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What's Up Magazine

Easton Airport: Aviation Gateway to the Eastern Shore

Oct 16, 2013 10:59AM ● By Cate Reynolds
By Cliff Rhys James // Photography by Tim Poly

So there we were on a gold shot sparkle of a day, Easton Airport Manager Mike Henry—a man who perpetually wears the look of someone who loves what he does—plus six of us eager for a tour. Our guide was keen to get started and so were we. “The U.S. Army built this as an auxiliary fi eld in 1943 using German POWs as part of the labor pool,” Mike begins. “They built facilities like this up and down the eastern seaboard for national security reasons. You have to remember that enemy invasions along both coasts were a real concern in those days.”

Striding past a collection of historical aviation photographs, we leave behind the aromas of Sugar Buns Café and plunge into the great wide open. Pausing just long enough for the takeoff roar of a business jet to fade, Mike ticks off a litany of facts and statistics. “Easton Airport is the aviation gateway to the Eastern Shore,” he proudly proclaims. “More importantly, it’s a primary economic driver for our community, providing over 160 full-time jobs with 35 employers based here; and guess what?” An impish smile punctuates his question but he’s not waiting for an answer, “We’ve been financially self sufficient since 1993, which means that unlike many other general aviation airports, we’re not a tax burden.” A cheer goes up from our group followed by good natured laughter.

By his own admission, Airport Manager Mike Henry is a talkative guy who delights in educating people about the past, present and future of Easton Airport. I’m out here with him enjoying it in no small measure because this affable man’s enthusiasm is infectious. He is not especially young yet the spring in his step and gleam in his eye can be called only one thing—lively.

I quickly realize that this is a man on a mission, a mission to enlighten all within the sound of his voice about everything the airport is and does, and why it matters to the community. And he’s enjoying every minute of it. “One hundred and seventy two aircraft are currently based here and that number is climbing,” he says. “A hundred and thirty are single engine, but we also have 18 multi-engine, 21 jet aircraft and three helicopters. And these aircraft account for only a small portion of our over 50,000 annual aircraft operations. The rest are what we call itinerant. That is, they’re general aviation, air charter or military aircraft flying into Easton but based elsewhere.” (A landing or takeoff is a single operation.)

Yes, Easton Airport is much more than a place for pilots to hang out or where planes take off and land. It’s all of that to be sure, but it’s also a thriving industrial park by another name. And then, as if on cue, Mike’s voice interrupts my thought. “We’ve got air charter services, aerial photography, flight instructions, car rentals, aviation fuel sales.” He’s on a roll now. “And that’s only part of it. We’ve got airframe repairs, aircraft leasing and sales, and engine overhauls, as well as radar, communications, and avionics installation.” Then he pauses to pat his stomach contentedly as a grin spreads wide across his face. “And we’ve got Sugar Buns Café a mere twelve steps from my office.” Another charge of laughter goes off and as it all sinks in, we turn to scan the sleek lines of a flawlessly maintained business jet bathed in the shadows of its cavernous hanger. “That one belongs to Nicholas Brady, Bush the elder’s secretary of the treasury,” Mike says before anyone asks. Which prompts me to say, “I’ll bet you’ve seen your share of VIPs and celebrities flying in and out of here?”
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His eyes crinkle above a knowing smile, “Oh yeah, I’ve encountered a few,” he assures us. “Out with it,” someone yells, “C’mon Mike, name names.” And as the chuckles subside, he relents, “Well let me see. John Travolta has been in here several times flying his Eclipse 500 jet. And then there’s Robert Di Nero and Vince Vaughn and…”

“Are they as demanding and spoiled as we’ve been led to believe?” one woman in the group wants to know.

“Yeah, some of them are.” Mike shrugs a bit. “One well-known celebrity had her personal assistant call me at home one rainy evening at around 10:30 p.m. She was very displeased that no one from the airport was waiting to greet her private helicopter with an umbrella.”

Another private jet thunders down runway 22 (southwest on a 220-degree compass heading), lifts off and carves a graceful ascending arc through the high blue dome of the sky. NASCAR drivers, famous athletes such as golfer Tiger Woods, political movers and shakers like former VP Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; we quickly learn that it is a long and varied list. “But enough of that,” Mike chimes while ushering us into Spitfire Aviations’ large spotless hanger. “Wait until you see this.” Once inside, several of us involuntarily “ooh and aah” at what appears to be a Hollywood set or museum of some kind replete with lovingly restored WWII fighter planes, Cold War jets, classic cars, even a motorcycle with attached side car.

