Lake Wales Airport experiences significant growth and improvements

With Lake Wales’ growth set to accelerate in the coming years, Lake Wales Airport is keeping a head start and plans are underway for further improvements, according to airport manager Amanda Kirby.

Working from his office, which also doubles as a boardroom for contractors working on several recently completed or ongoing construction projects, Kirby oversaw the largest increase in improvements ever at the local airfield. Kirby was the manager of the city-owned airport for three years.

In the wake of a project that added 1400 feet to runway “Alpha” designated 6-24 for its compass headings, the airport saw the addition of full taxiways on this runway as well as “Bravo”, 17 -35. The reconstruction of the apron which serves the refueling station while also providing stowage accommodation for parked aircraft is underway. All of these projects were funded in large part by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Other ongoing projects include the construction of a hangar adjacent to Taxiway 17-35. This 16,320 square foot building will include four bays, one of which will be occupied by the building owner’s private jet. The others will be available for hire.

Jets are an important part of the airport’s future now that the runway extension has made it possible to serve larger planes. Kirby expects business jet activity to increase.

Meanwhile, a second large hangar and maintenance facility are also under construction by Jump Florida, which operates a skydiving facility at the airport. This 7,000 square foot building will allow the first local mechanical maintenance operation for public aircraft.

“They buy and sell so many planes,” Kirby said of Pasquale Rodriguez-owned Jump Florida. The new facility, she said, will allow them to repair purchased planes before selling them.

Other business activities at the airport include a flight school, which currently rents space in the main office building, which also houses the pilot lounge. Another space in this building will soon be redeveloped to provide a reception area, courtesy of the FAA.

A new airport master plan document is currently in development that will be used to apply for future FAA grants, including a new entry route. Rapid growth in operations at the adjacent Grow Healthy facility precluded the use of the Acuff Road, formerly intended to provide the entrance hallway.

It is expected that an extension of West Central Avenue will be included in this plan, which will provide the most direct access to users coming from US 27 or SR 60, as well as emergency services, thus eliminating a Railroad Crossing.

The airport does not have a control tower but instead uses a “virtual tour” program that tracks operations in real time using aircraft transponders. Kirby says the service, which currently displays about 1,000 monthly operations, will help qualify the airport for future FAA grants.

Other improvements in place at the airport include automated weather reports, known as AWOS, precision approach lights (PAPIs), and low-intensity runway and taxiway lighting that pilots on approach can activate from miles away.

The hope is that FAA funding will be given to complete the security fence, which now borders about half of the field. The intrusion of animals, including coyotes and cattle from adjacent pastures, is cause for concern, according to Kirby, who admits spending several hours one day helping the herd of invasive cows through a fence using of cars.

Robert connors

A variety of general aviation aircraft use Lake Wales Airport. The lack of hangar space was one of the limiting factors in the growth of the facility.

Is there potential for future commercial use of the airport, such as connecting airlines? “Not in my lifetime,” Kirby says, despite the convenient location. “Not unless the FAA gets serious. They are moving very slowly,” she said, but added that an injection of money for necessary infrastructure projects has been included in recent federal legislation.

As there is a shortage of hangar space statewide, the number of aircraft based at the airport has increased as new hangars have been built. “I was delighted to be able to hire a city-owned hangar in Lake Wales,” said Rudy Engholm, a pilot from Lake Wales, who previously kept his Ovation at Bartow.

“If we are to increase the number of well-paying jobs in the region, the airport is an important piece of this puzzle,” added Engholm. “Now if we could just find a good airport restaurant …”

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