The whir of propellers and the whoosh of jet engines from Leesburg Executive Airport at Godfrey Field reverberate around Loudoun County as the “cha-ching” of business being transacted.
In a fast-growing, high-tech area like Loudoun, it only makes sense that its transportation facilities also are cutting edge.
“Airports are not about planes, they are about commerce,” said Dennis Boykin, chairman of the Leesburg Executive Airport Commission. “It’s all about business. Sixty percent of the airplanes here are used for commercial reasons – either flight schools or people going back and forth to conduct business.”
Boykins said airports always are a catalyst for progress in their surrounding areas, from the smallest to huge international fields like Dulles.
“The Ohio Department of Aviation director is famously quoted as saying, ‘If you pave a mile of road, you can go one mile, but if you pave a mile of runway, you can go anywhere in the world.’”
The Leesburg Airport helps the economies of the town and county in several very ways, with jobs and corporations that call the airport home.
“The town operates this with more revenue that it has expenses,” Boykin said. “We have the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) renting space and we have four flights schools (OpenAir, Aviation Adventures, AV-ED Flight School and Atlantic Airways flight schools). The fixed based operator, ProJet, is now part of a larger operation. They do charters, they do the maintenance on the field and they sell the fuel for the field.
“Then we have medical rescue helicopter based here and we have several businesses that operate directly out of here, like one that does aerial real estate photography. On any given day, we have 300 to 320 people drawing a paycheck here, which makes us one of the town’s largest employment sites.”
There are also less tangible advantages to local business development through the people who use and travel through Leesburg Airport.
“Back in the ’90s the airport commission renamed the airport Leesburg Executive Airport,” Boykin said. “Any Monday morning or Friday afternoon, the jets will start lining up. Our business is focused on business travel.
“We have 250 aircraft based here and we have 116,000 operations (takeoffs or landings) a year. It’s all about supporting interstate commerce and bringing business in. When companies are thinking about moving, they look at what’s the availability for my employees to travel and what’s the availability to put an airplane in place for the leadership to travel. Each one of these corporate jets that bases here brings seven full-time jobs with it.”
The majority of the aircraft based there are in hangars, with a couple dozen more parked on the aprons.
“We have 107 individual hangars, and there also are larger gang hangars that provide storage for multiple aircraft,” airport Manager Scott Coffman.“That’s where you have two, three or four aircraft that share one hangar.”
Boykin said Leesburg Airport is a useful tool for anyone doing business – or looking to do business – in and around Loudoun County.
“On any given day you can sit here and watch people who are coming through here to do business,” he said. “You can see Greg Norman’s jet parked here while is is building a golf course or he comes back to visit.. (Jack) Nicklaus is a regular visitor and Arnold Palmer used to come down here. Multiply that times 50 and you see the number of business jets coming through here.
“They might be looking at data centers or looking at government contractors, looking at the tech corridor. We are way convenient than the Manassas Airport and way less expensive than Dulles.”
Buddy Rizer, executive director of Loudoun County Economic Development, said he sees first-hand the advantages of having Leesburg Executive Airport as a complement to Dulles International Airport.
“We think it is an important asset because we have a lot of business leaders that store their planes there,” Rizer said. “What we have learned is that professional pilots prefer these types of airfields for getting in an out.
“We have had several major players who have come in to check out Loudoun County and have used that airport. Recently, we had one business owner – everyone would know the name but I can’t mention it – who flew his own plane into Leesburg Airport and we picked him up there.”
HISTORY AS GODFREY FIELD
The full name – Leesburg Executive Airport at Godfrey Field – pays homage to legendary radio and television star Arthur Godfrey.
“Shortly after World War II, he bought the house out on Beacon Hill and had most of what is now the Beacon Hill and Shenstone developments,” Boykin said. “He was all kinds of nuts about aviation, and he would fly out every Sunday afternoon to go back to New York and every Friday evening he would fly back here.
“By the time he bought his house here, he along with Milton Berle and Art Linkletter were the big three of television, and he flew back and forth to New Jersey for years.”
Godfrey used the airport that was located right in Leesburg, and his love for buying bigger and fast planes became a problem with the other residents, who grew weary of their walls shaking and dishes rattling with each Friday arrival and Sunday departure.
“He had a DC-3, which Eddie Rickenbacker, the owner of Eastern Airlines, had it outfitted with DC-4 engines and gave it to him because he was always giving Eastern free publicity on his TV show,” Boykin said. “It drove the president of the networks crazy, but he was such a big star he could get away with whatever he wanted to do.”
Boykin said a delegation of town officials approached Godfrey about the noise issues. Godfrey agreed to donate half of his Beacon Hill property, which the town sold to use to buy the current property on Sycolin Drive and build the airport there.
“As far as we know, they only time he flew in or out of this airport was for the dedication,” Boykin said. “He had gotten rid of the DC-3 and I think his next plane was a Baron. Eventually, he quit flying here and flew in and out of (Reagan) National. We will always call it Godfrey Field because he was the one who donated the land they used to pay for its construction.”
INTO THE FUTURE
Boykin showed off a master plan for the airport, calling for an extension of the runway and several additional hangars across the runway from the main terminal, backed up against the Compass Creek development that will include a Wal-mart and the ION International Training center for hockey and figure skating. The airport owns 40 acres of land and plans to expand its availability for housing corporate jets.
“We’re looking at a jet center, the Leesburg Jet Center, and that will be a completely commercially oriented on that side,” he said. “That just adds more jets to the mix and adds an area that is focused completely on business jet travel.”
Airport officials are also working to bring another key government component to its business options.
“Scott is right now in the process of getting the grant approved by the state to take out part of the first floor and turn that into a Customs office,” Boykin said. “Now we have international flights and once we put in an operating control tower on a permanent basis, this place is going to go through the roof. That is a lot more traffic and those are people coming to Loudoun County who are looking to do business.”
THE FUTURE IS NOW
The airport does not currently have a control tower in the traditional sense, and pilots are responsible to monitor the runways and airspace for other traffic and “self-separate” to maintain safety.
Leesburg Airport is, however, a test site for a remote control tower. Attached to the roof of the main building is a 360-degree cupola with 14 cameras arrayed to see a portion of the panoramic view. Those cameras are connected to corresponding monitors in a former meeting room inside the building that allows a 360-degree of the airport and surrounding airspace.
Any moving object is highlighted on the monitors, and a person can zoom in and follow that object to get more information – such as tail number if it’s an airplane. The technology, made by Swedish company Saab, is being tested for the first time in the United States at the Leesburg Airport. These monitors could be located remotely anywhere in the world, but Boykin and Coffman are hoping to utilize the technology to save the cost of building their own elevated observation tower.
“That has really raised the profile of the town and the county,” Rizer said. “Being chosen as a site for testing that tower does nothing but raise the reputation for innovation and technology that we are trying to foster.”
Either way, Boykin said a full-time control tower is vital to the airport’s future.
“We are working with the FAA to get a tower because we really do need it,” Boykin said.