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Memoirs of Executive - _click on images_Books Authored by Patrick



Introduction ............................................................................................................. 2   Field Cod
Chapter One—Bird’s Nest Airport ........................................................................... 8                  Field Cod
Chapter Two—The Kahlbau Years ..................................................................... 3132                       Field Cod
Chapter Three—A Compelling Offer .................................................................. 5859                       Field Cod
Chapter Four—Starting Over ................................................................................. 78                Field Cod
Chapter Five—What Pipeline? ............................................................................... 93
                                                                                                                               Field Cod
Chapter Six—LCRA Dispute........................................................................... 105106
                                                                                                                               Field Cod
Chapter Seven—Initial 4,420- Foot Runway .................................................. 124125
Chapter Eight—Unforeseen Challenges ................................................................ 151                       Field Cod

Chapter Nine—The Ramp and Terminal ....................................................... 168169                              Field Cod
                                                                                                                               Field Cod


       Some people have a passion for mountain climbing or bird watching or baseball

cards. I have a passion for airplanes and airports. Which explains why in March 2007 I

agreed to meet with a group of pilots who had an option to purchase a small, nearly

abandoned airstrip northeast of Austin, Texas. The pilots had big plans for this

neglected airstrip, Bird’s Nest Airport, and they wanted to ask me a few questions. I had

recently completed construction of the Houston Executive Airport, and I was eager to

share my experiences.. When the pilots arrived, they peppered me with questions about

runway design and FAA oversight and political pushback and building codes. I admired

their vision and saw them as men who pursued their dreams. A few days later they asked

to meet again. After we got reacquainted, one of the pilots turned to me, a grin on his

face as if he’d just recalled a big rib-tickler and asked: Was there any chance I knew

where they could come up with a cool $47.3 million to fund the project?

       “I don’t, but what I might consider,” I said, “if you agree, is to take over the

project and build the airport myself.” And thius was the inception of Austin Executive


       As if building airports, racing cars, spending time with family, and serving as

Chairman of the Board of Logix Communications didn’t fill my days, at some point I got

the high-spirited urge to write a book about Bird’s Nest Airport. An altogether

reasonable question is why?

       First, I wanted to preserve a piece of history.

       A few years ago I watched an inspiring aviation documentary, One Six Right: The

Romance of Flying, about the life, history, and struggles of one improbable local

airfield, Southern California’s Van Nuys Airport, the busiest general aviation airport in

America. The film opened with breathtaking aerial shots of a 1945 Piper J-3 Cub and

spectacular high-definition close ups of a 1945 DC-3, (sporting a vintage United Airlines

paint scheme),, and photos of the cockpit of a 1936 Fleet 7B biplane. The film features

interviews with well-known movie directors, actors, news anchors, and other

enthusiasts, all talking about their love of flying. The movie was produced and directed

by independent film maker and aviation buff, Brian J. Terwilliger; and aAs I watched, I

realized how difficult it must have been to research the history of the airport, locate old

film footage, sift through municipal archives and, in some cases, dramatize the zany

exhilaration of those early record-breaking flights now more than eighty years later.

       With the memory of One Six Right tucked safely away, I wanted to tell a similar

story, in book form, of Bird’s Nest Airport and its transformation into Austin Executive

Airport. I also wanted to do write it down in the present, only forty-five years after Bob

Womack’s aging Taylorcraft two-seater christened the original dirt runway. In a way,

this book is a historical record of images and events and stories of men and women who

were teenagers when they first started flying and jumping and ballooning over a square

patch of sage and the dusty airstrip running diagonally across the property, fence line to

fence line. Those young pilots are now in their fifties, sixties, and a few in their

seventies. A couple of decades from now, firsthand accounts of the airport’s inception

will have vanished: People die; news footage gets archived; photographs fade, burn up,

and get shredded in moments of anger. Keepsakes like flight logs and journals get stored

and forgotten. Classic tube and fabric airplanes weather and deteriorate. All of These

Sstories get lost and vanish with time. These stories matter the most of all. , SStories

have a way of opening our eyes to context, connections, and consequences. Stories

explain the whys and the ifs behind the what.; Sstories are the personification of events

and our roadmap to meaning. Without recording at least some of the stories that took

place at Bird’s Nest Airport in those early years, without preserving those roadmaps, we

will lose a part of aviation history that will be gone forever.

       Second, I wanted readers to glimpse the can-do pioneer flying spirit of the 1960s.

       A public school teacher and his wife, Ray and Mary Harding, took one hundred

and thirteen acres of cow-trodden scrubland and turned it into a thriving local airport

that most, who spent any time there in the 1960s and 1970s, remember as a family

affair. They hand -built a tower and the attached airplane hangars using telephone poles

sunk deep in the earth for columns. The rustic tower was part observation deck, part

home, and part flight shack. This unassuming husband and wife team transformed a

wide sloping plane of buffel grass and sandbur into a turf and gravel runway. This was

where pilots, parachutists, and long-haired students of the University of Texas Flying

Club could gather and create shared experiences, all for the price of a few dollars. The

airport never made much money, yet what the Hardings lacked in cash and

conveniences, they made up for with a dogged determination, sweat, and old-fashioned

kindness. Their generosity often included a lunchtime plate of fried chicken and beans

and cornbread for employees and any pilot willing to grab a wrench or fill in a few

potholes in the runway. Ray Harding was a teacher, an airframe mechanic, and a flight

instructor, and a hard nut to crack. Those lucky few who spent any time with him were

indeed fortunate. Whether they intended it or not, Ray and Mary Harding left an

admirable legacy of resourcefulness and purpose to those they knew, to the aviation

community, and to the City of Austin.

       By skimming the photos and reading about Ray and Mary Harding and a handful

of charmingly randy characters who considered Bird’s Nest their home away from home,

I hope readers will understand and appreciate the sacrifices and simple pleasures of a

married couple and their friends living out their dream.

       Third, I wanted to record and chronicle my own participation.

       I’m a modest man by nature, but so let me just say that I purchased Bird’s Nest

Airport in 2007 with enough adjoining property to transform a tattered landing strip

into a future bustling transportation center capable of handling next-generation jet

aircraft. The challenges in constructing a corporate general aviation airport in this

millennium are monumental. Those challenges included negotiating with single-minded

planning and zoning bureaucrats, uncovering and rerouting hidden oil and gas

pipelines, fighting off unsympathetic energy bigwigs threatening to erect transmission

towers directly in the airport’s flight path, and negotiating with unapologetic contractors

to rehabilitate a sinking runway.

       The enormous cost of this venture was is almost unfathomable. Modern airports

require tens of millions of dollars to meet even the minimum airport design standards.

Yet, the minimums are seldom enough for safety, comfort, and efficiency. In nearly

every case, I pushed my team to think long-term and to design and construct an airport

capable of handling more traffic and faster and larger airplanes.

       Through it all, my team and I never lost heart. Rather, we made incremental

progress each day. We reshaped the landscape by moving nearly a million yards of dirt,

created environmental conservation areas where we planted native grasses, wildflowers,

and hundreds of rock rose and bushy bluestem. We engineered and paved a 6,025- foot

runway, one of the longest general aviation runways in the state, spreading twenty-two

tons of asphalt over an area eighteen times larger than the playing field of Texas

Memorial Stadium. In three short years, my team of planners, engineers, and

contractors completed a jet airfield in record time, achieving what airport builders

elsewhere in the country take five to seven years to accomplish.

       As I sifted through interviews and piles of photos and thousands of e-mails and

mountains of supporting documentation, I uncovered a fourth and final reason for

sharing this story with the world: A book is a remarkable way to acknowledge people.

Throughout these pages I use real names and real stories because the individuals

mentioned, and many not referenced by name, deserve all the recognition I can bestow

upon them. Scores of people, from politicians to earthmoving equipment drivers,

contributed in converting Bird’s Nest Airport into Austin Executive Airport. The number

of contributors is staggering and, as a heartfelt tribute to these folks, I have listed their

names in the back of the book. If I’ve forgotten anyone, please let me know and I

promise to add his or her their name before the next printing.

       Building an airport or writing a book can both be frightening endeavors—ones in

which you have a direction and an ever-present feeling in the pit of your stomach that

you’ve lost your compass. Each step of the way is a step into the uncharted abyss of the

unknown. Each step requires learning new adaptive skills and an aching determination

to lift your head and move forward even in the face of limitless opposition. In

researching the book, I spoke with dozens of fellow pilots and jumpers and balloonists

whose enthusiasm and eagerness to share their stories made my next step that much

easier. Some of the stories I included are belly -busters, three parts hangar flyer, and

way-back-when tales impersonating legend. Others are teary-eyed and emotional. Some

are meant to educate, and still others are intended to record the events and actions as

accurately as possible.

       My hope is that anyone who picks up this book, a pilot or historian or budding

airport builder or a teenager looking for adventure, will leaf through these pages and

come away with that tingly spontaneous feeling I got while watching Brian Terwilliger’s

One Six Right, that each of us is part of a larger story, that off-the-map beauty

surrounds us, and that whether we recognize it or not, our own small world is a place of

infinite possibility.

       Chapter One—Bird’s Nest Airport

       Austin Executive Airport wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for a man and his gutsy

vision. Ray Harding, a former public school teacher and airplane enthusiast, had a

dream to build a general aviation airport from the ground up. After more than forty

years, Ray’s story isn’t so easy to reconstruct with complete accuracy. What I know from

personal interviews and news stories is that Ray wanted to put his fifteen years’ teaching

science teaching career at Reilly Elementary School behind him and turn a Texas

pasture into a feisty general aviation airport that catered to flyers and gliders and

jumpers and balloonists. He wanted an environment that welcomed experimental

airplane builders like himself. And he wanted the whole thing to be affordable so that

anyone with a hankering to learn to fly, and a little time, could experience for

themselves the thrill and beauty of aviation.

