In its 75th year, Monroe County Airport looks toward future development



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The Monroe County Airport allowed community members to purchase tickets to fly on the Ford Tri-Motor last week for their 75th anniversary. The plane is maintained by volunteers and rides last about 12 minutes. Rose Bythrow Buy Photos

By Alison Graham

“July 4, 2010. Not that it’s indelibly inscribed in my mind or anything.”

Payton, the airport’s director, remembers almost every detail of the story. How many planes did he steal? Five. What time did he take off from the airport? 6 a.m. Where did he crash land? Right off the Abaco Islands in the 
Bahamas.

The fugitive had almost 70,000 supporters on Facebook who were cheering him on, and the story was already on the national stages before he stepped foot in 
Bloomington.

“The media made him the hero,” Payton said. “And of course they did. It’s a great story, my God it’s an incredible story.”

Payton, who has been airport director since 2000, has seen the airport through dozens of threats. The airport celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and Payton marks his 30th year working at the airport next year.

He’s seen the good and the bad. And the Barefoot Bandit was one of the worst.

The local police came to the airport June 30, 2010, to tell Payton they believed the Barefoot Bandit, a 19 year-old kid named Colton Moore, was in Bloomington.

Moore had been working his way across the country from Washington for about two years — stealing planes, cars and yachts to travel thousands of miles. Along the way, he would break into houses to collect supplies.

During one stop in an airport hangar, he left chalk footprints showing his bare feet and from then on was called the Barefoot Bandit.

Local police had found a car that had been reported stolen in another state. Monroe County Airport was a perfect target for Moore, so they wanted Payton to be aware and ready.

On July 4, Payton and his wife were taking a drive and stopped at a restaurant near Lake Monroe for lunch.

Payton’s phone rang.

An airplane was missing from the hangar and the emergency locator traced it to the coast of the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas.

“My only thought was, ‘That little SOB got us.’”

Payton called the police and they found that Moore had pried the doors open to several hangars to find just the right plane, one that matched the aircraft seen on Microsoft Flight Simulator, where Moore had taught himself how to fly.

Later, they found video footage showing him taxiing the plane onto the runway around 6 a.m. As soon as he had enough daylight to see the trees, he took off. It was about 30 minutes before the airport’s air traffic control tower opened for the day.

When Moore crash-landed in a mangrove orchard in the Bahamas, he stole a Cadillac Escalade and then a yacht. Police finally tracked him down a week later. They chased him, shot off the engines of the boat and arrested him.

A few weeks later, airfield crews found an iPod on Monroe County Airport’s property. Payton charged it up in his office and discovered that it was Moore’s after he found downloaded Youtube videos of how to fly small aircraft.

He turned it over to the FBI, who searched the grounds and found Moore’s campsite in a small grove of trees on the corner of the property. He had stockpiles of food, blankets, money and a stack of Forbes magazines.

After erasing the data from the iPod, the FBI returned it to Payton, who still has it in the drawer of the desk in his 
office.

“Maybe one day I’ll get to see if he’s interested in having it back,” he said. “I’d like to offer that personally to him.”

***

Payton himself doesn’t fly planes. He completed the training and only had to pass the test, but after working for the airport for almost 30 years, he developed other interests — mainly guitars and motorcycles.

“For me, flying was like a mailman going for a walk,” he said. “It just didn’t have the same appeal.”

Payton started at the Monroe County Airport as a member of the airfield maintenance team in 1978. He had previously owned a restoration shop, but trying to support his family with it proved difficult. He saw an opportunity at the airport and took it. He was still able to do some restoration work, but also plowed snow, mowed grass and kept up the airport’s grounds.

In 1982, Tom Boone took over as airport director. Several years into his 18-year tenure, Boone asked Payton to be his assistant director.

Payton received years of business philosophy from Boone, who Payton said taught him how to plan ahead, live within budgets, cut costs and be more cost effective with the airport’s daily operations.

When Boone retired at the end of 1999, Payton was ready to take over. He’s been airport director ever since.

Besides the Barefoot Bandit, Payton has seen the airport through many different, sometimes dire, situations. One of his biggest projects was repairing a massive sinkhole that developed along the airport’s only runway.

In May 2011, Bloomington had 11 inches of rain in one weekend. When the crew came out for the daily airport inspection, they saw sinkholes forming right along the runway.

“We were bringing aircraft the size of a 757 in for athletic teams,” Payton said. “In my mind, all I could envision was them touching down and collapsing the runway.”

Payton and the airport sprung into action. They called geotechnical experts and worked to repair the holes and create a drainage system under the land holding up the runway. The $10 million project was completed in just over two months in 2014.

The money took away from a massive development project Payton had planned on the southwest side of the airport, where they wanted to open corporate hangars to attract more businesses to the airport.

Attention has shifted again, but this time to a 55-acre field on the north side of the property, which Payton said is the most developable piece of land the airport will probably ever have. They’re focusing in the next year or two on making it available for aviation.

Most of the airport’s new developments are being focused on business aviation, Payton said. The goal is to bring more and more business operations to the airport, which will bring more jobs to Monroe County.

Bringing a legacy of business aviation will take time. Payton thought about retiring once he hit 40 years at the airport, but there are too many projects he wants to see through.

“After 40 years you want to be known for more than a sinkhole or Barefoot Bandit, right?”

***

One of Payton’s favorite phrases is one he heard long ago from someone in the aviation industry: “If you build a mile of highway, you can go one mile. If you build a mile of runway, you can go anywhere.”

And Payton wants to open Monroe County up to the world.

He believes there is no thriving city without a thriving airport, and he makes that case year after year to the Federal Aviation Administration, the Monroe County council and the county residents.

“We built the airport to be attractive and the front door to our community,” he said. “We’re the first location in Monroe County people will see and the last as they fly out. So we want it to look good and be welcoming.”

And the focus is on business, which is the direction many regional and community airports are moving, said Dan Hubbard, senior vice president of communications for the National Business Aviation 
Association.

During the recession, big airlines withdrew their services from a lot of communities across the country, Hubbard said. Without this service, airports had to look elsewhere.

“They recognize the airport could be an economic asset to the community,” Hubbard said. “So who would it be good to attract to the airport? They often feel like having business aviation activity at the airport could be beneficial.”

And that’s the direction Payton and the team at the Monroe County Airport plans to move. Over the next few years, the airport will be working on developing land for hangars so companies can locate their operations on airport property.

“We’ve developed this airport and we still have a long way to go,” Payton said. “Now, we have the facility that is capable of attracting high quality businesses.”

In business, time is money. And the Monroe County Airport is working to help businesses get their products and executives off the ground. Being centrally located, major cities along the east coast are only a short flight away.

Directing business development and managing the day-to-day operations will be Payton’s focus for the rest of his time as director.

“If you don’t have a viable aviation facility,” he said, “your city isn’t going to be a vibrant city.”

Monroe County Airport is battling to be viable. The airport’s staff has seen a lot over the past 75 years: stolen planes, elderly couples driving down the runway, the only plane hijacking in Indiana and devastating crashes.

“We’ve had heartbreaking moments,” Payton said. “And we’ve seen a lot of changes over the years. But it’s all part of the big 
picture.”

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