot of nice people. They're good to me. My regulars are my regulars."
A private pilot
John Runzel has visited Columbia Regional Airport twice in his travels as a father. Once was to visit MU with his wife, Julie, and his 17-year-old son, Johnny. Another was to drop Johnny off at MU for a week of business camp this summer.
"I think you guys have a real nice facility," Runzel said. "Every time I come there, they have a car waiting for us. And you can drive that car right up to your plane."
Runzel lives in Chicago, the base of operations for a business with his brother that manufactures electronic wire and cable for sale to distributors.
He was at the airport in early July checking his Piper Dakota before flying home.
To fly in for business, a smaller airport makes travel more accommodating, Runzel said. He can hit two to three airports the size of Columbia's in one day and be home in time for dinner.
"It's the only way to go," he said.
Flying a plane from Chicago to Columbia takes only 2.5 hours and about 38 gallons of gasoline.
"The cost of the fuel is kind of like driving a big SUV, but you're getting there a little faster," Runzel said.
Before taking off, he performs a 15-minute inspection of the plane. He twists off a cap to check the gas and skims his hand carefully over the smooth wings. The wind tosses his hair and muffles the conversation between he and his son.
Runzel won't use a commercial airline unless he's flying more than 800 to 1,000 miles.
The pilot said that although his trips to Columbia haven't created much economic impact, he understands the potential economic effects private pilots can have on a local economy.
When looking to expand their business, he and his brother considered sites for a new plant. They chose a North Carolina city comparable to Columbia instead of a larger city there like Charlotte. With the new site, they can land their private plane and be only two minutes from the plant at the smaller airport.
Talking to Runzel is a lesson in good business sense. If a sales guy is twice as productive because you're dropping him off at one location and flying to another destination, then the cost of flying a private plane is paid for in full and then some, he said.
"Being able to do more with key guys, that's the biggest advantage," Runzel said.
Mid-Missouri Processing and Distribution Facility
Plant manager Prescott Bellaire said the 203 employees here sort and send letters, parcels and packages to the other 128 U.S. Postal Service stations in the mid-Missouri area, as well as outgoing mail for anywhere in the world.
Even though it's in the company of planes, the plant transports none of its mail by air via Columbia Regional Airport. All things enter and leave the airport by trucks.
"A typical day is very busy," Bellaire said. "We process more than 300,000 pieces of outgoing mail every day. Outgoing is mail to locations outside the mid-Missouri area as well as through the country and to other parts of the world. We also process 600,000 to 800,000 pieces of mail for this area."
The plant is 150,000 square feet and uses between $18,000 and $25,000 of electricity per month.
Much of the sorting and distribution work at the plant takes place between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m.
"We're sorting and processing the mail while everybody's sleeping," said Jeffrey Neff, a member of the plant's management team.
DHL, a shipping company
Airport Manager Kathy Frerking announced at an Airport Advisory Board meeting in July that ABX Air would fly its last hold of cargo out of Columbia in less than a month. The air carrier transported mail for DHL until its final flight on Aug. 8.
Fifty people, a combination of DHL employees and contracted personnel, work for the shipping company at the airport, DHL spokesman Robert Mintz said.
The operation's local manager is not authorized to speak to the press, so Mintz agreed by e-mail to help characterize what goes on behind the yellow and red DHL logo at the front desk of the Columbia location.
"The facility handles a wide variety of shipments, including domestic and international parcels," Mintz said.
He added that employees sort parcels that come from 30 pickup and delivery routes in Missouri cities such as Columbia, Kirksville, Boonville, Lake of the Ozarks and Macon.
Mintz would not disclose whether the end of cargo flights at the airport would prompt layoffs or a change in how the facility functions. He did, however, have word on what to expect of DHL's future in Columbia. Packages are no longer leaving Columbia by plane.
"But we'll still continue to provide pickup and delivery services in that area," Mintz said.
Larger and more fuel-efficient airplanes will land in St. Louis, and trucks will bring the mail cargo to the sorting facility here, Mintz said.
"This is one part of DHL's comprehensive U.S. restructure plan, which involves optimizing its air network to reduce costs and increase efficiencies," Mintz said.
And the company nationwide is in talks with United Parcel Service to have it pick up the baton and restart cargo flights out of Columbia Regional Airport.
"We are in conversations now with UPS on the specifics of our operational plan," Mintz said. "We will not be releasing the specifics of an agreement until a final agreement is signed."
Air traffic control tower
At Columbia Regional, Mike Holowchik is the conductor, the maestro, the master of the skies. His time in the military as an air traffic controller prepared him well for the work he does as manager of the control tower at the airport.
When President George W. Bush visited Missouri in 2006, Air Force One came into Columbia Regional with the city's approval.
"He came in, no problem," Holowchik said. "When he took off, he blew away four signs. The city had to pay for that."