       Dreams don’t materialize overnight and neither did Ray’s. For years, he had been

a member of the Experimental Aviation Association, Chapter 187, in his hometown of

Austin, Texas, where members built airplanes in their spare time and met regularly to

talk bungee linked ailerons and V struts and zero-dihedral wings. Ray wanted an

environment where members could gather and tinker and share ideas, and with enough

space to assemble airplanes one part at a time.

       By 1960 he was ready to take action. That’s when Ray and his wife, Mary, bought

an old motorcycle and began roaming the country roads around Austin in search of the

perfect parcel of land. It had to be long enough for a runway, close enough to Austin to

attract area pilots, remote enough to avoid overhead power lines, and cheap enough for

that even a fifth-grade school teacher to afford it. For five persistent years, Ray and

Mary sputtered up dirt roads and across bumpy pastures in search of a flawless tract of

Texas red clay.

       Eventually they stumbled upon a landlocked piece of hard-scrabble not far from

Manor, Texas. The property was basically flat, if you ignored the big dip north near the

fence line. It was easy to access, if you overlooked the muddy easement road along the

adjacent property with potholes the size of small cars and which the property owner flat-

ly refused to allow anyone to grade. It had water, if you counted the sludge in the duck

pond surrounded by cypress and willow trees and filled with martin and starling and

chickadee, all birds with a bad habit of damaging small aircraft propellers. The property

had room for a runway, if you flew like a bush pilot and didn’t clip the stand of bald

cypress along the property line on your way up.

       In all, it was perfect.

       Ray negotiated a price of $330 an acre, just over $37,000 in total, a small fortune

in 1965, and he and Mary closed on the deal before some other idealistic airport builder

beat them to it. Step one—finding the land—was behind him. Step two—grading a

runway—would happen once he saved up to pay a grader. Step three—building a control

tower and flight shack—was in the distant future. Step four—hangars. Step five—well, he

didn’t know step five or any of the hundreds of steps to follow, but given enough time he

was confident he’d make do just fine.

       Locating the land took five long years. Building a runway free of holes and

patches of mud took another year. The first thing he did was to hire a grading contractor

to scrape and level a runway stretching corner-to-corner across the property at a

magnetic heading of 340 degrees, directed into the prevailing winds. When the

contractor left, Ray had a dirt runway 25 feet wide and 2,722 feet long.

       What he needed next was a turf to cover his scraped soil before a hateful Texas

rain washed away much of his new runway. Any handful of grasses would work for

runway turf—red top, brome, rye, meadow fescue, crested wheat. Ray selected a hearty

coastal Bermuda, which cost several hundred dollars, and planted sprigs over every inch

of his 68,050 square feet of runway. Days of tending his fragile runway turned into

weeks and months, and each time he visited he found less grass and more clay crust.

The few remaining patches of green grass that died the following summer.

       After months of fussing, Ray gave up on his precious turf and hauled in a

mountain of gravel, which depleted his savings by four thousand dollars. He spread the

composite mix in uneven layers until he had a runway smooth enough for takeoffs and


       A House Made of Poles

       Exact dates are hard to verify, but sometime in early 1967 Ray and Mary were

ready to build a flight shack and control room. As the idea for the structure took shape,

the form grew taller and narrower. What might be perfect, Ray reasoned, was a control

room high off the ground on the top floor, a bedroom and bathroom below, and a

kitchen, bathroom, and flight shack on the ground floor. Ray wasn’t a builder and he

certainly wasn’t an architect. He was an experimenter, a seasoned airplane mechanic,

and a science teacher. So when he read in a magazine about creating a tower-like

building using telephone poles, it sounded like a great idea, or if not great at least cheap.

Only it wasn’t great or cheap. The pole project idea certainly wasn’t effortless. Telephone

poles, Ray soon learned, were notoriously crooked and required that every piece of

lumber connected to the poles be custom cut and fitted into place with great care. Even

after fitting the supports, walls, and windows together, a driving Texas rain followed by

two weeks of blistering sun would shift the entire structure as if it were in a bowl of Jell-


       The poles didn’t make the structure more stable over time, they made it less.

Ray’s three-story tower leaned and wobbled even as it was being built. But then, giving

him his due, he wasn’t a quitter, nor was he much of a planner.—Wwhen anyone asked

to see the construction drawings for the tower/attached-hangar affair, Ray lifted a

calloused finger and tapped on the side of his head, as if to say, “It’s all up here.”

       It’s Not About Easy

       To make the building project more difficult, he built each floor from the top down

rather than from the bottom up, as would any experienced carpenter. He and his

buddies buried four forty-foot-long poles, most likely lodgepole pine soaked in creosote

that Ray bought cheaply, and placed them in a perfect square and began framing in each

floor, starting thirty feet off the ground with the control room. The idea for the airport

was to give Ray’s Experimental Aircraft Association cronies a place to build, test, and fly

their handmade craft. It seemed only fair that he ask EAA members to lend a hand

constructing the tower and attached hangar, which they did, until most realized the

enormous amount of work.

       Just before breaking ground, Ray and Mary moved an aging truck camper out to

the site. Ray carefully placed the camper atop an abandoned concrete stoop, which was

once the porch of a burned down farm house. For months, Ray and Mary spent

weekends living out of the camper. Each Saturday, a ragtag crew of friends and pilots

and the occasional professional tradesman showed up and spent the day digging holes

or bolting the heavy horizontal crossbeams in place or just standing around talking and

pointing. Weeks later they nailed walls in place and installed windows.

       At noon each day, Mary and a friend set up a picnic table next to the camper and

served up a lunch of fried chicken and baked beans and panfried cornbread—and some

days green fried tomatoes, fried okra, sliced cucumbers, and a bowl of odd-shaped

peppers hot enough to stop conversation and collard greens, if she could find them.

       In May 1967 a fellow member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, John O.

Yokie, wrote a short article for the EAA Austin chapter newsletter about the progress of

Bird’s Nest Airport. The article included two photos of the tower in mid-construction,

wrapped in black tar- paper and ready for siding. Extending out of the back of the

building were more half-buried telephone poles and the Spartan framework for the roof

of the new mechanic’s shop and hangar.

       By year-end the airport was coming together. The runway was level but bumpy,

the hangars complete, and the tower finally had a phone and a water chlorinator and a

pump to carry water from the duck pond to the water heater on the second floor. About

the time the phone was installed, Mary took the uppermost room for herself to use as a

painting studio. Who needed a third floor control room for a humble country airport

anyway? The second floor was livable as a small home, the ground floor was plain but

suitable as

        a flight office, and the attached hangar was were already filling up with airplane

parts and racks of tools.

       A Record of Firsts

       In those early years, someone, probably Mary, took it upon herself to record the

airport’s milestones. Forty years later, I found the list scribbled on a piece of cardboard

that served as the backing for a yellowing photograph hanging on the wall of the flight

office. The list, in badly faded ink, gave names and dates of airport firsts—landing,

airplane hangared, experimental airplane built, aviation fuel tank installed, new hangar

construction, glider landing, first tie-down rental, and the like.

       In a slanted red script someone had written that the first airplane to land at

Bird’s Nest Airport was Rob Womack’s Taylorcraft. The first airplane hangared was

Hugh Pillsbury and Bob Gates’ tandem Piper Cub in the fall of 1966. The following year

Dick Belush hangared his Balanca in a barter deal that didn’t cost him a cent and didn’t

earn the airport a penny. The first pilots to pay cash for hangar space were Wendell

Maxedon and Darrold Banks in the spring of 1968; the two split the fee of fifteen dollars

a month for a single hangar. The first experimental airplane to call Bird’s Nest home was

“Baby Ace,” owned by Silas Slack and later sold to Al Lavelle of San Antonio. A barely

legible note says that Ray Harding’s personal airplane, “Feathers”, a hand-built beauty

he had taken years to put together, got its maiden taxi on an uneven runway on October

13, 1968, a sunny day, 80 degrees with 7.4 knots of north wind.. Days later, on October

26, 1968, “Feathers” took to the air on October 26, 1968 “around the patch,” the note

says. There’s more, but the ink is so faded that it’s impossible to read.

       In 1969 Ray and Mary had a big decision to make: Should Ray quit teaching and

make the airport a full-time endeavor? Or, should the two continue Bird’s Nest Airport

as a weekend hobby? In some ways, Mary had already made up her mind. According to a

story by George E. Hopkins in the AOPA Pilot, January 1976, “’Ray was forever buying

old aircraft and restoring them,’ Mary said. ‘I decided if he was going to spend all his

time out here, I was going to spend it with him.’” Part-time or full-time, Mary would be

at Ray’s side.

       Traffic at the airport was building, in part because Ray charged half the market

rate for airplane rentals, flight training, tie-down fees, and repairs. Word spread quickly

and Ray had a backlog of customers who needed a solid A&P certified aircraft mechanic

to work on their airplanes. After more hand-wringing and worried glances, the two

decided to give up their jobs and the house in Austin and move out to Bird’s Nest full-

time. “Everybody told me I’d never make it,” Ray said.

       Maybe not, but he couldn’t shake the idea that there was room in aviation for an

airport that catered to fliers with a limited budget and who favored the old tail-draggers

made in the 1940’s and 1950’s over newer, more cushy tricycle- gear aircraft.

       In most ways he was right.

       Mechanic work alone was enough to keep the place open, and it allowed Ray

extra money to sock away for capital improvements. Soon he forked over $36,000 for a

paved runway, which buckled after the first hard rain and had to be redone. He snapped

up a couple of dependable workhorse aircraft, including a Lock Haven yellow Piper J-3

Cub (the Ford Model T of the skies) and used the aircraft for rentals and flight training.

