When I first met Capt. Tom Davis, he spent 30 minutes telling the history of the Crystal River Airport and his repeated run-ins with Gerry Mulligan, then editor of the Chronicle.
He took one look at me, another in a long line of green reporters, and remarked that I’d probably be just the same.
I liked him right away.
Over the years, as Tom, who led the Crystal River Airport for decades, would explain some airport function or another — of which I retained, oh, about zero percent — he warmed up to the possibility that maybe I wasn’t so bad after all.
Then one day, he said it: “You’re OK, Mike. It’s that Mulligan…”
Eventually, Tom warmed onto Mulligan as well, as the newspaper’s editorial slant, which Tom always saw as anti-aviation, began to get its headwind.
“I think he’s comin’ around,” Tom told me one day.
It’s been quite a few years, but I think we’re all comin’ around to the significance of the Crystal River and Inverness airports in Citrus County. (The Crystal River Airport is now named Tom Davis Field.)
I didn’t want Business Appreciation Month (BAM) to end without a mention about the airports. That said, I put it off because it’s a subject I’m uncomfortable discussing because I know so little about aviation.
Aren’t we all in that same boat, er, cockpit? I’d hazard a guess that most of Citrus County’s 150,000-plus residents are neither pilots nor have flown in or out of our airports.
For most of us, our closest contact with Citrus County aviation is watching the airplanes take off or land, or attending fundraiser events at the hangars. The airports are a curiosity at best. We’re happy they’re here but not quite sure what they do or the role they play.
So, here’s my take from a feet-on-the-ground kind of person.
The county owns both airports and they are operated by private, for-profit companies. I haven’t examined the leases, but generally the county is paid an annual base plus a percentage off the gross sales at the airport, such as for fuel or flight instruction.
For a very long time, county commissioners were somewhat cool to the idea of putting too much money or resources into the airports. Politically, they seemed to neither boost nor kill someone’s county commission campaign except in rare circumstances. With an indifferent public, commissioners saw no need to step out in front.
That’s evolved in the last 20 years or so. We’ve elected county commissioners who are economically driven and they’ve seen the financial benefits that community airports bring. Plus, with the feds and state paying 90% of capital improvements at the airport, it’s a small local investment for potential huge dividends.
True, most of us don’t view those rewards because we’re not associated with the aviation world here. But the restaurants, hotels and shops that see business from visiting student pilots at Crystal River Airport or those involved in the new Mesa Airlines program at Inverness Airport (more about that in a minute) are certainly aware of those airport benefits.
Davis, who I like to say has been flying so long he started when the Wright brothers were teenagers, sold his company, Crystal Aero Group, in 2017 when he was 90. The new owner, James Wu Chen, has operated the Crystal River Airport since then and this month he hosted the BAM chamber mixer.
Then there’s Inverness, which has always been the younger sibling in the airport pecking order. That’s also changed, with the county setting aside over 200 acres for a business park and leasing the operations to Andy Chan and Shavonna Reid with Right Rudder Aviation.
What these two know about the airplane business is off the charts, and I appreciate their attempts to explain some of it to me.
Their big recent announcement from Right Ridder is a pilot certification program involving Mesa Airlines and Pipistrel Aircraft. Pilots needing 1,500 flight hours to fly commercial jets can do so by flying the Pipistrel planes from Inverness Airport.
(That’s a super duper easy explanation. Follow the links please for details.)
Not only is that an economic boon for Inverness, it’s good for commercial passengers everywhere who are fed up with canceled flights due to pilot shortages. This certification program will help bridge that gap.
I know this isn’t much detail about our airports. But I feel pretty certain: We’re better off with them and their success is, excuse the pun, just taking off.
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Mike Wright has written about Citrus County government and politics for 36 years.