City’s airport flying toward future

75th anniversary of airfield to be marked this weekend

Pulsar pilot Bernie Berger, of Spring Hill, Fla., closes his cockpit as Ray Wilhelm of Bermuda Dunes, Calif., holds the plane Thursday afternoon at the Lawrence Municipal Airport. The Lawrence airport will celebrate its 75th anniversary this weekend.

The Lawrence Municipal Airport will celebrate its 75th birthday this weekend, but the focus won’t be on the past; it’ll be on the future.

With construction to begin soon on the final phase of a $7.1 million airport overhaul, city leaders are hoping to turn the airstrip into a hub for aircraft businesses.

“I think the last couple years has positioned us to really enjoy a resurgence in aviation for the airport,” said Rick Bryant, chairman of the city’s Aviation Advisory Board. “I think our best years are yet to come.”

The past 75 years have seen the airport transformed from grass strips to asphalt runways equipped to handle large business jets. It houses more than 60 planes nightly, is home to cutting-edge Kansas University aviation research and frequented by NASCAR teams, musicians and corporate executives. The airport accommodates about 100 “flight operations” — take-offs and landings — each day.

Early days

The airport was dedicated in 1929 with a ceremony that drew 6,000 people, according to newspaper accounts. It was the brainchild of local aviation enthusiasts who pooled their money to purchase airplanes and proposed the idea of an airport to the city and Chamber of Commerce, Bryant said.

Lawrence Municipal Airport in 1947

He said he hadn’t been able to find evidence of an older continuously operating airport in the state.

Initially, the airport had four grass runways. They were paved in 1936 using 15 railcars full of cinder.

The airport was probably busiest between 1939 and 1943, when the Civil Aeronautics Authority, the precursor of the Federal Aviation Administration, created a flight training program in Lawrence to prepare young men for World War II military service. About 400 people were trained as pilots during the era, Bryant said.

New landscape

Delbert Erhart’s earliest memories of the Lawrence Municipal Airport were soggy ones.

Erhart, 88, moved to Lawrence during the great 1951 flood to serve as the airport’s manager and operator, a position he held for 20 years. Pilots were scrambling to move their planes to other airfields to avoid the onslaught of water.

Aerial photo of the airport in 1976

That old airport was a far cry from the airport of today.

“It had been cinder, but over time it kind of got diluted with dirt,” he said of the runways. “They were dirt strips and at some parts a little grass. That was about it.”

Today, with hangars lining two sides of the runways, he said the airport barely resembled the airfield he first encountered.

“None of this was here at all,” Erhart said. “We had a little office building that was a mud-block building and had a shop attached to it.”

In those days, the busiest times were KU football and basketball games. More than 100 small airplanes would land at the airport before some games.

Today’s traffic

Stunt show on Sept. 15, 1982

Today, 75 years later, game days are still a busier-than-usual time for the airport, said Lloyd Hetrick, owner of Hetrick Air Services, the company the city contracts with to run the airport.

NASCAR race days also are a major draw. Other typical traffic includes KU’s jet and propeller plane, both of which are housed at the airport; corporate jets from Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target or the Gannett Corp.; and the occasional celebrity. Dwight Yoakam prefers to fly to Lawrence when he’s playing in the area because his tour bus can drive up to meet the plane.

Current improvements at the airport are aimed at attracting more and larger planes. The renovations include extending both runways and creating a new taxiway.

“One of the biggest improvements is we have this bigger ramp that can accommodate bigger aircraft,” Hetrick said. “We’re getting more and more jet traffic. After 9-11, more companies are flying by corporate jet.”

Business future?

Bryant said he hoped the improvements would help make the airport a center for economic development for Lawrence.

Airport in 2002

He said the airport had about 30 acres of land that could be developed for aviation-related businesses. Two years ago, a company nearly signed a purchase agreement to develop eight acres but withdrew at the last minute, he said.

“The first advantage is if you have a small manufacturing firm, they need to do research,” Bryant said. “They need a skilled work force. There’s a good synergy there with KU.”

Also, the airport isn’t controlled by a tower and has low air traffic volumes, which make it more accessible.

“I’d like to see the ground around here developed for aviation manufacturing and aviation research and development,” Bryant said.

So as the city prepares to mark 75 years of public aviation in Lawrence, city officials are looking to the future.

“We continue to grow,” Bryant said. “We continue to prosper. We continue to be a great front door from the skies for the city of Lawrence.”

1929Six thousand people attend dedication of the airport, which had four grass runways.1936Runways surfaced with cinder.1958New asphalt runway was constructed, including runway lights.1977City purchases the airport from the Kansas University Endowment Association.1986Current terminal constructed.1987Hangar for fix-base operator Hetrick Air Services constructed.2000First step in $7.1 million in runway, taxiway and apron improvements begins.
The Lawrence Municipal Airport is celebrating its 75th anniversary Saturday with an open house. Because of a limited number of parking spaces, event organizers recommend visitors carpool to the site.Scheduled events include:7 a.m.-9 a.m.: Fly-in breakfast sponsored by Knights of Columbus. Speaker is George Laliberte, acting director of aviation for the Kansas Department of Transportation. $5 for adults, $3 for children.9 a.m.-2 p.m.: Open house exhibits, including static aircraft displays, acrobatic shows, door prizes and helicopter rides available for a fee.11 a.m.-1 p.m.: Appearance by NewsChopper 9’s Johnny Rowlands.1 p.m.: Aerial ribbon cutting ceremony and rededication for improved runway.