       It wasn’t long before Ray hired his first paid help,

       young pilots and staff who wanted job experience more than a large paycheck. He

took on Justin Brown (JB) as a mechanic;, Roy McKinley, David Conner, and Roy Scott

as flight instructors;, and Mary, now knee-deep in the operation’s bookkeeping, hired

Laura Dissman, a flight student, to help with all the paperwork.

       The Piper J-3 Cub

       Tim Casey was another early devotee of Bird’s Nest Airport. A young grad student

at the University of Texas, he discovered the airport in 1970 or so, and often rented an

aging J-3 Cub at a cost of $6 a flight hour. Managing scarce resources was the name of

the game for any student, and Tim learned to save a few dollars by getting the J-3 Cub

aloft on hot summer days, tooling around for thirty minutes, and then shutting off the


       Once he got good at it, he could spot updrafts to help slow his descent and thus

prolong the fun. Powerless, he’d meander around the skies for another thirty minutes

before touching down and in doing so got an hour of flight time for all of $3. Intentional

powerless flight, I might add, was not recommended in the J-3 flight manual.

       One of the things he remembereds about the airport and the J-3 Cub in particular

was how quickly he mastered his landings. He had to because the brakes on this Cub

didn’t work. If you landed too far down the runway, you’d run off the other end.

       The Piper J-3 Cub was built in the 1940’s, a small simple aircraft with tandem

fore and aft seating intended for flight training, and one of the most beloved light


       of all time. It was a tail-dragger, which meant the Cub’s landing gear consisted of

two main wheels up front and a tiny wheel to support the tail. Tail-draggers are their

own breed of plane—difficult to handle while taxiing, they require a deft bit of right

rudder pressure to keep the airplane moving straight down the runway just prior to

takeoff. Airborne, the Cub is a fast climber;, level off and the airplane cruises like an

eagle. Those early days of flying were meant to be fun, and Tim recalls a game in which

where pilots climbed to three thousand feet or thereabouts and opened the window and

tossed out a roll of toilet paper. As the toilet paper unraveled, pilots counted how many

times they could fly the plane through the tissue streamer before it hit the ground. Those

days are gone forever.

       Trading for an Aeronca Champ

       Bird’s Nest Airport was a draw for romantic adventure seekers of all stripes. In

November 1972 a seventeen-year-old Clyde Barker arrived for the sole purpose of

passing his check ride and earning his pilot’s license. The closest general aviation

airport, Tim’s Airpark, a short eight miles west, no longer had a pilot examiner and Ray

had recently hired Charlie Cole, an FAA certified pilot examiner, to give flight checks.

Clyde remembers the day he and his father, Bill Barker, showed up—not long after Ray

had repaved the ramp and runway. Clyde arrived on his seventeenth birthday, and Char-

lie Cole wasted no time in grilling the teen on preflight inspections, flaps-extended

speeds, and visual flight rules-- right there on the first floor of the flight tower. A few

minutes later the two strapped into a nifty Cessna 150, and Charlie put him through a

rigorous flight test. By the time they touched down, Clyde was a licensed pilot.

       In the months that followed, Clyde and his father, who had also recently taken up

flight training and would soon receive his pilot’s license, visited the friendly airport most

weekends. Ray was always around, in the shop or leaning his big elbows on the counter

in the flight shack, picking at the grease under his finger nails, telling anyone who’d

listen about his grand plans to build a newer and larger flight office. Clyde coolly

mentioned that he and his father were in the retail furniture business. “How about a

trade?” Clyde asked, which is how Ray ended up with a room full of pricey new office

furniture he couldn’t otherwise afford , and Clyde and his father got title to a 1946

Aeronca Champ airplane, what most non-flyers might consider a jalopy and what

aircraft buffs praise as a post-war classic.

       Originally called the 7AC Champion, the Champ was a tail-dragger, a 65-

horsepower, single-engine, tandem two-seater and, unlike the J-3 Cub, it could be

soloed from the front or the backseat.

       Ray used the Champ as a rental, and after frequent use (this was after the deal

was largely inked) the poor thing looked flaky-skinned and tired. Up close it reminded

Clyde of an oversized toy: mMetal tubing and wooden formers and stringers all covered

in fabric. The wings were made of wood spars and aluminum ribs, and it had a slim

thirteen-gallon fuel tank wedged in behind the instrument panel and sported the same

skimpy fuel gauge as the Ford Model A. Way back in 1944, when the Champ first hit the

market, it sold for a paltry $2,095. By 1972 it was hard to tell what the twenty-six-year-

old aircraft with its dimpled engine cowling and nicked struts was worth. Coming from

the honorable and notoriously scrupulous airframe and powerplant mechanic, Ray

Harding, Clyde considered the trade fair and equitable. To seal the deal, Ray agreed to

give the Champ a fresh coat of white paint, and that was that.

       Clyde flew in and out at Bird’s Nest Airport for more than twenty years. The

image What he remembers most is a family atmosphere, how late on a Sunday

afternoon after a fly-in and one of Mary’s fried chicken dinners, and after Clyde and his

wife Pat and a couple of dozen other pilots readied themselves to call it a day, he’d see a

lone couple far out on the runway, Ray and Mary, taking in the cool night air, walking

hand-in-hand like a couple of smitten teenagers.

       Becoming a Flight Instructor

       Almost a year to the day after Clyde Barker showed up, Roy Scott was hired as a

pilot for the Austin Parachute Center, which rented a hangar from Ray on the airport

grounds. Scott earned $25 a weekend working ten-hour days, hauling one group of

jumpers after another up to 2,800 feet or higher and watching them leap through the

open doorway. In all, he logged more than 800 hours flying for the Center. Occasionally,

Sunday drivers cruising along Cameron Road or returning from church on old Farm to

Market 973 caught sight of a handful of colorful nylon canopies floating overhead and

followed the trail until they found the folksy rural airport behind a stand of trees at the

end of a rutted dirt road. Most stood around, their heads ratcheted back, staring up into

the sky as parachutes drifted to the ground. Others signed up for a jump. Four or five a

weekend didn’t care about watching the jumpers. They came to look at the airplanes;

just to get close to a high-winger tied down on the ramp and to examine the prop or

peek in the window. Some would ask, “What’s it take to get a flying lesson around here?”

       In 1974 a young couple approached Scott and asked about flight training. Scott

sent the couple to talk to the man in charge, Ray Harding, who was too busy patching up

aging aircraft for penniless pilots, not to mention maintaining his own small fleet of

rentals, to offer flying lessons. Instead, he asked Scott if he’d mind taking the couple on

a fifteen-minute airplane ride..

       Why not?

       Scott squeezed the couple into a four-seater Cessna 172, and taxied over to

runway 34 and, before anyone had a change of heart, applied full throttle and got the

airspeed up to sixty-four knots, a bit more because of the extra weight. , When he felt the

Cessna ready to lift off, he gently eased back on the control wheel.

       Once in the air, he talked reassuringly about flying airplanes—airspeed and trim

and fuel consumption at four thousand feet—while his passengers sat in silent

ignorance. He talked flap settings and carburetor ice and short-field landings. By the

time the threesome found solid ground—the couple now giddy as teddy bears and the

woman in a feathery laugh imploring Scott to sign them up for flight lessons—Scott

discovered a hidden talent he’d never considered. He’d make a darn good flight

instructor. Not long after, he gave up piloting jumpers and became one of Bird’s Nest’s

first full-time flight trainers.

       In those years the airport was busier than a Texas October fair. In addition to

local pilots looking for an inexpensive place to hangar an airplane and the Austin

Parachute Center, which drew regular crowds, Bird’s Nest Airport was home to the

University of Texas Flying Club. The club leased a Cessna 150 from a private owner, and

students flocked to the airport for flight training and cheap airtime.

       A Culture of Challenge

       Ray and Mary weren’t like many small operators. They acted more like

benevolent grandparents, the kind who encouraged, often challangedchallenged, the

people to take a few risks, to explore, to have some fun. You didn’t put on a wide-

collared suit and tie to come fly a Cesspit (the cynical nickname for a Cessna 150). You

put on an old pair of comfortable Levi’s, a baseball jersey, a ball cap, and in the winter

months a jacket.a jacket in the winter months. Bird’s Nest Airport and its rustic

atmosphere was made for the 1970s, a time of long hair and mutton chops when people

talked about world peace and women’s liberation.

       Let’s not forget music.; Austin had blossomed as a refuge for anti-establishment

country musicians and songwriters who wanted nothing to do with Nashville. Willie

Nelson convinced fellow songwriter Waylon Jennings to move to Austin and the two

helped pioneer the outlaw country movement in the 1970s, a raw rootsy approach that

appealed to rockers and hard core honky-tonk admirers. In some ways, the regional

mood was liberal and anti-government; that was also the spirit of Bird’s Nest Airport.

Forget the Viet Nam War. Forget the oil crisis; forget stagflation; come learn to fly. Ray

and Mary’s one hundred and thirteen acre sanctuary located a dozen miles north of

Austin down a bumpy dirt road had a unique culture all its own. You could feel it the

moment you arrived--, asynchronous, implausibly casual, a place where the far-fetched

was the rule not the exception.

       Roy Scott tells a story of flying with a hesitant student (let’s call him Chip to keep

from embarrassing anyone) in a J-3 Cub, a tandem aircraft, with Scott up front and Chip

behind absently tugging on the front seat. The two are flying low and to get Chip to relax

Scott tells him to stick his hand out the side window. Get some air, feel the force of the

wind. Chip is nervous and flushed and Scott prods him, but he won’t budge.

       “Go on,” Scott says, “nothing’s going to happen.”

       “You sure?”

       “What could happen?”

       The window is hinged at the top and Chip pushes on the bottom but not hard

enough to let any air inside.

       “Go on, already,” Scott says.

       “I’m not going to get sucked out or anything?”

       “Are you kidding me?”

       “Okay, okay.” So Chip pushes on the glass and shoves his hand out the window,

and a half-second later he’s screaming and clutching at Scott by the back of the shirt.

