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Veteran aviator sees bright future for Portage airport in new manager role

WiscNews - 1/9/2024

Jan. 9—Just months after its future was in question, the Portage Municipal Airport has a new manager and fixed base operator, solidifying the city's commitment to its aviation communities.

"It's only been a little over one month and I've got two flight instructors and a handful of students already flying," said Paul Phelps, owner of Sun Sport Aviation. "I'm already looking at ordering another aircraft for the fleet because things are going really well. ... A little faster than I expected, but its a good problem to have."

The Common Council passed a motion at its Nov. 9 meeting making Phelps and his company, Sun Sport Aviation, the new airport manager and fixed base operator (FBO). The final day for the airport's prior manager, Fly High Wisconsin, was Oct. 31.

Last summer, the council voted to keep the airport open following weeks of uncertainty about its future after two aldermen forced a resolution onto a council vote which could have directed city staff to inquire with federal and state agencies about what it would take to shut down an airport and abolish its airport commission.

At the November council meeting, Phil Livingston, the city's director of Public Works, gave an overview of the FBO contract, which allows Sun Sport to facilitate flight instruction, sales of aircrafts, aircraft maintenance services and other aviation activity. The contract is for one year, and Sun Sport has the option to renew it for two more years. The city retains the right to revoke that option if officials believe operations do not meet standards.

Under the contract, the city will pay the aviation company $24,000 from its operating budget, specifically $12,000 for consulting and another $12,000 for provided maintenance and services. There is also a clause in the contract for training, which allows Phelps to attend one training event annually in order to bring knowledge and ideas back to the airport to better its operations. The city is also required to supply two full tanks of aviation fuel and to clear snow from the runways.

Livingston said the contract requires Sun Sport to pay the city 5 cents for every gallon of gas it sells, which usually is about 8,000 gallons per year. It also states that Sun Sport will pay the city 22% of the gross funds generated from all airport activities and 50% of any revenue stemming from events held at the airport, such as its Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) Pancake Breakfast.

As airport manager, Phelps will be required to provide the city with monthly contractor's operation maintenance reports, which are to include the updated roster of all city-owned hangar leases, summary of all repairs and maintenance activities, accounting of net gross revenue generated from fuel sells, hangar leases, tie-down rentals and a quarterly budget summary.

Phelps is an Federal Aviation Administration certified flight instructor of single-engine airplanes, multiengine airplanes and helicopters, with about 2,300 hours of instruction given. He is also a military instructor pilot and instrument examiner in Blackhawk helicopters, with 820 hours worked between the two. Over his 38 years of flying military rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft, and civilian fixed-wing aircraft, he has accumulated more than 7,200 hours of combined flight experience.

He also served as an aviation safety and standardization officer, managing a $2.5 million annual technology budget for the Wisconsin Army National Guard before retiring in October and seizing the opportunity to start a flight school — something he said is rare.

"I was approaching the end of a 28-year military career as a professional Army aviator," said Phelps. "But I felt an inner calling to become a teacher as a professional flight instructor. ... I actually retired from the military a couple of years early because of this opportunity to come to Portage."

Phelps, who is also the vice president of EAA Chapter 371 in Portage, said he has stored an airplane in a hangar at the airport for the past four years, so he is familiar with the facilities.

Some of his duties as airport manager include managing hanger tenants and the fuel they use, taking care of the grounds, and general maintenance jobs such as replacing a runway light that has burned out and other repairs. He will also be on-call at all times and have the immediate decision-making authority concerning airport operations.

Phelps said he is already training flight instructors who are looking to come on board to help with his flight school, which has six participants. He said he is excited that a recently hired female flight instructor will be working with and serving as a role model for the young female pilots.

As a way of giving flight school students a more professional training path and a little more one-on-one attention, Phelps said he hopes to collaborate with local education institutions, such as Portage High School and Madison Area Technical College, so the airport can use classrooms or computers labs for its flight instructors to hold private pilot classes, instrument training classes and commercial pilots classes.

Phelps also plans to give the airport a "facelift" so it feels more like an airport when people visit, which he said includes painting walls, replacing carpets and creating a whole new theme.

"I want to brighten it up with an aviation and flight school theme," said Phelps, "so that when people come in, they feel good about the environment."

Phelps said most of the challenges he has faced so far have to do with having virtually no staff and not having a lot of resources to be able to hire staff.

Though he has primarily had to do everything around the airport himself so far, Phelps said he has received a lot of support from the Portage-area aviation community, including Portage EAA chapter members who have offered to help him build a personal office in the main hangar, as well as two Portage High School students who help him clean airplanes and complete various projects around the airport, in return for flight lessons at a discounted rate.

Phelps said hope and excitement about the airport will be major benefits to the community, as the airport really hasn't been able to provide this type of pathway to people before.

He said he feels he has support from the city, which has committed to accepting grants from the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics and the Federal Aviation Administration, which had been left on the table in the past.

Support from the community was never really a question for him, Phelps said, as dozens of community members showed up to protest before an expected council vote on Aug. 24, which could have directed city staff to inquire with the FAA and the state Department of Transportation'sBureau of Aeronautics about what it would take to shut down an airport and, in a separate measure, to abolish its airport commission. The council delayed a decision and three weeks later voted to keep the airport open.

"I feel like I am fully supported by the city and by the residents," said Phelps. "That whole incident facilitated a complete turnaround and coalescing of the Common Council and the airport commission. They got the message from the residents, and it sunk in."

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