Unique style fuels spirit of St. Louis Airport’s flight into 50th year

By the time age 50 rolls around, most folks envision reaching financial success, enjoying good relations with their partners and neighbors, and perhaps taking pleasure in a round of golf now and then.

Celebrating the mid-century mark this year, the Spirit of St. Louis Airport (SUS) is ticking off those milestones and more, relying on some unique business strategies to stand apart from the nation's general aviation airports.

This busy, county-owned airport is profitable without relying on general revenue tax dollars, keeps peace with the neighbors through an innovative approach to noise abatement and provides an 18-hole golf course to the public, created as top dressing for a $2.5 million storm water drainage system and waterfowl relocation project.

"We do things a little differently than most government-run facilities," explains John Bales, airport director for Spirit of St. Louis.

For one, this government-owned airport in the Chesterfield suburb of St. Louis has never had a local tax levy.

Buying the airport from private owners in 1980 proved to be a wise investment for the County of St. Louis. These days, the airport's economic impact on the local economy is almost $400 million annually – a figure that's nearly doubled in a decade.

Spirit of St. Louis Airport supports itself with revenue from land development, real estate rental and wholesale fuel sales to the fixed base operators (FBOs) on the field, all four of which are Phillips 66® Aviation-branded dealers. What sets Spirit of St. Louis apart from most general aviation airports is that it serves as the FBOs' fuel wholesaler, and operates the fuel farms.

"It's a strategy that allows the airport to earn a profit and control fuel quality," says Bales.

That the airport survived the economic devastation wrought by ravaging Missouri River floodwaters in 1993 says much about the spirit driving this unique place.

The facility was destroyed, along with 30 years of business development. Recovery took 13 months. Yet, just five years removed from the ruinous flood, Spirit of St. Louis logged record fuel sales and flight traffic.

"As a government facility, it's not always possible to immediately react to private sector needs," Bale says. "Planning ahead and having ground ready for development is essential to our success. By reinvesting profits back into operations, we can continue to improve our facilities, while promoting the growth of St. Louis aviation, as well as other industries and businesses in the surrounding community."

An angelic celebration of STEM

For its 50th anniversary, the airport is staging a 2014 Spirit of St. Louis Air Show May 3–4 with the blessing of angels – the United States Navy Blue Angels, that is.

But the air show is different from most. It is primarily an expo to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in education.

"We're using our anniversary celebration to highlight the great resources our community has in STEM," explains Bales. "Promoting STEM in St. Louis is vital to keeping our aerospace heritage alive. Getting kids from elementary school through college interested in STEM can lead to aviation careers."

Air show proceeds will benefit not-for-profit organizations that concentrate on STEM programs.

"It's one of the most exciting things we've done in last 10 years," Bales exclaims, "having a big 50th anniversary with an air show and STEM expo, topped off with the Navy Blue Angels."

The air show, along with a static aircraft display, is wrapped around ground demonstrations in aviation and science, with emphasis on explaining career opportunities to young people.

"The impact the Blue Angels have on children, with their ability to get kids excited about STEM and aviation, is incredible," says Bales.

Quietly innovative

When Spirit of St. Louis broke ground 50 years ago, it was surrounded by farmland. Today the Chesterfield area is a bustling hub of businesses and thriving residential communities. That means it must now deal with noise issues affecting some local residents.

To dampen noise, Spirit of St. Louis built a large, $3.2 million ground run-up enclosure (GRE) – the second one ever at a general aviation airport in North America.

Ground run-up procedures allow pilots to test engines at full-on throttle, making sure they can produce take-off thrust. Engine run-ups are up and down, with a longer duration than a take-off. The thunderous noise can get people's attention.

"Being a good neighbor is a priority for us," Bales says. "We make it a point to work with both our tenants and area residents. We formed a task force of local citizens and our tenants, then completed a major FAA noise study which pointed to engine run-ups as something we could remedy."

The airport's massive GRE, designed by Parsons Brinckerhoff and Blast Deflectors, wraps around general aviation aircraft from small twin-engine pistons up to large MD80s and B737s. It can reduce run-up noise by approximately 15 decibels.

FBOs and other tenants welcomed the new GRE because it keeps them from having to cross runways or racking up taxi and tug time to get to the sound-damping structure. It's also located in an area less affected by noise-carrying tailwinds.

"The GRE has become a marketing advantage for us; we're using it to attract new tenants," explains Bales. "It greatly benefits the community because they won't be affected by engine run-ups. But it's also an advantage for the airport operators because they can perform engine tests 24-7. And the GRE's features, like wind speed indicators, make it easier for operators to use."

Different by design

The four FBOs on the field – AeroCharter Jet Center, KCAC Aviation, Million Air and TAC Air – are part of the Phillips 66 Aviation-branded network, the nation's largest. That provides Spirit of St. Louis with another competitive advantage, says Bales: a package of pilot and dealer programs its tenants can utilize to build business.

But then Bales has always strived to differentiate the airport.

Take its effort to abate flooding. After the 1993 flood, Spirit of St. Louis designed a drainage system. When the FAA required a huge, 750- by 250-foot wide storm water detention ditch, the airport saw opportunity instead of ugly.

"We built an 18-hole, 200-acre golf course over the ditch," Bales says. "We were able to improve drainage and provide the public with a beautiful place to golf. Aesthetics are important to Spirit of St. Louis."

The drainage project required a wetlands mitigation effort that took 11 years to gain approval. When completed, the airport was able to reduce its bird population. The airport also enlisted environmental college students to dig up local plants and replant them off-site where they could rejuvenate some much larger wetlands. The result, explains Bales, was enhanced wetlands for local species, along with a safer airport.

Whether collaborating with airport tenants or reaching out to local residents, Bales remains vigilant about looking down the road to keep the airport self-supporting and vital.

"We are really proud of our financial stability and our relationship with the community and our tenants," he says. "It's our goal to keep the airport a major aviation and economic hub for St. Louis, a place that is attractive for pilots, flight departments and tenants, as well as area residents."

For more information about the 2014 Spirit of St. Louis Air Show and STEM Expo, visit spirit-airshow.com.

To learn more about the airport and its Phillips 66 Aviation-branded dealers, visit spiritairport.com.