Scott glances right and sees outside the window a live angry yellow cat clawing at Chip’s

wrist and arm, ready to jump and holding on for its life at the same time. The cat is

hysterical. Chip is shuddering, breathless, panic-stricken.

       A moment later, the cat lets go.

       Scott sees the cat spread its legs like a flying squirrel and coast soundlessly out of

sight. This all happens three miles north of the airport. Once they land and taxi to a stop

and shut off the motor, Chip hears six meowing baby kittens tucked deep under the

pilot’s seat. Scott and Chip spend hours searching the local milo fields for the airborne

cat. Milo is similar to maize, with more side shoots and branches, making and makes for

a softer landing. No cat. Here in the telling Scott grows moodily silent. It’s a storyteller’s

ploy, but it works. When he’s ready, he says, “Three days later, the cat wonders back to

the airport sporting a slight limp and goes about searching for her kittens.”

       His Very Own Cessna Dealership

       By 1976 Ray Harding had a rental fleet of four Cessnas and his trusty Piper J-3

Cub. He had a second Cub in the shop about ready to add to the fleet. The new flight

office went up faster than anyone expected and soon a Cessna rep, Brad Lee, showed up

in the office and offered Ray a dealership. The dealership came with benefits, training

for the airport’s flight instructors and mechanics at Cessna’s training center, and in

some ways it gave the airport an air of legitimacy. The lifeblood of any small airport is

ensuring a steady flow of flight students. Someone came up with the idea of Ray

attending conventions and spreading the word about the user- friendly airport north of

Austin. Ray’s hook: He’d take along one of his airplanes.

       So Ray and JB dismantled the Cessna 150L with the dark blue trim and hauled it

down to Lester E. Palmer Auditorium for a kind of business trade show.

       When they arrived, they lugged the pieces indoors to the tradeshow floor and put

the whole plane back together. Ray went to the washroom and scrubbed grease off his

hands, ready now to sell his little patch of heaven and button up the deal with a firm

handshake and a sincere smile. While Ray was off scrubbing up, JB hung a banner from

the wing that read, “Learn to Fly.”

       Did it help boost sales? Hard to tell, but that didn’t matter. The Little Airport

That Could had a way of drawing people in, of making them crazy for the thrill and

freedom of flight. One of those people was Dave Mandot.

       A Starting Point for Many

       In sifting through the research, Dave’s name came up often. He had inserted

himself into the happy mix of flyers and jumpers around Christmas 1975, a kid fresh out

of college with a new job programming computers. This was back in the dark ages when

mainframe computers were as big as barns, only four years after the first e-mail, three

after Atari released Pong (the first video game), Pac Man arrived in bars, and the floppy

disk hadn’t seen its first birthday. Mid-decade was a strange time in America. “Love Will

Keep Us Together” by Captain and Tennille was the top sSingle record, “All in the

Family” was the Tuesday night sitcom half the country refused to miss, and President

Ford had escaped assassination. Twice.

       Once Dave found the airport, he got right to work logging airtime for a private

pilot’s license with the help of flight instructor David Conner. He followed his private

with multi-engine and instrument licenses under Roy McKinley, a man addicted to

flying if ever there was one, and earned a commercial license a year later under the

tutelage of Roy Scott. Flight certificates took brains, but more than IQ they required

dedicated hours in the air. Hundreds of hours. Hundreds of hundreds, it felt like.

       To start banking flight time, every second away from his real job pushing buttons

on a space-age computer console, Dave spent at the airport. What made the experience

all the more enjoyable was that he wasn’t alone. Far from it. Oodles of future aviators

had the same woozy longing to climb into a cramped single engine airplane and put a

mile or so between themselves and the continent’s sandy crust. There was Tom

Montemayor, who learned to fly at Bird’s Nest about the time Dave Mandot arrived on

the scene, and who also spent a four-year stint as a flight instructor and, without

jumping too far ahead in our story, who later landed a prestigious pilot’s job with

Continental Airlines flying 737s. There was Tom Bigger and Chuck Walters, now a senior

captain with Southwest Airlines, and Dwain Ideus, who made captain with US Airways.

There was And Sandy Salibo, who turned flight instructor for the Seventh Wonder

(Boeing’s 777) with Continental Airlines; Rick Skinner, another Continental pilot; and

Mike Fooshee, one of the original good guys, who started flying at Bird’s Nest in 1966

and retired forty years later a captain with Southwest Airlines with more than 27,000

hours in the pilot seat.

       Since arriving, Dave had become an ever-present fixture at the airport, a skinny

kid shuffling around in worn jeans and striped pullovers and blue Nikes. When he

wasn’t flying, he shadowed Ray asking questions until Ray had enough and needed to

tend to some niggling crisis, or use his clearheaded voice to politely ask the parachuters

across the ramp to stop whatever they were doing at the time, or he just got the urge to

repair some broken component.

       Dave was smart and itchy with curiosity. Undeterred, he sidled up to chief

mechanic JB and gazed over his shoulder as he yanked the seats out of a Cessna 150 and

pulled back the carpet and methodically removed the two inspection panels in the seat

pan. All this and more just to look at the main landing gear. Or he’d get right up next to

JB, rubbing shoulders, as JB bent forward inspecting an engine.

       “This here’s your air filter box,” JB’d say and tap the squarish piece of plastic or

metal. (Dave didn’t know what it was made of) but he saw the box and reached out and

touched it with the tip of a finger.

       “Uh huh.”

       “Right here’s your SCAT hose connecting to the intake system up top there.” JB

bent way over and twisted his head and looked up into the underside of the engine and

motioned Dave to do the same. “You know what that is? No this here, behind the baffle.

Higher. Above the air filter box. Don’t guess. It’s the fuel injection pump.”

       “Uh huh.”

       “It’s driven off the bevel gear—”


       “Let me finish . . . the bevel gear from the camshaft.

       This here’s your oil cooler. It’s firewall mounted the way it is so this SCAT hose

can bring in cool air from top side.”

       “I’ll be.”

       “Here’s your coil block. I could go on all day about coils, but I won’t.”

       But he did go on about engine mount bushings and ignition sensors and cold oil

bypass valves, Dave soaking up every bit of aircraft engine know-how he could cram into

his head.

       In the summer of 1978, Ray put him to work part-time as an aircraft mechanic

where he eventually earned an aviation mechanic’s license. What Dave didn’t know was

that the shop hangar was a zone of competing personal dynamics. Ray was inventive,

creative, a man who moved fast and left a mess of tools and parts in his wake. He saved

things, anything, because you never knew what you’d need some day, and his side of the

shop looked like a junkyard. JB, on the other hand, was a meticulous, conscientious

toolman. He reasoned things out before he started a repair. He cleaned his tools and his

work area, and he arranged components where he could find them when it was time to

turn a couple of hundred fragments into a single, coordinated aircraft.

       An Easy Sale

       Selling aircraft at Bird’s Nest didn’t happen often, but it did happen.

       In December 1978, Keith Peshak ambled into the Bird’s Nest Airport flight office

and had a look around. Mary turned on the sweetness and convinced him to take an

introductory flight with Dennis Christian. Three minutes into the flight, Keith knew

what he wanted: hHis own airplane. He started flight lessons, loved the feel of hovering

above ground and, as an engineer, he especially liked the logic of flying from A to B

without following the nonsensical highway system which only rarely connected the dots

of his business trips. As a consultant, Keith routinely traveled to Dallas, San Antonio,

Houston or other smaller towns across the massive state. What could be better than

making a beeline here to there and floating into town under his own power in his own

airplane? Not three months into flight training, Keith made an offer on a spanky new

Cessna 152, the one taking up tie-down space on the ramp out front and that looked

new. As a Cessna dealer, Ray was expected to sell an aircraft every once in a while, and

Keith was the first new sale anyone could remember. He paid $19,000 for a brand new

two-seater, 100-horse aircraft.

       Ray was giddy with his own good luck. He reached into a drawer behind the

counter and handed Keith a set of keys. “Go on,” he said, motioning to the door.

       “I don’t have my license yet.”

       “Who said anything about flying?” Ray gave him a cagey look. “Sit inside, start

her up, take in the smell before the new wears off.”

       So Keith marched out to the ramp and straight for the polished 152 with the

green stripe, and he got ten feet from his new airplane when a giant long-necked goose

the size and shape of a pot-bellied stove appeared and honked and made lunging

motions with her neck. The sight of the goose startled Keith so much that he didn’t

move, which is when the goose waddled forward and, after a couple of misses, pecked

Keith hard in the groin.

       Keith retreated to the flight office where Ray, thankfully, was absent, and he

turned to Mary fully expecting some unmerited sympathy. Only Mary wasn’t in the


       for sympathy. “I saw what happened,” she said.

       “Yeah, well.”

       “That old bird thinks of that airplane as one of her chicks.”


       “Excuse me,” Mary said.

       “A baby goose is called a gosling.”

       “I stand corrected,” she said, and stepped back behind the counter. “If I were you,

I’d go explain to that goose who owns what.”

       Keith glanced behind him out the window. The goose was still there, watching


       “Son,” Mary said using the voice she used that first day he arrived. “Don’t take

this the wrong way, but if you can’t educate a goose to your way of thinking, I’m not sure

you have any business flying an airplane.”

       Keith stood there gazing out the window at the fat goose, its bill partly open,

probably laughing at him, and he decided enough was enough, whereupon he steadied

himself by brushing lint from the shoulder of a spiffy new tee-shirt, counted to ten,

backwards in true countdown fashion, and stomped outside and gave the goose a piece

of his mind.

       Where’s Everybody Off Too?

