My New Year’s Resolution this year was to get out of my comfort zone and challenge myself to go after “bigger” stories in Renton.
So I decided to check out the Renton Airport.
I had heard an urban legend a few years ago that celebrities (in this case Tiger Woods) and also corporate tycoons fly into our little airport for the anonymity and convenience: no security checks, long lines, baggage hassles or paparazzi.
Is it possible that there is this whole other world going on in Renton that few of us are privileged to know about?
I was game to find out.
Besides, I was curious to see if there had been any progress on the new aerospace training facility that was slated to replace the old Chamber of Commerce building.
I met my guide, Ryan Zulauf, City of Renton airport manager, at offices situated below the bottom of the control tower.
The office is adorned with black and white photos from the 1940s and 50s — I quickly learned that Zulauf has a passion for aviation history. Fortunately, he has made it his personal mission to preserve the airport’s history . . . on a very tight budget.
Renton Airport is self-sustaining and doesn’t require taxpayer money. Their task each year is to protect civil aviation, create wealth in the local communities and to make enough money to replace worn out infrastructure — no easy task. Most of the current buildings were constructed in the 1950s.
The airport relies on tenant fees and grants to generate enough income to pay for annual operations and maintenance of air field and infrastructure.
Renton Airport’s humble origins began in 1922 as a small dirt landing strip for mail deliveries and at the time was surrounded by both the Cedar and Black rivers. Today, only remnants of the Black River remain.
In the 40s Boeing built warplanes at Renton Airport that helped America win World War II and then after the war, Boeing chose Renton as the place to build the 707, making Renton the birthplace of the commercial airplane industry.
I followed Zulauf up several flights of little stairs (think
lighthouse) where we would wait at locked doors until my guide spoke into a little black box and a buzzer was pressed from somewhere that verified our clearance. Inside the control tower it was all very exciting, with buttons and the control tower manager giving guidance and instructions as a 737 was taxing down the runway.
“Can I take a picture?” I asked.
“Not in here,” Zulauf said, referring to the inside of the control tower.
“But we can go outside. I hope you’re not afraid of heights.”
I followed Zulauf out of a tiny little square door inside the control tower that had the look and feel like the door in “Being John Malkovich.”
Situated up high, midway on the airfield, for obvious reasons the control tower has the best seat in the house. And there I was standing outside her balcony in the frigid cold, throwing distance from a line of 737 all lined up like freshly baked bread waiting for their first test flight.
After getting clearance from the control tower, a still-silver 737 taxis down the runway toward its first take off as I watch from my perch by the control tower window.
“This is the closest you can get to something like this,” Zulauf said.
I was half listening, totally absorbed in that marvelous sense of wonder when witnessing at close range human achievement that makes you feel both incredibly small and large as you witness a modern marvel speed like a bullet toward the edge of Lake Washington. It blasts off effortlessly, up, up and away.
“Think of Pro Flight as an aviation hotel,” Zulauf said, as we pulled up to a shiny beautiful new building — a site for sore eyes at the Renton Airport. “And Diane Paholke owner of Pro Flight as an ambassador to Renton,” Zulauf said.
I met Diane at the reception desk of her new state-of-the art aviation center. Diane’s been building her fixed-base operation at the Renton Airport for more than 19 years. Her latest development is her new 28,000- square-foot building of which she gave me a tour.
Pro Flight is a thriving hub of aviation amenities. Pilot instruction, aircraft rental (they have nine aircraft on site) airplane maintenance, fueling (the only place to fill up at the airport) and they also take care of high-end clients like corporate executives and celebrities.
But if I wanted to get the dish on any of Pro Flights celebrity clients or corporate executives, it didn’t take long for me to learn that Diane was as tight-lipped about her clients as the smoking man character in “The X Files.”
It wasn’t going to happen.
“Word of mouth is everything in the business of high-end aviation. These clients’ anonymity and discretion is part of what they’re paying for,” Diane explained.
Zulauf and I finished the tour in the parking lot of the old Chamber of Commerce building and the future site of the Central Sound Aerospace Training Center.
“What are they doing down there?” I asked pointing to a lot of construction hubbub below the chamber site. Workmen using heavy equipment were in the process of building three new jet-blast deflectors and essentially adding five more parking spaces for completed 737s.
“Well that’s a good sign that Boeing will be sticking around for a while,” I said.
“Yes,” Zulauf replied. “And it’s our job to build a new state-of-the-art training center here.” He pointed to the old chamber building.
“We have created a culture that is not easy to replicate: the finest engineers, manufacturers, mechanics and assembly folks that know how to build airplanes. It’s our job to ensure that the culture and knowledge that has been gained over the decades of building the finest airplane in the world is passed on here. If you want to capture somebody’s mind . . . you capture their heart. And there’s no better way to do that than to see the finished product from the window of this new training facility.”