BENNINGTON — The William H. Morse State Airport no longer resembles the “ghost town” it seemed several years ago, but officials involved in the operation say they need a modest funding boost from the state to take advantage of a recent surge in business.
The airport on Walloomsac Road hit a low point a half-dozen years ago. That involved lingering fallout from the loss of the facility’s fixed-base operator firm — the air cargo service AirNow — which had gone out of business in 2011.
Without an on-site operator to provide aircraft fuel and connect people to a range of concierge-style services when pilots or charter companies might call for them, air traffic at the airport fell off. Another consequence was a decline in the related business activity that can spread to the surrounding Bennington area from a thriving airport.
Jamie Hildenbrant, owner of the company that has secured the operator contract with the state, said the low activity level at Morse Airport and unused space in the hangars made him think of an Old West ghost town when he moved his Hildt Aviation maintenance company here from the Albany (N.Y.) International Airport four years ago.
Hildenbrant later formed another company, Vermont Airport Services, to act as the operator, and he won a 25-year contract, renewable at five-year intervals, with the state as owner of the facility.
NONPROFIT STEPPED IN
John Likakis, a local pilot and owner of a plane based at Morse Airport, said the situation had deteriorated six or seven years ago, prompting he and two other residents and pilots — Charles Suss and David Corey — to step in to form a nonprofit group in late 2015. Their goals were to work with the state to bring back dependable aviation services to the airport.
“Our first goal was to recruit a maintenance operation,” Likakis said, which was accomplished when Hildt Aviation based its maintenance and aircraft inspection services in Bennington.
“We are certainly light years ahead of where we were,” Likakis said this week.
Likakis, who today is employed by Hildt Aviation, said that just one of many concerns for pilots considering renting hangar space, or a “tie-down” spot, near the runway was the fear of what would happen if their plane needed repair work.
If it could not be flown to another airport, he said, paying for mechanics to fly into Bennington could become expensive. Routine maintenance also would have to be performed elsewhere while the airport lacked maintenance mechanics based there.
For several years, the nonprofit group they formed, Bennington Airport Development Corp., partnered with the state, which provides funding for an airport manager — Rob Luther — during weekdays.
The manager maintains the office and grounds during the week, including plowing and mowing, and collecting information and data about air traffic required by the Federal Aviation Administration, Hildenbrant said.
The nonprofit group also worked to ensure 24/7 services for visiting pilots or charter groups, including access to aviation and jet fuel, rental vehicles, catering, and information about lodging or local attractions. That has now been taken over by Hildenbrant’s operator company.
Today, in addition to Hildenbrant’s employees, there are contact people living near the airport who can be called at any hour, providing seven-day coverage.
His aviation maintenance company initially had three full-time workers and now has four full-time and three part-time, and is looking for another mechanic, he said.
In fact, the airport has been increasingly busy since the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hildenbrant said, since surprisingly many people or companies decided that owning a plane or chartering one was safer during the pandemic than flying with a large commercial airline.
The surge of out-of-state residents buying first or second homes in Vermont has had a positive effect at the airport as well, he said, often bringing people in for a business or vacation stay in Vermont, or just to visit for the weekend.
These people naturally look for services, Hildenbrant said, all of which his team is eager to provide with the help of other businesses. For instance, his firm works with Vermont Rental Cars, of Rutland, which also now has a location in Bennington.
With those services absent or spotty for a number of years, the area and the state of Vermont were failing to capitalize on an attraction that has proven a strong one, he said.
Hildenbrant said many private pilots or charter firms see flying into a small Vermont airport as preferable to a large airport like Albany, with heavy traffic and large jetliners.
Many are simply attracted by the beauty of the area, he said, as he was as a youth when visiting relatives in nearby White Creek, N.Y.
Like those who come for second homes or as tourists, pilots invariably “love Vermont,” he said.
Jet fuel issue
One serious obstacle remains, however, hampering what Hildenbrant believes would be a bigger surge in business — the need to refurbish the jet fuel pumping system at Morse Airport.
The system has cast-iron piping that must be replaced with stainless steel pipes, along with other upgrades, since iron can rust and could potentially contaminate the jet fuel.
The airport has regular aviation fuel as well, but Hildenbrant said that system is the same age and he wants to see that upgraded at the same time.
The airport is owned by the state, which would have to approve funding for the fuel system upgrade, he said. The job itself is not overly expensive, he said, estimated at $30,000 to $40,000.
Likakis said the jet fuel issue “puts all of this progress in jeopardy.”
He added that, for now, the aviation fuel system is problem-free, and he checks the fuel daily to ensure there are no contaminants present.
Likakis, Suss and Corey recently sent a letter to Bennington area lawmakers who had assisted the nonprofit group when it formed six years ago, seeking help in gaining state funding for a fuel system upgrade.
Listing the improvements at Morse Airport since then, they said those successes are “now jeopardized by the deterioration of the airport’s fueling facilities. For years, the jet fuel storage and dispensing system has suffered from deteriorating cast-iron piping that puts rust particles into the fuel. Recently, this rust problem has become severe enough that Hildt Aviation has been forced to suspend sales of jet fuel due to the contamination. The aviation gasoline storage and dispensing system is in only slightly better condition, but it, too, is deteriorating and in need of maintenance, updating, or replacement.”
They added, “This is a critical situation, as having to shut down fuel sales at Bennington would present Hildt Aviation with an insurmountable obstacle to continued operations. Without the ability to refuel customer aircraft, Hildt Aviation can no longer offer maintenance services. Losing Hildt Aviation would result in the loss of three high-quality jobs. Bennington Airport would be worse off than it was before we all started this effort back in 2015.”
Contacted this week by the Banner about the fuel issue, Daniel Delabruere, director of the Agency of Transportation’s Rail and Aviation Bureau, said in an email, “VTrans is working on this with our supplier/vendor. I do not have an exact timeline.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said this week in an email to the Banner, “We certainly want to address this problem ASAP. I have sent a copy of your email to [Transportation] Secretary [Joe] Flynn and have also heard from Charles Suss about the problem.”
As the state agency was preparing for a major runway reconstruction project at Morse Airport in 2017, Likakis said that installation of a new fuel storage facility was being considered at the same time.
That was not part of the project, however, when the work was done during the spring and summer in 2018.
Work in the $3.9 million federal and state-funded project included reconstructing the 3,704-foot runway down to its base, including a new subsurface drainage system; replacing the runway lighting system; extending a tree-cleared runway safety zone by 100 feet at one end; and the first phase of a project to create a parallel taxiway alongside the runway.
The 75-foot-wide runway was constructed in 1982, and both the runway and its lighting system are near the end of their life spans, officials said prior to the project.