       Nothing stood still at Bird’s Nest Airport. On a Monday Ray entered the shop

hangar and approached Dave Mandot and said he had good news. “Roy McKinley and

Roy Scott both landed pilot jobs,” he said calmly in the face of awful news. “I need

another flight instructor. And that’s you.” McKinley headed off for an airline out of

Abilene, and Scott took up with Alfred D. Hughes Corporation flying executives

wherever they needed to get to in a hurry. Sometime thereabouts, Ray had more cheery

news. “JB is moving on. It’s time you got your airframe and powerplant license.”

       Between flying and training and socializing and unbolting the worn parts and

rebolting the new, Dave spent so much time at the airport he decided to buy an old trail-

er and haul it out behind the flight office and live at the airport full-time. Why not? He

was young and free of attachments and had a few dollars in the bank. Now that he only

had a short walk to the hangars, the first thing he did was buy a hand-built single-seater

named “Flybaby” from a friend, John Thorne, who had bought it from Jerry Ingram,

who had built the airplane from scratch. Eight months later, he quit the computer job

and hired on as a full-time Bird’s Nest Airport all-around go-to guy.

       A Longer Run at Bliss Than Most

       Dave Mandot was twenty-seven and single when he moved out to live at Bird’s

Nest Airport. Like Ray and Mary, he was living the life he wanted, unlike most people.

In some ways, his good fortune was hard to believe. He had a job and friends and his

own slightly wobbly landing strip in his backyard. He had no reason to think things

wouldn’t just keep getting better. Only he was wrong.

       What Dave couldn’t have known was that Ray and Mary were struggling. And

worse, the enemy wasn’t a single foe, but came at them as a thousand tiny pinpricks

collectively drawing real blood and refusing to retreat. biting into them and refusing to

let go. Some of their problems were obvious. Ray was forever arguing with the

landowners of the adjacent property about the condition of the easement dirt road, and

the arguments were wearing thin. Staff left for bigger and better jobs, exactly the kind of

thing Ray and Mary encouraged, yet each time it happened the loss took something out

of them. Fewer flyers came around. Fewer flyers meant less income, and that meant less

money to maintain the runway and hangars and grounds. Ray and Mary never talked

about the airport’s debts, about demanding suppliers, about starchy letters from the

IRS. For fifteen long years the Hardings struggled to transform the airport into a sus-

tainable business and in all that time, and despite indications otherwise, they never

quite mustered the resources to turn the corner.

       They’d had a spectacular run, and even talking this way--using the past tense in

quiet conversation between them-- was a tacit acknowledgment of something on the

horizon, a mute admission of an impending change. They’d had many such

conversations over the last couple of years, and by late 1979 not a day passed without a

hint or an offhand reference between them about money or people or what would come


        In some ways these two pioneers of general aviation had done their part. They

had constructed a runway and hangars and a flight office. They had hand built a home

where they cooked, and, fed and entertained pilots for years. They had taken bewildered

students and coached them into confident weekend flyers, and coached flyers into

commercial aviators. They fashioned a community where people could come and make

new friends and fly and jump and balloon or just sit around the barbeque and tell tales—

of learning to fly with the motor turned off, of trading airplanes for furniture, of

barnstorming cats, and of a goose and her gosling. There was the time Ray was forced to

land in a plowed field where he rolled forward, slow motion, into a barbed wire fence

and flipped the aircraft upside down; the time a purple Cessna 150 landed with bullet

holes in the right wing and a slug still lodged in the aluminum wing spar; the time a man

with bulky high-res binoculars hid out in a neighbor’s cornfield spying on the airport

(rumored to be a DEA agent or someone likely as sinister hoping to eyeball a clandestine

fly-in of drugs or guns or, equally probable, a truckload of knockoff Obi-Wan Kenobi

action figures buzzed in from Beijing, and it was decided by group vote that the

binocular-toting stranger was not a birdwatcher or an ag student at UT chiefly because

to vote otherwise would spoil all the fun) and how this same group of frisky pilots and

passengers loaded up their airplanes with water balloons and bombed the poor fellow

until he jumped into his car and split. Or the time. . .well, I could go on.

        Ray and Mary Harding had a longer run at bliss than most. In that time they

created more than an airport. They created thousands of memories times the thousands

of people who braved the muddy dirt road and discovered what lay behind the stand of

cypress and willow. For Ray and Mary at least, the stories and memories and some of

the heartache were behind them. It was time for someone new to take the baton and run

with it.

       Chapter Two—The Kahlbau Years

       The idea of owning an airport never crossed Jerry Kahlbau’s mind. In fact, after

twenty-seven years it’s still hard to muster a clear picture of the venture. If he had to nail

it down, he’d say it all started that day in downtown Austin, 1979, winter, cold as all get

out, Jerry hustling south along Guadalupe Street at the edge of the UT campus, or

maybe he’d just rounded 24th Street, whichever, on his way somewhere important, now

long forgotten, with his fingers already near frozen, the tips blue, when he ran into an

acquaintance. We’ll call him Marshall, and the two stood there on the sidewalk in the

inclement weather, spits of rain coming at them at odd angles, anyone with an the IQ in

double digits already indoors, and they made uncomfortable small talk for longer than

necessary when Marshall said, “What do you say we buy an airport?”

       The proposition was without context, strange, and oddly inviting at the same

time. Jerry had a long list of reasons not to buy an airport-- (not the least of which that

he wasn’t a pilot and had no desire to be, was in fact, deep down, the kind of man who

kept both feet on terra firma at all times, a licensed mechanical engineer since 1955,

meaning, he understood the workings of things and what he knew was that all things

with moving parts eventually broke, even airplanes, especially airplanes, and what

would be worse than a broken airplane at five thousand feet? Jerry didn’t know, couldn’t

even imagine, but no, he wasn’t in the market for an airport, thank you.

       Still, he couldn’t not listen.

       Jerry Kahlbau was months away from retiring from the University of Texas. For

thirty-one gratifying years he’d been a research engineer and machine designer, and a

darn good one, and now he was at a turning point in his life. Soon he’d be to retired and

then what? He had a handful of modest real estate holdings around town but the

buildings and rent took care of themselves, mostly. In ways he didn’t want to admit, an

airport sounded interesting--; amusing, he didn’t know, maybe a way to make some

money, though he couldn’t see how. Marshall talked and Jerry listened and absently

shook his head side-to-side, partly to keep the rain out of his face and partly out of habit.

After a while, the tone of Marshall’s spiel changed, sounding a lot like a rehearsed

narrative coming from a man who knew a thing or two about rehearsed narratives.

Marshall made his final point, a long sentence without commas or breathing space—

something about positive community impact and economic growth and ruts in the

muddy easement road the size of WWI trenches. He paused and looked Jerry in the eye

(this too might have been part of the pitch), took a deep breath and rubbed his hands

together, waiting.

       “Where?” Jerry asked.

       “The airport? Not far. Up near Manor.”

       “How much money are we talking?”

       Marshall had him, and Jerry knew it. Marshall said, “Ah, well, that depends on

how many investors are involved.”

       “So how many investors are involved?”

       “Ten,” Marshall said, and crammed his hands deep into coat pockets. “You’ll

make eleven.”

       Of the eleven, one was a local attorney, Darrow, (not his real name), who took on

the role of spokesman, and who explained to the group that the sticking points of a deal

at Bird’s Nest Airport could be defined in a single word: debt. How he came to reach

know this juicy conclusion, Jerry and the other investors at the table didn’t know. Okay,

so the issue was debt. Now what? Over the next few weeks Darrow went about practicing

his legal voodoo, negotiating with Bird’s Nest Airport’s creditors and with owners, Ray

Harding and Mary Harding—who at this point were mid-divorce, no longer a good-

natured team but adversaries in ways that left them feeling awkward and futureless, and

each with their own counsel, making the probability of reaching an agreement was

remote. Darrow spent untold hours on the phone and in direct face-to-face meetings

with unpaid suppliers and their attorneys arriving in small groups, shuffling into his

posh conference room where they sipped cold sodas, took notes, and demanded large

pieces of the pie.

       Every few days Darrow called a meeting of the “Campfire Girls”—an unbecoming

nickname that stuck—and gave the group a full report. The creditors wanted payment

for past services and the IRS and its unchinkable agents were determined to squeeze

some hard scratch from the transaction. There was also a short list of lawyers who piled

on at the last minute and demanded to be paid for a host of unspecified legal

maneuverings, and Darrow’s co-investors, including Jerry Kahlbau, who wanted to be

on the hook for as little as possible when the ink dried. In addition to all that, he had to

unravel a particularly knotty corporate structure in Bird’s Nest Aviation, Inc. Ray and

Mary Harding had incorporated back in 1972 and in the intervening years had so

entangled the corporation’s finances that undoing the mess would take time, if it was

even possible. The details of these negotiations are lost or confidential or it’s possible no

one’s talking because the past is often left in the past for perfectly sound reasons.

       After weeks of wrangling, Darrow and Bird’s Nest Aviation, Inc. and its owners

Ray and Mary Harding and its creditors arrived at a deal: Ray and Mary would walk

away—from a home made with telephone poles, an angled runway and fifteen years of

memories—broke but not in debt. In return the Campfire Girls would pony up a pile of

cash, paying off the smaller debts and negotiating IOUs for those that remained,

including a painful give-and-take with a none too happy Internal Revenue Service. Any

cash left over was intended to keep the airport afloat until someone won the lottery.

       Under New Ownership

       The legal wrangling out of the way, Jerry and several others took possession of

the airport. They went to the property in one or more trucks with extra fat tires and

enough clearance to “high center” the rutted dirt road. After unlocking the flight office,

they made a few phone calls to introduce themselves to the flight instructors and

mechanics and a handful of the pilots paying hangar rent.

