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Bird’s Eye View

Chris Willenborg

Chris Willenborg, administrator for Barnes Municipal Airport, said all of the developments at the airfield are aimed at long-term growth.

Barnes Municipal Airport Sees Blue Skies Ahead

There are a number of improvement projects on deck at Barnes Municipal Airport, ranging from building renovations and replacements to ongoing plans for increased traffic. The goal is to create a bustling aviation and business center in Westfield, and, as the airport’s administrator points out, activity is already more brisk than many people realize.

Chris Willenborg has to remember a lot of names and numbers as part of his job as airport administrator at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield.
There are aircraft models to memorize and wind gusts to track, dollar figures to record as part of ongoing capital improvement campaigns, and runway lengths and taxiway widths to remember when planning renovations.

Willenborg also has to recall, in the middle of budget planning, marketing initiatives, and infrastructure development, that there are two endangered species populating the airport — the vesper sparrow and the upland sandpiper.

“They like the sandy terrain that surrounds us,” he said, as two of the Air National Guard’s A-10 Thunderbolts prepared for landing on Runway 15-33, the shorter of the airport’s two at 5,000 feet.

While the vesper sparrow and the upland sandpiper are two lesser-known inhabitants of Barnes, the A-10 Warthogs are certainly recognizable in Westfield’s skies — they’ve been part of the landscape at the airport for nearly 30 years. However, Willenborg said that between wildlife and military jets lies a much bigger pocket of activity than most realize, and it’s in this area that he hopes to see the greatest improvement in both services and perception in the coming years.

“People often associate the airport with its military presence, but in actuality Barnes is home to about 700 employees,” he said, adding that the airport is a center for economic development in the purest sense of the word.

Air Apparent

Those employees work within a number of privately-owned businesses, both aviation-related and otherwise.

Four aircraft maintenance companies do business at Barnes: AirFlyte, General Dynamics Aviation Services, Aero Design, and Five Star Jet Center, which also offers charter flights, as do Air Fleet Management, the Aviation Management Group, and Charis Air.

Charis and the Five Star Flight Academy offer both flight instruction and programs directed by Holyoke Community College, Westfield State College, and J.P. Adams, a private firm that also provides aerial photography. In addition, the two tenants, along with ADUP, also offer aircraft for rent. Meanwhile, aerial advertising (banners) is offered by ADUP and Airborne Ads, Midwest ATC provides air traffic control services, and various hangar operators provide aircraft storage.

In terms of non-aviation businesses, limousine and taxi services are based on the Barnes property, and the Whip City Race Track is located on its grounds, as is the Pioneer Valley Military and Transportation Museum.

Barnes Airport itself employs eight people, six of whom are full time. It’s a lean operation, said Willenborg, especially in a workplace that encompasses 1,200 acres of land and can accommodate planes as large as a C-5 military craft or a commercial Boeing 47.

But the airport is currently seeing some activity aimed at growth, Willenborg explained, which is breathing new life into its facilities.

A new administration building is being constructed to replace an outdated facility, built in 1939. Willenborg said talk of replacing the building began more than 30 years ago, but when the project finally began to take shape in 2002, the process was kicked into high gear.

“We’re looking forward to being in the new building by May 1,” he said, noting that the $6.3 million project was financed largely by a state grant from the Mass. Aeronautics Commission, secured in 2005 with the help of state Sen. Michael Knapik.

Beyond replacing a building that has “outlived its useful life,” as Willenborg put it, the new administration building, along with other improvements, will help Barnes handle an increasing number of operations on the field — in layman’s terms, the number of takeoffs and landings at the airport.

“We see about 65,000 to 70,000 operations a year,” he said, “both military and civilian — but 86% are civilian. We had a 12% increase in traffic from 2005 to 2006, and we’re also seeing an increase in corporate traffic, which is industry-wide.”

However, when those planes land, Willenborg said their first view is currentlyof the old, worn-out administration building, which he feels affects overall confidence in the airport.

“When a corporate plane lands and its management steps off, we don’t want the first thing they see to be this ugly little building,” he said.

But soon, the view will improve. The new administration building, nearing completion, features glass and brick architecture similar to many newer buildings in Westfield, and is also double the size of the former offices, at 17,000 square feet.