Before 1997, the airport's tower was staffed by nine employees from the Federal Aviation Administration at an annual cost of about $900,000. Since that time, the FAA contracted the tower to Midwest Air Traffic Control Service. It's functioned for the past 11 years with only four full-time controllers. All of the current employees are either retired from the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Air Force. And the cost to staff and maintain the tower hovers around $250,000 each year, an obvious savings.
In talking about the change in tower operations and personnel at the airport, Holowchik said: "People had one and two years of experience. They were learning how to talk with a plane. We each came in with at least 20 years."
It helps to have people who know the pilots and work from a well of experience in the tower, Holowchik said. The controllers work eight-hour shifts and average 100 operations a day, depending on weather, to make sure flights in and out of the airport run smoothly.
"You've got a group of guys who are homesteading, if you want to call it that," he said. "And that's a good thing."
Holowchik has a map in front of him that shows the flight patterns pilots routinely take into Columbia Regional Airport. The black lines cross over each other like highway routes on a travel map. If two pilots are on the same route, going the same direction or meeting each other along the way, Holowchik said they must make sure they are flying at different altitudes.
One of the computers in the tower has a screensaver with stars that fly past like the opening credits to a "Star Wars" film. The tower's windows stretch 360 degrees around the structure. Even on a cloudy summer day, with rain on the horizon, the clean windows give a crisp view of objects in the distance. Trees seem to look up at the tower. Nothing 12 miles out of town stands taller.
Anything in Class D airspace - below 2,500 feet and within a five-mile radius of the tower - is Holowchik's turf.
"If you come into my backyard, I want to know about it," he said.
His job includes communicating with pilots, telling them when they can land and designating the runway.
"Just like a line in school," he said. "You follow him. You follow him. That's what this job is."
And it's an important one.
"You're talking about people's lives," Holowchik said. "All it takes is one little Cessna to run into a commercial airplane."
Holowchik said he enjoys the job, especially since the relaxed atmosphere saves him from working in a high-stress tower at a larger airport.
"We have no radar up here," he said. "A lot of pilots think that. All we have up here are my contact lenses, these binoculars and pilot reports."
If pilots need radar help any time of day or night, the controllers phone Springfield. Holowchik said the tower is somewhat irreplaceable for operations at the airport.
"If this tower went away to no tower, a lot of businesses won't fly into an uncontrolled airport," he said.
Lockheed Martin Flight Service Station
For the 34 employees at Lockheed Martin's Columbia site, the devil is in the details.
Janet Ford, the manager, said the facility, which has served all types of pilots in some form or another since 1985, provides three essential services.
First, the station can brief pilots on weather conditions at departure, along the flight route and at the destination.
"For a student pilot, it's very detailed," Ford said. "For a corporate pilot, the briefing may be very short."
In addition to a weather briefing, Lockheed Martin offers to file a flight plan for its pilots. The station can make suggestions and put the information into an air traffic system. Ultimately, however, the pilot is responsible for choosing a route.
In the unfortunate event that a pilot doesn't make it to his or her destination on time, Ford said the station can then perform its third function of search and rescue.
"We actually work as one unit," she said. "But we are part of a bigger team. And being part of that bigger team, there are times that we help other facilities."
Ford said her employees are mostly type-A personalities, which fits well with the nature of the job.
"We're very aggressive," she said. "And we believe in getting the job done and doing it right."
The station averages 650 calls per day from pilots, contributing to the more than 12,000 calls that the company's 18 facilities - 15 stations and three hubs - receive each day. Its employees talk with customers in Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and southern Illinois. General aviation and military pilots are heard over the airwaves, too.
Lockheed Martin's services go beyond what can be found at the local flight service station. A computerized address reader, critical to one of the airport's postal sorting plants, bears the mark of Lockheed Martin.
Airport expects economic boom when Mesaba takes reins
Although Columbia Regional Airport is a busy place even without commercial air service, things are sure to pick up when Mesaba begins its daily flights to Memphis. It will mean more work for the air traffic controllers. It will likely mean more business for the Skyline and for Central Missouri Aviation. And it will bring more attention to an airport that at times has been little more than an afterthought.
A representative of Northwest has already spent significant time in Columbia trying to drum up interest in the new service, talking with business leaders, MU administrators and travel agents to spread the word.
Norm Benedict, a Columbia businessman and president of the Mid-Missouri Tourism Council, is optimistic about Mesaba. He served on the airport's task force for marketing from 2005 to 2007.
"Those people are really trying," Benedict said. "And those of us who know about it see it as a promising turn of events."
Don Laird, president of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said there's no doubt that having a regional airport here is healthy for area businesses, private colleges and MU.
"People ask," Laird said. "They want to know how they can get here and service their business. It's very important that we have a good answer for them and something that doesn't require a lengthy drive."
Benedict added that Columbia's growth, especially as the population approaches 100,000, is tied to the airport and its offerings. To commercial air service. To Central Missouri Aviation. To postal sorting facilities. To private pilots.
To people like you.
"In order for us to grow in the right way - to attract businesses, to attract tourism, to get people to move here - all of those things require good air service," he said.