       Thereafter, the Campfire Girls gathered for sporadic, somewhat unproductive

meetings in Darrow’s office, in which each got a turn at asking the same question:

Wwhen do we start making money? Or, they complained about the condition of the

runway (the gravel pit, most called it), the lack of cash to fill the aviation fuel tanks and

the subsequent lack of fuel revenues (no fuel to sell equals no fuel income), the general

lackadaisical attitude of pilots, and the slightly crazed cadre of skydivers with and their

colorful jump gear who, as it happened, were now flooding the place like ants. After

everyone had a turn or raun out of steam or admired the cushy leather chairs, someone

would bring up the impossible-to-navigate-after-a-rain easement road. Why couldn’t

someone send a blustering letter on expensive letterhead threatening action if the

neighbors didn’t at least fill the holes in the road?.

       After nearly a year of paltry revenues and a lot lots of expenses, the Campfire

Girls put the airport up for sale. They listed the business in a trade magazine for

airplanes and related businesses, got one tire -kicker, a crop duster from Louisiana short

on cash, and had more meetings where each voiced the same old complaints. By then

Jerry had a year of airport management under his belt, mostly spent sitting in the flight

office, drinking coffee, and making long lists of ways the airport could turn a dime. More

than once, he pondered the idea of buying the airport himself.

       On the surface it didn’t make any sense. In fact, buying an airport, Bird’s Nest

Airport especially, was a lousy decision--; one based on hope and optimism rather than

a judicious accounting of costs and benefits. If asked, he’d say he was attracted to the

land (—now 143 acres, the original 113 plus another triangular-shaped 30-acre tract Ray

had managed to buy from a neighbor). Raw land was a good investment, always had

been in Jerry’s view, if, that is, you had all the time in the world to wait for the market to

catch up and push up prices. Or he might share an idea he’d been considering—hauling

in a few dozen trailers and creating a tasteful little trailer park, one with a clubhouse and

laundry facilities., Or maybe turn the flight office into a general store, add a barbecue pit

and a cedar deck around the duck pond.

       Deep down Jerry Kahlbau was a man of logic who wasn’t hapless or uninformed.

On the contrary, he often made sense of information others disregarded, of changes in

regional politics, population growth, and area history and cultural trends.

       Robert Mueller Municipal Airport

       One critical piece of information was the outlook for of Robert Mueller Municipal


       For some years prior to 1956, Austinites didn’t have a choice of airports. If they

flew at all, small aircraft or large commercial airliners, they took off and landed at

Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, a short five miles from the Texas State Capitol

building in downtown Austin, and, by today’s standards, too close for a budding regional

airport clamoring for more space within an ever-expanding population who wanted

nothing more than a nice quiet quite home on a tree-lined street free of jet engine noise

and the occasional small aircraft pilot snafu--—some hayseed flyer buzzing the

neighborhood or an emergency landing in the back yard.

       Then in 1956, Theodore R. Timmerman, Sr. bought 250 acres along Dessau Road,

a few miles north of Mueller, and leased a 20-acre parcel to Jim Boutwell, who graded a

2,800-foot runway, installed runway lights, put up a handful of T-hangars, and fled the

airport for other ventures. Timmerman Jr. stepped in, renamed the tiny airstrip Tim’s

Airpark, and did his part to keep the place alive for the next forty-two years. Some nine

years later, in 1965, Ray and Mary Harding bought 113 acres along Fuchs Grove Road

and opened Bird’s Nest Airport (a short ten miles from Tim’s Airpark and twelve from

Mueller) giving weekend pilots, for the first time, a choice of three airports to call home.

       The problem for the City of Austin, and the good news for Bird’s Nest Airport,

was that Robert Mueller Municipal Airport was becoming overloaded. The airport had

grown from 340 acres in 1930 to 711 acres in 1956 and was swallowing up all the

additional acreage it could get. By 1971 the airport was serviced by Braniff International

Airways, Continental Airlines, and Texas International, each flying the latest aircraft—

Boeing 727s and BAC IIIs and McDonald Douglas DC-9s. By 1973 commercial

enplanements reached 328,717, a colossal hike in traffic over previous years, according

to Kenneth Baxter Ragsdale in his exacting history of Central Texas aviation Austin,

Cleared for Takeoff. A couple of years later Texas Monthly magazine awarded Robert

Mueller Municipal Airport the unflattering distinction of being one of the most

dangerous airports in Texas. The reasons were obvious: The airport was surrounded by

residential neighborhoods and shopping malls, not to mention the runways being

pulverized by the stretch 727s, and, pulverized or not, the landing strips were too short

to handle larger commercial jet aircraft. The close proximity of homes, schools,

businesses, and churches demanded precision landing techniques that would not permit

touchdown land short or long without disastrous consequences. Add in And the

antagonizing noise and, all in all, ; all to say, the writing was on the wall: Robert Mueller

Municipal Airport could not service the growth of Austin.

       The question wasn’t why or even how, but when.

       Mueller’s unruly expansion, aging infrastructure, and squeamish neighbors were

exactly the formula for Bird’s Nest Airport. When Mueller finally got around to closing

down, some three hundred small aircraft hangared or tied-down there would need a

place to go. Jerry Kahlbau was an engineer, a reasonable man by any standard, but that

didn’t stop him from dreaming, from slipping into a jaunty, light-hearted reverie (if only

in private) on the inside) about the closing of Mueller Airport--t. The day all of those

Cessna, Piper, Hawker, Beech, and Mooney airplanes received eviction notices and took

flight in a giant gaggle of light aircraft heading for Bird’s Nest Airport.

       After an abbreviated conversation with his wife, LaNelle, who didn’t hate the

idea, Jerry approached his partners with an offer to take the airport off their hands. The

partners politely listened to the gravity in his voice and took about three seconds to

respond. No. He made another proposal and another and, eventually, the former

research engineer and machine designer achieved his goal. The Campfire Girls had

owned the airport for exactly one year. Jerry and LaNelle Kahlbau would owned it for

the next twenty-six.

       The Kahlbau Years

       What Jerry didn’t know was that Robert Mueller Municipal Airport wouldn’t

formally shut its doors for another eighteen years. What he did know in those first weeks

of 1981, without a modicum of speculation, was that he’d blundered into a quagmire. To

get his feet on solid ground he sought the advice of Tom Montemayor, the only flight

instructor still on the payroll and a long-time Bird’s Nest pilot.

       “Okay,” Tom said. “Well, let’s see. We’re down to one flight instructor, me, and

one airplane for rent, and I’ve got four students at different stages of training. I have an

obligation to help these people get their license.”

       “Of course,” Jerry said.

       “Well, look at this place,” Tom said as if Jerry had chided him with a friendly “Go

on,” which he hadn’t. “We don't answer the UNICOM, the rotating beacon is burned out,

half the runway lights are dead, no fuel, no maintenance, no 24-hour service, yet the

charts and the Texas Airport Directory claim we have all these things.”

       “I see.”

       The conversation took place in Jerry’s small office, Jerry seated, leaning forward

with both hands on the scuffed metal desk. Tom standing in the doorway, grinning but

serious about the shabby condition of things. “Let me ask you. What are you going to do

when the FAA rolls into town and knocks on our door to ask about these things?"

       “One thing at a time,” Jerry said.

       “That’s what you plan to tell them?”

       Jerry suppressed a laugh while he considered the serious predicament.

       “Look,” Tom said. “I don’t even have keys to the flight office., Mmy students

arrive after work and there’s no place for training.”

       In all fairness, Jerry spent a dizzying amount of time at the airport, and Tom was

the first to admit it, but the president of Bird’s Nest Aviation, Inc. was also a man of

schedules, and his schedule didn’t call for 24-hour baby sitting of an airport with less

revenue than a teen working at Schlotzky’s. “You have a key to the 152?” Jerry asked.

       “I do.”

       In these lean times everyone had a work-around and Tom’s modus operandi was

better than most. When a student showed up after hours or early on a weekend, the two

met in the parking lot, climbed into Tom’s car where it was warm, and Tom quizzed him

about systems and airmanship and weather and navigation and aviation regs. Once

ground school was out of the way, they scrunched into the Cessna 152, buckled up, and

took off. Or, that was the plan. That February was a cold one, in the twenties most days,

and normally aspirated airplanes hate cold. He recalls the Cessna’s battery chugging and

chugging, the prop wriggling and wiggling until it stopped wiggling and the battery

stopped chugging. The fuel truck (sans fuel) was good for a jump if it’d start, which it

often didn’t, and none of that mattered because now that he got a good look, Tom

noticed that the airplane’s tire were nearly flat and the nearby air compressor was


       Tom couldn’t remember a time he hadn’t got didn’t get all the equipment

functioning to some degree. Once airborne every training flight included a mandatory

flight to the west and a touch down at Tim’s Airpark to fill-up and head back to Bird’s

Nest with enough fuel to repeat it with the next student.

       Jerry Kahlbau leaned back in his chair and glanced around the small office and

paused, as if pondering logistics, before resting his eyes on Tom. “I appreciate you

speaking your mind,” he said.

       “Any ideas how you plan to turn this place around?” Tom asked.

       “None that would make you feel any better.”

       The first thing on Jerry’s list was to strike up a handshake deal with aircraft

mechanic JB, (who had quit the airport a number of times but couldn’t stay away for

long). JB paid a small rent on the shop hangar and went about his business fixing

broken airplanes. The two split any profit from selling parts, and JB agreed to buy

liability insurance, which he didn’t do and may also have exacerbated a sticky little

matter involving seatbelts. Details are vague. A likely, though far from absolute,

sequence of events is that JB purchased and installed new seatbelts in an airplane for a

client, consistent with a recent airworthiness directive issued by the FAA. The aircraft

subsequently crashed (through no fault of JB’s), and someone died after one of the

seatbelts came loose during the crash. Bird’s Nest Aviation, Inc. got sued and, after

extended brow beating by all parties, settled out of court. In the niggling exchange of

accusations and rebuttals, JB set out for clearer skies and never returned.

