A Revitalized Downtown Thrives in the Heartland

KANSAS CITY - Nestled in a nook of the Missouri River just accross from Kansas City’s downtown business center, Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (once Richards Field) is considered by some to be the original home to commercial aviation. In fact...


KANSAS CITY - Nestled in a nook of the Missouri River just accross from Kansas City’s downtown business center, Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (once Richards Field) is considered by some to be the original home to commercial aviation. In fact, Charles Lindberg dedicated the airport in 1927, and it was also headquarters for Trans World Airlines (TWA) beginning in 1931; Howard Hughes’ original office has remained intact in what is now a Signature Flight Support terminal facility.

Renamed for former mayor Charles Wheeler, the airport is now primarily used for corporate and recreational aviation. Aging infrastructure and aircraft storage units had been driving business to outlying relievers for years.

The department of aviation began a refurbishment program in 2005; a program that juxtaposes the city’s efforts to revitalize the downtown district.

Comments system director of aviation Mark VanLoh, “We knew what we had to do here … we knew we had to get those pilots back that had left over the years; they had scattered like the wind. Those runways hadn’t been touched since Howard Hughes was here running TWA.”

Downtown Airport manager Michael Roper agrees. “We just didn’t have anything to offer our tenants,” he says. “We are the largest GA airport in the greater Kansas City area, but every other airport had more T-hangars than us; we knew we were not serving our market.”

“We chipped away at it, and $70 million later it’s done,” explains VanLoh. “Of course we began all of this and the downturn hits; it’s slowly coming back. The hangars are filling up and we are making money.”

Furthermore, the airport has added a new aviation services company, Hangar Ten, to the field. Featuring a large executive hangar and upscale terminal facility, Hangar Ten was designed by Atlanta-based Dye Aviation Facilites, Inc, and was recently recongized by Aviation International News as a top-rated facility in this year’s annual FBO survey.

Critical airport improvements

The Downtown Airport’s (MKC) refurbishment program included a $28 million project to resurface both airport runways, a 96-unit hangar project, the construction of a 3,200-square foot general aviation terminal, the addition of a self-serve 100LL fuel farm and station, and an aircraft wash.

“We are predominately a business aviation airport; 85 percent of operations here are business related,” says Roper.

With the billions of dollars that were invested in the redevelopment of the downtown area, a lot of young professionals are coming into the city, he adds. It was time to build, and reinvigorate, says Roper. “We asked our tenants what they wanted, and tried to meet their needs.”

Currently there are some 230 aircraft based here, 45 of them jets. Aircraft storage was a key component of the refurbishment program. The airport invested some $20 million in hangar development, constructing 96 units in seven buildings; the total square footage of hangar space is now 139,828 square feet.

“We did the best market research we could when it came to the hangar development,” relates Roper. The airport utilized a mix of three different sizes for the hangar development: 12 box hangars, 21 large T-Hangars, and 63 small T-Hangars; all hangars are Erect-A-Tube products.

The hangaring business is doing well, says Roper, and the airport is already looking to develop more.

Business environment

“We averaged between 92 and 94 percent hangar occupancy throughout the recession,” relates Roper. “On top of that, we didn’t lose any aircraft. That’s an interesting statistic for us; in fact, we gained some aircraft. With the new hangars, we have been growing our base.

“So we are sitting here with the best numbers of based aircraft that we’ve had in decades. Operations took a hit during the downturn because the planes weren’t flying as much, but things are improving and business is slowly coming back.”

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