Denton Municipal Airport stops at nothing to deliver
By: Alisha Andrews
Denton Live July-Dec 2011
A jet engine roars and spits out heat hot enough to melt asphalt, but it’s not the runway that the engine is trying to melt. It’s the snow on the runway. It’s Super Bowl XLV weekend and the biggest winter storm in 15 years has touched down in north Texas at the most inopportune moment, with fans arriving from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Thick ice and snow cover the runway at Denton Municipal Airport, the weather’s been hovering well below freezing for a week now and something’s got to give. The fans in the yellow will stop at nothing to see the Steelers and the Packers play. Their team made it and so will they.
So what’s a humble municipal airport hoping to make a name for itself do? Pull out the lawnmowers and the tractors, turn on the jet engines and ice scrapers and clear the runway. The fans will make it to the game. Waiting for the sun to come out is not an option, with 25 planes scheduled to land despite the bad weather. “We needed to get the runway back in business,” says Quentin Hix, general manager of the Denton Municipal Airport (DMA).
With a jet engine rigged on a truck, they blasted the runway, slowly chipping away at the ice and snow. To their dismay, however, the next day only brought more snow so a supervisor mowed 6 inches of the fluffy white stuff off the runway, using a 90-horsepower tractor with bat-winged mowers. It was, says Quentin with a laugh, “one of the oddest, most unique” things he’s seen.
Denton’s airport is not as well known as Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport or Dallas Love Field, but it has a following among private pilots and international businessmen – everyone from Governor Rick Perry and actor John Travolta to Peterbilt Motors of Denton and the Italian jet manufacturer Piaggio Aero. Its runways are busy with students – some from as far away as China – practicing takeoffs and landings at one the nation’s busiest flight schools. Need heavy maintenance on a jet, or a custom interior? Middle Eastern clients send their planes to Denton for refitting. With no commercial passenger flights coming in, Quentin says the airspace is “easy to navigate, to arrive and depart” – a selling point in a time of air traffic congestion.
It’s a humble airport, consisting of a small main building, a tower and dozens of large hangars sprinkled throughout the vicinity. In the immediate future, however, Denton airport is set to undergo major changes, with the existing runway expanding to a full 7,000 by 150 feet, a new runway planned, longer hours for air traffic controllers and increased security, including new perimeter fencing. The improvements should qualify the airport to handle more jet and charter services for nearby University of North Texas and Texas Woman’s University. It’s already an economic engine for Denton, says Quentin, with businesses generating 400 jobs and $250 million worth of goods and services annually.
Every day students from the flights schools, US Aviation Group and All American Helicopters, buzz in and out of the airfield. US Aviation helped make Denton the busiest general aviation airport in Texas in terms of operations. The school attracts privileged foreign students as well as local gals breaking barriers such as Laura Rusnok, a vibrant 22-year-old graduate from UNT. She is the first person to earn an aviation logistics degree from a public Texas university. Laura, who first took flight at age 14, says the business side of the degree intrigued her. “I love the atmosphere of the Denton airport,” she says while checking in at the airport one day. “It’s perfect for what I need. It’s not too crowded, but it’s not too dead.”
Since UNT launched its aviation logistics program in 2009, the Mean Green Flight team has made its home at Denton airport. The academy, which changed ownership in 2006, is among the top 5 percent of U.S. flight schools in flight operations. With a staff of 125 people, the annual payroll is projected to hit $3 million in 2011. Since 2002, they have graduated more than 2,700 pilots, including 184 pilots for the growing Chinese airline business.
Walking around the flight academy is like being at a United Nations for pilots, with students from all over the world, the vast majority from China, India and Saudi Arabia. Four students walk to lunch, conversing in their native language, while another strolls to a King Air with his instructor for a flight to Oklahoma. “I truly admire these students for coming over here,” says Laura. “They not only have the huge obstacle of learning English but they also have to learn the very technical language of aviation.”
The flight school has logged more than 32,000 flight hours and currently has 65 aircraft under wing – more than 10 times the amount in 2006. “Our focus is on professional pilot training so we stay very organized to get our students through the entire program. Our slogan is ‘On Time, On Budget,’” says entrepreneur Mike Sykes, CEO of US Aviation. “For most of the guys that are looking for a career in aviation, their two biggest things are how long it will take and what it will cost. We have a program laid out. We are going to keep them on schedule and push them through the program.”
Why Denton? “Look around,” says Mark Taylor, executive VP of the school. “All you see is open space. You don’t see any lakes or mountains out here. If one of these students needs to land, they land. We always tell them don’t worry about the planes – we have insurance – get yourself out of the air first.” Mark says he shakily completed 22 hours of flight training and now sticks to groundwork. He reluctantly threw in the towel after his flight instructor told him he was “not meant to be in the air” and his wife refused to fly with him because of his wild driving. This morning’s tour in the golf cart is no different, with Mark jumping curbs, flying around corners and zipping around the airport. (He was recently told not to drive his golf cart around the aircraft for fear he might crash into one.)
Although small, the local airport is considered to be the “North Texas Airport of Choice,” beating out its larger competitors, Dallas Love Field and DFW Airport along with the smaller airports such as Meacham and Addison. The airport, home to 300 aircraft from a chic Diamond 20 to the large executive King Air, receives enough transient traffic to qualify as a full-service airport for general aviation pilots but there’s enough airspace to make it easy to navigate. “Location. Location. Location,” says Quentin Hix. “We have full access to both Dallas and Fort Worth … and yet airspace is not crowded.” They recently teamed up with Exxon Mobil to become a fixed base operator (FBO), allowing Denton to provide fuel to incoming aircraft – a key in attracting charter business. One tenant, Nebrig and Associates, brokers general aviation aircraft worldwide.
Occasionally locals will see a jumbo jet lumbering into the airport. “We have a lot of individual pilots and smaller aircraft, but at the same time we have companies that need heavy maintenance on jet aircraft,” says Quentin. Behind his desk, through the glass, employees of Jet Works Air Center are at work retrofitting and repairing planes ranging from corporate jets to Boeing workhorses. The company is currently home to a 747 jumbo scheduled for a yearlong, $13 million renovation job, including rewiring and repairs as well as a new custom interior.
Quentin says there are big plans for the future, with 250 acres of land available for an expansion, but the low-key atmosphere is one key to Denton airport’s success. It’s not uncommon for a pilot based out of a neighboring airport, such as Meacham or Addison, to fly in for the flight school’s weekly events. A restaurant is next. “When you land your plane you’re on foot and you’re hungry,” says biology professor Don Smith, an avid flyer with 52 years worth of flight stories. He chairs the annual Denton Airshow, which attracts 10,000 people to view aerobatic teams and vintage aircraft. Luckily that’s in the summer, when they don’t need to bring out the snow-blowing jet engines.
[just the facts]
Where: Denton Municipal Airport, 5000 Airport Road
Who you might see: International students (see Chinese pilots at left), NASCAR fans, CEOs and maybe even a celeb or two.
What you definitely might see: The big King Air, the plane of an Arabic sheik or the Denton Air Fair held annually in June.
How it started: First started as a training ground for gliders during World War II, but became a civil airport after the war.
Book it! Rentals, hangars, aeronautical maintenance and more at (940) 349-7736 or cityofdenton.com.