       Austin Parachute Center

       The airport had some cash coming in—T-hangar rent, tie-down rent, shop hangar

rent (for a time), a mark-up on Cessna parts, and a few dollars from selling aircraft fuel.

It just wasn’t enough to cover expenses. However, on most weekends, the place

resembled a frat party. All that mischief and squirminess had little to do with pilots and

flight training, and more to do with the Austin Parachute Center.

       The Center opened in 1970 or thereabouts when an energetic Mike Mullins, a

returning Vietnam veteran and Army helicopter pilot, got it in his head to start a skydive

operation and training school. Mike talked it over with Ray Harding, who liked the idea,

and the two picked out a location north of the flight shack, on the other side of the gravel

and asphalt ramp, where Mike had built a fifty-foot square tin building that served as an

office, training area, and chute packing shed. Clark Thurmond, two and a half hours

north in Waco, got wind of the new jump center at Bird’s Nest and immediately talked a

couple of jump buddies into checking it out. One day not long after, the crew arrived and

jumped and jumped and jumped, and thus began an odyssey that Clark couldn’t stop for

the next thirty years.

       Thereafter, Clark spent weekends at the jump center and by early 1973 took over

as manager. A few months later, at the end of a busy summer, Mike said he wanted out

and he offered Clark a deal: For five thousand dollars he’d hand over the Center’s most

valuable assets—a stack of faded student training harnesses, one soon-to-expire lease on

a marginally sound fifty-by-fifty tin shed, and one contract with the University of Texas

Informal Class Program (which guaranteed about 180 impetuous, free-spirited students

a year at $39 a pop). There was also a modicum of goodwill. The Center trained 300 or

so walk-ins a year at $49 each, and provided as many as 10,000 jumps annually to

experienced skydivers. All to say, there was no shortage of demand for parachute


       The Jump Center Buyout

       The deal did not include the fifteen-year-old Cessna 182, which Mike agreed to

lease to the Center until Clark had the cash to buy it outright.

       Mike made the offer at the end of a long weekend of jumping. Two dozen

skydivers and a few wannabes stood around ,( some inside, some outside the tin

building), the sun still high in the sky--, men mostly, bare-chested and wearing seventies

short-shorts, tennis shoes, and calf-high white socks with stripes. Most were holding

cans of Coors, the cans sweating and the men doing some perspiring of their own. They

were smiling and giggling, chirpy like the males in their twenties they were,; tickled with

themselves and their invincibility and their place in the world in ways they might never

be again.

       “It’s a hell of an offer,” Mike said.

       Clark nodded, thinking. He loved the jump center. He loved the atmosphere, the

way the place absorbed all kinds of personalities, the way it made people feel welcome

and strong and (for those able to shrug off the willies and keep jumping out of perfectly

safe airplanes), better about themselves. Or at least that’s the way he saw it. He loved

the simplicity of the business proposition—hand over three dollars; we take you up and

push you out, and the thrill of the jump is all yours.

       Mike stood on the north side of the tin building in the shade, close enough to feel

the heat emanating from the corrugated metal. His head was thrown back and his wire-

rimmed aviator shades pointed at the sky, watching a jumper, a large dome of dark

fabric overhead, a jellyfish, falling back to Earth. “He’s too far east.”

       “He’s all right,” Clark said. “It’s his second, third jump. He’s doing fine.”

       “I’m going to miss this place.”

       “I haven’t said yes.”

       “You will.”

       Mike rubbed at the back of his neck. “Three years I put into this place.”

       “I thought it was longer.”

       “Three and a half. Feels like ten.” It was a cloudless hazy day. “The wind’s

changed. He’s too far east, like I said.”

       “He’s all right.”

       “If the kid lands on that hard pan, he’ll break a leg.”

       “No one’s breaking any legs today,” Clark said.

       Clark watched Mike, unable to see through the dark lenses of his glasses, waiting

for the right moment to say what he had to say. A breeze flapped Mike’s hair across his

forehead and he glanced down at his shoes and the black clay dust in his shoelaces. He

stared up at the dome-like canopy with the curiosity of a man who hadn’t seen a

thousand, ten thousand, canopies just like it. “If he lands in the Zschiesche’s cornfield,

they aren’t going to be happy about it.”

       “He’s all right.”

       “So you keep saying.”

       “Okay,” Clark said.

       “Okay what?”

       “I’m in.”

       “I wouldn’t have asked if you weren’t in.” Up in the air, the kid made a sweeping

turn and pointed his chute at the jump center. A breeze whipped around the side of the

building and lifted a puff of dust. In the sky the kid yanked on a toggle and rotated the

canopy, and for several seconds he moved quickly across the sky and then slowed again.

       They watched the jumper with the dark blue canopy, still a thousand feet off the

ground, inch his way closer to the pea gravel pit north of the Center, the bulls- eye. “I’ll

be,” Mike said, seeing that the kid might make it. “There’s something else.”

       “I didn’t figure we came out here to watch this kid’s technique.”

       “I want to come out here anytime I feel like it,” Mike said. “I want to boss people

as if I own the place, if I’m in the mood.”

       “Why don’t we just leave well enough alone? Let’s get back to work and you can

go on bossing anyone you please.”

       “And I want to come out here and jump anytime I want.” And before Clark could

answer, he added, “For free.”

       “How about we say a hundred jumps?” Clark said. “On me.”

       “A thousand.”

       “Just a thousand?”

       The jumper with the blue canopy hit the ground in good form, not within the

circle of pea gravel but not too far away, his legs bent to one side. He rolled, jumped to

his feet, and gathered the parachute before the wind picked up and dragged him across

the field.

       Mike took a step forward and hollered at the kid out in the field, “You did real

good.” There was a hitch in his voice, a softening that betrayed the gruffness of his tone,

the way an old man might holler at a grandson, though Mike wasn’t old, but the kid

didn’t hear him. By now he had the lines tangled, wrapped around both legs, and a gust

pressed the blue fabric in the kid’s face, and if Mike were in the mood he would have

grinned—not laughed, because he didn’t laugh at people, students especially—but and

today he didn’t even grin. “Geez, I’m going to miss this place,” Mike said.

       1954 Beechcraft

       Clark moved from Waco to Austin, worked for the health department during the

week and the Austin Parachute Center on the weekends. By 1975, he had saved up

enough to buy the Cessna 182 for $7,500 and once the paperwork was completed, he

quit his weekday job and put all of himself into the Austin Parachute Center. Jump

centers make money by the jump. At $3 a pop, the more jumps the more cash flowing,

so Clark got an idea. If he purchased a larger airplane he could haul twice the jumpers,

maybe three times as many as the old Cessna. If he could maintain the same number of

take-offs per weekend, and assuming demand didn’t diminish, he’d increase his revenue


       To test his new strategy, in May of the following year Clark, and a fellow pilot and

skydiver, and a hell of a parachute rigger, Charles Waters, formed a partnership and

bought a 1954 Beechcraft Model 18. Nicknamed the Twin Beech, the bulky aircraft was a

well-known hauler and had an animated history of diverse uses from airborne mail pick

up and ambulance service to drug smuggling and gun running and aerial firefighting, as

well as the routine activity of skydiving. The Twin Beech sported two big Pratt &

Whitney’s—a pair of nine-cylinder air-cooled radial aircraft engines with 400 horses

each and two fuel pumps and two carburetors and two 78-gallon fuel tanks and, well,

two of everything that ate up fuel as fast as Clark could pour it down the tank.

Maintenance on November-six-four-Alfa was costly—two engines, twice the down time,

and somehow four and five times as many things likely to break or rot or rattle loose on

takeoffs and landings. The Twin Beech was considered a light utility transport, but next

to the Cessna 182 it was an elephant, and this elephant needed more runway than Bird’s

Nest had to offer. He didn’t really have a choice. In June 1977, Clark moved the

operation to Georgetown Municipal Airport twenty-five miles north and he stuck it out

there for three long years, until he and Charles realized that buying the bulky Model 18

with its twin guzzlers and dippy twin tail fins was, one of the dumbest business decisions

they’d ever made. Clark sold the old heap (at a profit, rendering his dumb business

decision not so dumb after all), bought himself a second Cessna 182, and lugged the

entire operation back to Bird’s Nest (about the time Jerry Kahlbau was negotiating to

buy the airport from his partners), where shortly thereafter the Center started making


       Four-Way Canopy Formations

       The Austin Parachute Center prospered and it drew people like Henry Stone. He

was a twenty-one-year-old cabinetmaker who took to skydiving like a duck to water, a

kid who would make over 1,500 jumps in the next three years (probably more but Henry

didn’t much care for log books). Here was a man who would, as part of a four-man team,

win the United States Parachute Association’s National Skydiving Championship in

1983 for an entirely new category, four-way canopy formation. Henry found his calling

and passion for those precious few years in his twenties.

       Skydiving had a special draw for Henry. It was an activity against reason, against

instinct and common sense, and a dangerous hobby that defied sanity. Best of all,

skydiving was an activity without a lot of discourse or preparation. You jumped or you

didn’t; you learned freefall maneuvers, to hover and somersault and swoop and dock, or

you didn’t; you took to the insurance-revoking avocation of canopy formations, or you

didn’t;, and you did all of it without a lot of dialogue. Rarely, if ever, did Henry hear

another seasoned skydiver defend himself for his kooky sport. You either got it or you

didn’t, and if you didn’t then you took go take up something else that was less thrilling

and dangerous.

       Part of the appeal, was the fear. For Henry that fear had little to do with falling

from five thousand feet with and nothing below but air pushing cheeks against bone

and, somewhere, far in the distance, a smudge of Texas dirt as welcoming as a combat

drop zone. The real experience started while you stood around waiting for the airplane

to return from dropping jumpers and land and taxi and come to a stop so you could

crawl in and take your seat. The fear increased during climb out when you were well past

committed, resigned and self-terrorized, when where your past life was fast- forwarded

in front of you.

