A lot of good things are happening and will be happening soon at the 88-year-old Lake Wales Municipal Airport on the city’s west side, and Alex Vacha is very excited to be in the thick of it all.
With a switch in administrative structure at the city-owned airport, Alex is the new airport manager. His first day on the job was April 4, and he’s been on the go ever since then. But, that’s more than OK with him. He told me in a recent conversation — and has told many others — that this is his “dream job.”
The job puts Alex, the city’s lone airport employee for now, in charge of daily operations at the 485-acre general aviation facility. In that role — in an enhanced role — he replaces a third-party fixed-based operator (FBO) who had been managing the airport for the city on a contract basis for two decades. Betty Hill, the former FBO, is still on at the airport, managing her successful Florida Skydiving Center business, which has brought the city considerable positive attention through the years. In fact, the airport is well known for being a center of fun and exciting skydiving activity.
A few months ago, after Lake Wales city officials decided to move away from the FBO system of airport management, they began a search for an airport manager and listed the job opportunity. With training and experience as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army Reserves, an education from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and a background in military flight operations management and teaching, it was just the kind of job Alex had been seeking.
Alex came across the management listing while working as a teacher for Hillsborough County Public Schools. He applied for the job and earned the offer, winning public accolades from Lake Wales City Manager Kenneth Fields — his new boss — for being “a very enthusiastic, hardworking young guy.”
Alex is 27 years old, but he has aviation experience beyond his years. He told me he still flies the Blackhawks for the Army Reserves. While serving in an active-duty rotation with the Army, he managed medivac flight operations in Kosovo, a section of what used to be Yugoslavia in Eastern Europe. He also told me he holds a commercial rotary-wing pilot’s license and a private fixed-wing license.
Most of Alex’s management duties at Lake Wales Municipal Airport will keep him on the ground, but, given his licensing and experience as a commercial and private pilot, I think he can relate well to the pilots who regularly use the airport and the many more pilots he hopes will use it in the months and years ahead.
One of the first tasks Alex oversaw was the complete remodeling and refurnishing of the airport pilots’ lounge and flight-planning room. That project, complete with new large-screen television, microwave oven, and other creature comforts for aviators, was finished in June at a cost of about $4,000.
“The focus now is to make the airport pilot friendly,” Alex told me. “We want it to be not only an intermediate stop, but a destination. We want to improve ease of access and get visitors into Lake Wales.”
Alex says the number of operations — takeoffs and landings — at the airport has improved from about 20,000 in 2002 to an estimated 24,000 this year. He expressed a lot confidence that, given a fully implemented airport master plan (authored in 2013 by the city’s airport consultancy group, Hoyle, Tanner & Associates, Inc.) and with some of his own ideas in place, the number of airport flight operations will increase significantly.
“This is a big thing for me,” Alex said. “I know this number can go up.”
A huge project that will impact airport operations for many years is approaching very soon. One of the airport’s two 4,000-foot-long runways will be lengthened to 5,400 feet — more than a mile — which will make the airport accessible to small corporate jets in all kinds of weather conditions, wet or dry. The project is scheduled to start in March 2017 and is expected to take nine months to complete. The cost is $3 million, but the city’s obligation is only 5 percent of that, or only about $150,000. Ninety percent of the funding for the runway is coming from the Federal Aviation Administration, with the balance coming from the Florida Department of Transportation.
So, Alex told me, for a city investment of only 5 percent of the cost of the runway expansion, the community, the airport, and the pilots who use the airport will get a full $3 million — or more — worth of benefits in the near term and for many years to come. It’s a great deal, he said.
Other coming airport-related improvements include an extension of city utilities to and through the airport property (the airport water supply currently comes from a well) and the eventual construction of a second access road. The only road into and out of the airport runs south from State Road 60, about a mile and a half west of the intersection of S.R. 60 and U.S. Highway 27.
Alex said the switch from FBO to city management of the airport means that “pretty much everything is changing — from top to bottom.” That includes city management of fuel operations. Alex said one of his near-term goals is to get the airport’s fuel prices down to a level that’s more competitive with the fuel prices offered by other nearby airports. That alone will help attract more pilots to Lake Wales, he said.
Alex also said he agrees with the city officials who want to see the airport property used to its full potential, which includes bringing in more tenants — even tenants without a direct connection to aviation.
“I just came back from the annual Florida Airport Council conference (in Bonita Springs), and that was a big topic for general aviation — better use of airports, even by non-aeronautical companies,” Alex told me.
All of the projects at Lake Wales Municipal Airport constitute economic development on their own, but they also bode well for economic development throughout greater Lake Wales. From the perspective of the Lake Wales Economic Development Council, it’s exciting to think about the future use of the airport by corporate jets. It’s exciting to know there will be more opportunities to showcase the community to businesspeople who will be able to visit Lake Wales in quick and convenient fashion. It’s exciting to consider the ways the EDC can help Alex and his city colleagues further develop the expansive airport property and boost the number of on-site tenants.
It’s a perfect time to be involved — on the inside or on the outside — with Lake Wales Municipal Airport.
“I’m thankful for this opportunity,” Alex told me. “We’re at the beginning of a huge and positive turning point for the airport and for the city.”
On the Web: Get key history and data about Lake Wales Municipal Airport, and access to the full Airport Master Plan (in PDF form), with a click over to http://cityoflakewales.com/369/lake-wales-municipal-airport.