CRESTVIEW — "Bob Sikes Airport's proximity to the interstate, to rail transportation and highways, Mobile, Pensacola, Fort Rucker and the various regional military bases puts it in a perfect location," said Derek Lott, a former Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce president, former chamber Airport Committee chairman and a private pilot.
The county's foresight to buffer the airport against residential encroachment allows the facility's industrial tenants to grow and new tenants to come in.
L3 Crestview Aerospace, north Okaloosa County's largest private employer, BAE Systems, Qwest Air Parts, Capital Aviation and Sunshine Aero Flight Testing are among regular runway tenants.
To lure more tenants, particularly those in aircraft maintenance and modification fields, county airports staff and chamber of commerce members appear at aviation trade shows. The National Business Aviation Association's meeting, the nation's premier general aviation exposition, has generated promising leads, officials said.
A pre-permitting program expedites the bureaucratic process for qualified tenants to begin building their facilities, county Assistant Airports Director Tracy Stage said.
"It allows a company to come in and essentially begin construction on facilities instead of waiting to obtain state and local permits," he said. "It drastically reduces those time frames."
Pensacola entrepreneur Dan Gilmore, the airport's newest tenant, is refining rental-hangar construction plans by his company, RonDan CEW.
"He saw what the airport did, and the steps the airport took, and that's what encouraged him to build facilities on speculation,” Stage said.
An edge on competitors
General aviation, or individual private pilots, are served by Emerald Coast Aviation, the airport's fixed-base operator. The company soon will break ground on a planned $600,000, 5,600-square-foot terminal building.
The airport has the latest instrument-guided landing technology, according to Lott. The full Instrument Landing System is supplemented by GPS and high-frequency omni-directional radio range. The combination allows aircraft to land “in almost any weather.”
Competing airports lack comparable systems, which gives Bob Sikes Airport a distinct advantage, Lott said.
"If we ever get into repetitive traffic, such as a FedEx-type package delivery company, which I see our airport eventually having, it would be essential," Lott said.
The airport hosts North Okaloosa Fire District's main headquarters, and its two airport crash tenders are frequently on call, often hired to stand by during airport tenants’ flight-testing.
Millions in improvements
In recent years, Okaloosa County has embarked on an $11 million infrastructure upgrade to Bob Sikes Airport. Improvements include repaving the runway, widening taxiways, installing runway lighting and signage, revamping the airport's storm-water drainage system, and installing utilities for future tenants.
Infrastructure improvements, funded exclusively by user fees and grants, pave the way — literally — for continued growth, officials say.
"Over the last few years, airport (staffers) have been very engaged with promoting the future development of the airport," Stage said. "In doing so, we've been able to secure a substantial amount of grant funding and construct storm water utilities and infrastructure to promote future aviation development of the airport."
"Any plane in the world can land at our airport," Airport Committee chairman Dino Sinopoli said.
The airport accommodated the arrival of an Antonov An-124, the world's third-largest aircraft, in October 2010. The plane delivered a number of Fort Rucker-bound helicopters before taking off at dawn the next morning.
In addition to demonstrating the airport's capabilities, the flight showed the county and local airport personnel’s adaptability, former County Airports Director Greg Donovan said.
Officials planned the giant airplane's arrival, mapped its overnight position at L3 Crestview Aerospace's apron, and planned its push back into take-off position the next morning.
A rental "tug," or airport tractor, maneuvered the plane into position. Widening the taxiways — which occurred after the Antonov roared into the morning sky on its return flight to Russia — has eliminated the need to rent a tug.
Hampered airport access
Okaloosa County Airports and the Crestview Area Chamber of Commerce want the issue of lacking airport access addressed soon.
From the south, airport traffic must meander from U.S. Highway 90 through Shoffner City neighborhood residential streets, including Hare Street, a dirt road.
To visit L3 Crestview Aerospace and east-side airport tenants, drivers must use the two-lane Fairchild Road, which also goes through a residential neighborhood. Though paved between Highway 90 and Crestview Aerospace, south from Airport Road, Fairchild is a dirt road. The paved John Givens Road, on the airport’s west side, serves the airport and the county's Industrial Air Park from Airport Road.
The city lacks direct access from the south, but the planned Foy Shaw Industrial Parkway — a four-lane access road facilitated by the airport's land acquisition in 2011 — should complete the link between airport property and Highway 90.
While the first application for a grant to fund the road's construction was unsuccessful, airport staffers are eying other funding sources, including grants, Stage said.
Kay Rasmussen, the county Economic Development Council's interim president, has requested federal funding for Foy Shaw Parkway and paving Fairchild Road’s dirt portion.
Recognitions, including winning the General Aviation Project of the Year for a new surfacing compound developed for the BAE Systems apron refurbishment, pique potential tenants’ interest.
"That's the kind of stuff that gets our name out there," Stage said. "Companies look at it and say, 'Wow, this place is perfect for our operation.'
"The future of Bob Sikes looks extremely good. We put it in a position to do nothing but grow. Honestly, everybody wins when that kind of stuff happens — everybody from dry cleaners, to real estate agents, to businesses that support aviation."
HISTORY LESSON: FROM AIRSTRIP TO ECONOMIC GENERATOR
Crestview Bob Sikes Airport — one of three aviation facilities operated by Okaloosa County Airports — descends from the city's original Savage Field. That "airport" was little more than a rough east-west airstrip built in the 1920s on the 100-acre site of Savage's turpentine still. It was near present-day Juke Hill and the Big Lots shopping center, according to "Crestview: The Forkland” by Betty Curenton and Claudia Patten.
In 1937, the Civil Aeronautics Authority constructed Crestview Municipal Airport farther north, approximately at present-day Crestview High School. It mainly provided an emergency landing strip for passenger planes between New Orleans and Jacksonville.
Today's Bob Sikes Airport started as a service field for Fairchild-Hiller, a company retrofitting and modifying Korea and Vietnam War aircraft. General aviation services were added in 1964. It was dedicated on May 22, 1965.
Contact News Bulletin Staff Writer Brian Hughes at 850-682-6524 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cnbBrian.