We’ve been hurled back in time amidst the gleaming vehicles of a bygone era. “Yep, they’re all real, and they all work,” Mike says. “There’s the plane that won the battle of Britain,” pointing to a legendary Spitfire with shark-like teeth painted on the front of its fuselage. My mind wanders back to Churchill’s famous quote: “Never in the fi eld of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The “so few” were the brave but heavily outnumbered British pilots who flew the Spitfire into the teeth of the Nazi hell storm between July and October of 1940.

“This 1954 Mercedes Cabriolet convertible belonged to Errol Flynn,” Mike says, lightly touching the hood ornament. I can easily visualize the elegant creamy white machine cruising down Hollywood Boulevard to a fi lm premiere beneath klieg lights sweeping the balmy night sky. We’re reluctant to leave but time waits for no one and we still have a lot of ground to cover.

Next door, an even larger hanger is home to the Chopper Six Unit of the Maryland State Police Aviation Command. “These guys are armed and dangerous,” Mike says with a low chuckle. “Let me make sure we have permission to enter.” We, of course, find the pilot and flight paramedic to be nothing but friendly and informative. They’re the kind of professionals who calmly exude an air of competence. Crossing the floor of the capacious building, we had passed their polished and poised-for-action Euro-Copter Dauphin emblazoned in the instantly recognizable Maryland State Police color scheme. The fact that this chopper is more than 20 years old is testament to the superb maintenance and care these machines receive.

We also learn that Easton is one of seven helicopter bases used by the Maryland State Police (Troopers 1 to 7) to cover the entire state. Missions include MEDEVAC, law enforcement, search and rescue, homeland security, and disaster assessment. Just days earlier, Trooper 6 had assisted in the rescue of an injured and unconscious 19-year-old female from the Sassafras River.

The construction of the airport’s control tower in 2007 enabled Easton to upgrade to what’s known in Federal Aviation Administration jargon as Class D airspace. That, as well as the fact that it’s one of the few General Aviation airports in the country with an Instrument Landing System, helped the airport achieve a top 84 ranking out of 2,952 airports nationwide. “We’re ranked as a national asset and first in the state among Maryland’s 34 GA airports,” Mike beams.

Thanks to the federal sequestration—and the resulting budget cuts—the future of the control tower operation at Easton Airport remains in question. Spending cuts scheduled for September would have put the control tower in danger of closing, but the Senate Appropriations Committee announced at the end of June it had approved $130 million to keep 149 federal contract air traffic control towers—including the one at Easton Airport—open through Fiscal Year 2014. With no long-term guarantees, though, Mike and his resourceful team are actively working on a range of contingency plans to keep the tower properly staffed and fully functional.
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At 72 feet above sea level, Easton Airport happens to be the highest point in the area. Add in the control tower height of 77 feet and you get an unparalleled view of the pastoral splendor that is Talbot County. “We’re surrounded by wetlands and, of course, the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure,” Mike says. Of all the accolades, he seems proudest of his environmental stewardship. “We want to be good neighbors,” he says. “See that system of swales and grassy basins running all over the place? We have a mile of them in total length as part of our new stormwater management system. I’ve had Creek Watchers and other responsible environmental groups commend us on this system,” he says proudly. “We also have two new spill containment areas for fuel trucks. The FAA liked it so much they ran a feature article on these improvements in their national journal.” Still, the airport’s extension plans for runway 04/22 remain temporarily stuck in a holding pattern pending resolution of issues between the FAA and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Later, as Mike and I sit alone in his office, he directs my attention to a wall-hung painting of a Piper Tri Pacer airplane aloft in a turquoise sky. “I used to fl y her a lot,” he says. “A tree chaser I lovingly called her.” In a reflective mood, he adds, “I was with the FAA out of Atlanta when I first came up here in 1984 to perform some flight checks. It was October and, of course, the weather was just beautiful. You know how early fall is around here—leaves turning, ducks and geese in the air, the angle of the sun is softer, good weather for flying. And I’m thinking, ‘Boy this is it.’ Sure enough, nine years later we’re buying a house.”

When I ask Mike about his personal plans, he pauses for a moment and says, “In 2003, I told the county council that if they didn’t run me off first, I’d give them 10 years. But maybe I’ll stick around a little longer before I take up flying again in my favorite old tree chaser.”