CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF
By ANDREW MCGINN
t’s been nearly 70 years since Jim Forbes climbed up onto his dad’s lap and, with uncle Bob Owens at the stick of a yellow Piper J-3 Cub, lifted off from Jefferson’s newly opened municipal airport on his first-ever flight.
Anymore, for Forbes, 74, who in retirement has taken on the role of part-time airport manager, it’s almost as exhilarating to be on the ground at the Jefferson Municipal Airport.
Talk these days is about the need for hangar space for private jets, and about where to locate the tanks containing Jet A fuel.
This fall, work will get underway — two and a half years ahead of schedule — to extend Jefferson’s runway 900 feet in order to facilitate the easy coming and going of business jets.
A plan to lengthen the municipal runway to 4,000 feet from 3,200 feet is nearly as old as the airport itself, Forbes explained.
He vividly remembers looking out from that little Piper J-3 Cub back in 1950 at the sight of green grass and creeks below.
Now, for the rest of his days, Forbes will also remember how he felt earlier this year when he saw that the Federal Aviation Administration would be awarding the city of Jefferson $2.3 million to extend the runway, the entire cost of the project.
“Tears,” he recalled.
“The older we get,” he added, eyes glistening again, “I get a little touchy.”
The FAA was always going to pick up 90 percent of the tab to extend Jefferson’s runway to the southeast and to relocate 243rd Street farther away from the airport.
But a local match, which first had to go toward the purchase of 38 acres of additional land, has been 10 years in the making — and now won’t even be necessary.
“It’s a gift from the uncle, basically,” Forbes said.
That would be Uncle Sam.
As part of legislation signed in 2018 by President Donald Trump, the FAA received an additional $1 billion to award in the form of discretionary grants through its 37-year-old Airport Improvement Program.
Smaller and more rural airports would get first crack at the money — no local match needed.
The Jefferson Municipal Airport was one of 44 in Iowa to put in for grant money, according to Forbes, and one of only three in the state to receive funding.
Forbes, a retired chiropractor who previously served on the Jefferson Airport Commission, felt a sense of validation, having personally walked the runway and ramp with top FAA officials.
“I know damn well they said, ‘We’ve been to Jefferson. Those guys are doing a good job. Let’s let them finish their project,’” he said.
The FAA is even going to pay to swap out all runway lights, Forbes said, upgrading them to new, longer-lasting LED lights from expensive incandescent bulbs.
“Which will be a big operating cost savings,” Forbes explained.
The airport recently had to replace about 90 of the incandescent bulbs at a cost of $7 apiece.
The lights of the runway are triggered by a pilot, and remain on for 15 minutes at a time.
The relocation of 243rd Street should have started months ago, Forbes said, but because construction crews were busy in areas ravaged by spring flooding, work will finally start in October.
“And they’ll work until the weather makes them stop,” he said.
The entire project is expected to be complete by July, Forbes said.
The longer runway isn’t likely to draw attention like the opening this month of the Forge, but it could prove to be one of the most impactful economic development moves this century.
“There are very few CEOs and corporate heads who come to town on a Greyhound bus,” Forbes said.
Greene County manufacturers such as Power Lift, AAI/Spalding, John Deere and Bauer Built all boast national brands.
Scranton Manufacturing sells its New Way garbage trucks globally.
There’s now talk at the airport of a local business owner who has plans to acquire a private jet — he just needs a place to put it.
The Cessna Citation XLS, the most-used business jet domestically, requires a runway of 3,560 feet.
A hangar capable of accommodating jets will be in the works next, Forbes said, which in turn will generate rent for the airport.
“If there’s one, there’ll be two or three,” Forbes said of private jets.
The airport also profits from the sale of fuel, making the airport one of the few self-sustaining, even revenue-generating, divisions of the city, he said.
The airport boasts farmland that it cash-rents for income as well.
A new, bigger hangar will be possible with additional FAA money.
“This is going to be a very positive economic development situation that will go unnoticed,” Forbes predicted, “until some of those Nashville entertainers come scooting in on their jets.”
He was referring, of course, to Wild Rose Casino — which, only five years ago was still a bean field.