The building will house airport management and a number of private businesses that will lease space, as well as lounge space and new showers and locker rooms for pilots. A new restaurant, to be announced, will also be added to replace the existing Flight Deck, which will be closed by its owners.

Development is also taking place in other areas of the airport, including a 20,000-square-foot hangar expansion taken on by AirFlyte, along with the construction of a new fueling station.

And on the military side of things, the two units housed at Barnes — the Air Guard’s 104th Tactical Fighter Group, and the MA Army National Guard Aviation Support Facility #2, a fleet of helicopters – will be undergoing some changes as part of the recent base realignment and closure initiative spearheaded by the U.S. government.

“There’s an aircraft transition going on — the 104th’s A-10s will be replaced by F-15s, and their missions are changing,” said Willenborg.

On the Fly

Even with these expansions now underway, however, Willenborg added that there is plenty of room for continued growth at Barnes. There are several developable lots on its acreage, and the airport also has an extensive master plan in place, which is guiding it through a long series of improvements and additions.

“It’s a pretty aggressive capital improvement plan,” he said, noting that improvements are separated into three categories: short-term, mid-term, and long-term, and represent a 20-year bracket of time, from 2002, when improvements began, to 2022, when the last projects are slated for completion.

The estimated cost for all of the projects, which range from security and safety measures to new hangar construction, environmental safeguarding, and general maintenance, is about $59 million, with 90% of that figure is expected to be covered by federal assistance, and the remainder through state (about $10 million) and local funding (about $2 million).

“A big part of that will be runway construction,” said Willenborg.

According to the master plan’s list of capital improvements, the airport’s two runways — 15-33 and 2-20, 5,000 and 9,000 feet in length, respectively — will be rehabbed, including a $34,000 re-marking project to begin soon. New taxiways will be constructed to augment the current taxiways — which just underwent a $4 million renovation — and aprons reconstructed. Hazard beacons will be replaced, new T-hangars constructed (the most common type of storage space for aircraft with wingspan up to about 40 feet), and fuel storage expanded, among other projects.

All of the initiatives are geared toward one goal, said Willenborg: to make Barnes as self-sufficient as possible. Currently, the city of Westfield contributes between $60,000 and $70,000 a year to the airport’s operation, down from $120,000 when he took his post in 1999.

“We’re chipping away at it,” Willenborg said of the cost to the city, adding that through capital improvements, new development, and some existing initiatives in place to generate revenue, he hopes to whittle that number down to zero within the next three to five years.

Revenue-producing ventures already in place at Barnes include a stretch of self-storage units for rent on the property, and billboards that stand on the outskirts of the field. Those billboards are owned by Barnes Airport and leased regularly to the tune of about $32,000 a year.

Willenborg said that, in the coming years, he’d like to see a few specific types of businesses recruited to Barnes, such as a firm specializing in avionics (aviation electronics). He said he’d also like to see a greater number of corporate jets housed on-site; costs at Barnes are less than at similar airports in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut, for example, but the distance to major destinations is still minimal.

Willenborg is also focusing attention on the tourism market, promoting the airport as a hub adjacent to a number of destinations, including the Berkshires, Northampton, and the Basketball Hall of Fame, and as a stopping-point on the way to other popular tourist spots, such as Cape Cod and the Islands.

“People don’t realize the level of air activity that exists,” said Willenborg. “There are a lot of people flying, for business, tourism, or recreation, and we want to show that this airport is an excellent stop for them, whether they’re visiting Western Mass. or passing through.”

Touching Down

But even with those matters weighing heavily on his mind, Willenborg said environmental issues are still a concern. About $900,000 is allotted for environmental filings and compliance processes in the Barnes master plan, which take into account the safety of the wetlands on which the airport sits.

The filings were also necessary due in part to some of the planned construction, such as a safety area around runway 15-33.

“We’re looking to grow revenue, but also to remain environmentally conscious,” he said. “We are located on top of the aquafer, and we have endangered species living here in addition to the wetlands.”

Indeed, the key to survival and success at the airport, he said, is keeping all of the birds in the air — large and small.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]