       The actual jump was a piece of cake.

       Fear or no fear, jumping out of airplanes was cool. Hooking up with other

jumpers on the way down before their chutes had opened were open (what skydiving

aficionados refer to as free--fall relative work) was cooler. But the coolest, and Henry’s

predilection, was canopy relative work—the art of flying open parachutes in close

formation, close enough to wrap your feet around the lines of the parachute below or

grab a handful of nylon of the canopy zooming alongside.

       The trick to all canopy relative work was not getting wrapped in a ball of nylon,

which Henry had did on two occasions.

       Jumpers have a word for such a mess—entanglement—but the experience isn’t

nearly so neat and formal.


       The first time it happened to Henry, a windless day in September, he was 3,000

feet up practicing with his team, the same bunch who had, only days earlier, triumphed

at the USPA Nationals: Nasser Basir, Debra Schantz (Schantzi to her friends), Kevin

Gibson, and himself, (top to bottom in that order). The four were docked in a parachute

canopy formation called a “biplane” practicing a move known as a rotation, in which

four skydivers, chutes open, arrange themselves one on top of the other with the legs of

the person above hooked into the lines of the canopy below. From a distance, a four-way

biplane looks like a sandwich of pillowy canopies with and the skydivers so close

together they appear to be standing on each other’s heads. Once the biplane is complete,

the top person breaks away, rapidly descends, and takes his place at the bottom of the

formation. The biplane resets, and again the person on top rotates to the bottom, and on

it goes.

       On that day, Nasser, on top, breaks away. As he floats upward, his body level with

Schantzi’s canopy, an arm or foot or line, or who knows what, clips the front edge of her

chute and her canopy folds into itself and flutters and partially re-inflates, all in a

microsecond, and sends a violent halting ripple through the lines down to Kevin and

Henry. Kevin is jerked backward, and it happens so quickly that when he rights himself,

a leg and both arms are tangled in Henry’s lines. Given enough time, he could reason

his way out of it, unsnarl one line at time,; but the threesome are falling fast and

Schantzi’s chute has collapsed on one side, forcing her into a tight spin she can’t control,

and the bodies below are dragging her down. Kevin struggles to right himself, to get his

body and arms and legs away from Henry’s lines, and at the same time fighting to stop

the spin. At the bottom of this colossal mess, Henry is dead weight, tossed like a toy at

the end of a rope, unable to do much but look up and hold on against disorder and wind

and noise. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but he knows it’s not good.

       Kevin ratchets his chin up and shouts at Schantzi to undock, to unhook her feet

from his lines, to let go and to do it now. Henry shouts at Kevin, now turned backwards

and on his side, his canopy fluttering like a noisy loose sail, and suddenly he sees

Schantzi floating free. Without thinking, he shouts for Kevin to cut away, to release his

main chute, to and give it a second and pull the reserve. “Cut away,” he screams, or

something like it, and this is more conversation than he’s ever had on a jump and,

unable to tell if Kevin can hear him or not, he keeps shouting, “Cut, cut, cut,” until he

rolls forward into the wind and hot air rushes down his throat and he can’t utter a

sound. He gawks at the ground, at the patchwork of green and brown and the evenly

spaced rows in the landscape, and he thinks of fingers and finger-painting, and when he

twists and looks up, Kevin is falling free, the lines of his main chute unwinding around

him, and he counts the seconds--, two, three, four-- and sees the reserve chute unfold

from his back and fill with air.

       Henry reaches for his own red handle and yanks hard.

       His main chute releases and one of his risers slugs him hard in the face, and he’s

sure he’s broken his nose. The sting is numbing and he blinks and opens his eyes, and

one lens of his dive glasses is shattered and there are bits of glass in one eye. He closes

his eye and is falling without seeing, and he feels the tug of lines across his body

strangling him and another mass of lines hooked around one foot. Approaching the

patchwork of farmland below at 110 miles per hour, he is dropping 32 feet every second.

Frantically, he twists and wriggles and grabs lines and wrenches them over his head and

around his arm and out from between his legs and wiggles the one foot--; and whether

he’s fully untangled or not, he pulls his reserve chute and hears the distant ruffle of air

against nylon.

       While his nose hurts and he has line burns all over his body, he knows opens, in

all, he’s okay and he looks down and sees he has a thousand feet, less, to ride it out-- and

he knows he has one hell of a story to tell when he lands .

       To Henry and others the jump center was more than a training school. It was a

social center where people met and told stories, a place with an energy he’d never

experienced in his lifetime, a place to live on the edge. It was also a place to connect with

people like Alan Coovert and David McMurphy and Tom McCarthy and Mark Dunlap

and Gary Trebby and Ron Schaeff and Bob McLaughlin and Carolee Justus and

hundreds of others. And a never- ending flow of junior zoomies like Becky Howell.

       Girls and Skydiving?

       It was spring 1983 and Becky Howell was determined to skydive. A former

pharmacist turned grad student at Texas A&M and a new member of the university’s

skydiving club, she came to skydiving chiefly because she wasn’t allowed to fly, or so

she’d been told. Girls don’t become pilots. She’d heard it all of her life. Oh, and if you

need glasses to see, forget about it. All-out malarkey, but Becky didn’t know that.

       Becky’d made a few jumps at Hearne Municipal Airport, a whole bunch closer to

College Station and campus, but there was an attraction about Bird’s Nest Airport. In

hindsight, it’s easy to see the appeal was more than the scruffy atmosphere and the wide

open spaces. It likely had something to do with a dashing six-foot-six aircraft mechanic

and flight instructor, Dave Mandot, with his uncombed curly hair, and who looked

conspicuously attractive to her on a hot day in shorts and tee, washing the Piper Tri-

Pacer in front of the flight office. Once Becky got into her groove, she racked up some

200 jumps in record time and moved quickly on to the tricky stuff (what any mother

would see as foolhardy)--, canopy relative work.

       Becky wanted to impress her mother, a woman who hadn’t yet witnessed what

her dazzling straight-A overachiever grad student daughter could do with 32 tangly

lines and 270 square feet of nylon floating through a cloudless sky. If mom wouldn’t trek

out to Bird’s Nest Airport to watch her daughter jump, Becky would bring the mountain

to Mohammed—or, in this case, to her mother’s ranch near Gonzales, Texas, about

seventy miles south of the airport. Becky, uncompromising A noncompromiser by

nature, had the Becky’s impassioned idea was to rent an airplane, have Dave fly over her

mother’s house, nudge Becky out the open door, and land the airplane in the pasture. He

planned to high-tail it over to watch Becky touch down on the barbered Bermuda of the

front lawn, join the family for a high-cholesterol Thanksgiving dinner, and with any

luck, polish off the day with a hefty slice of pumpkin pie.

       Only that didn’t happen.

       As a rookie canopy formation jumper, Becky had recently adjusted her chute to

give her more forward speed, thus enabling her to catch up with the boys during the

coordinated jump. The chute was so finely tuned that if you gave her too much brake, (if

you yanked on the steering toggles and collapsed the left and right back of the canopy at

the same time), she’d slow all right, and then stall, the parachute all but collapsed and

no more effective at slowing a your descent than waving a beach towel overhead,

sending the jumper straight down. (Note to self. Don’t yank on the toggles at the same

time unless you’re inches off the ground.) So, on Tturkey Dday, with plans already in

motion and fingers crossed, Dave flew low over the house, the signal for Jeff (brother-

in-law in cahoots with this somewhat crazy idea), to usher the family outside for the

show. Becky jumped, pulled her chute and began a fast glide straight for the front lawn.

When she reached the yard she was too high and fast, so she yanked on the brakes to

slow her down, which worked well indeed. She was motionless fifty feet off the clipped

turf with zero forward motion (an absolute no-no for the high-tech ram-air parachute

strapped to her back), and all thoughts of a show-stoppinger landing crushed. well in

the dust. Becky dropped like a sack of potatoes smack-dab in the front yard, where she

broke her back. She, spent ten days in the hospital and months in recovery.

      What book about airports and airplanes and pilots and skydivers is complete

without at least one marginally -ludicrous cautionary tale to scare readers, to make us

appreciate our good decisions and ponder our bad ones, and to give us, for a few

minutes, the 20-20 vision to lean back in our Lazy-Boy and look over at a sweetheart

and say, “There’s one mistake I won’t make in this lifetime.”

      Becky healed, of course, completed her masters degree and a doctorate in

naturopathy, and put in another 200 jumps. She also convinced Dave Mandot to teach

her to fly. First in the tried-and-true Cessna 150 and later in the much larger and super-

sleek twin- engine Cessna 421 (with nearly two-and-a-half times the cruise speed).

Becky went on to earn her commercial pilot’s license, eventually was hired by Southwest

Airlines, made captain, and recently passed 20,000 flight hours.

      As for Becky and Dave, they’re still together after twenty-seven years.

             The Center Shuts its Doors

      Then in December of the same year, 1983, the world came to an end. The funny

thing was, no one saw it coming, Henry Stone especially. For one lousy weekend,

breaking a string of perfect attendance at the jump center, Henry opted to go camping.

He had a splendid time swatting mosquitoes, watching some kind of beetle fly around

the fire and other bugs that should have been long gone this late in the year fly around

the fire.

       When he arrived at the airport the next weekend, he braved the muddy road and

made a right turn at the pond. The bald cypresses were as bare as toothpicks. His truck

lurched forward, the idle higher than it needed to be, pulling him along, and he looked

ahead and could see a piece of paper stuck to the large metal door of the jump center.

From here it had an official bearing to it, like a terse FAA notification, or an unfriendly

eviction notice, or a USDA salmonella warning, or a building code violation or an OSHA

reg infraction. Whatever it was, it looked like bad news.

       He inched forward, no one in sight on a Saturday morning. Henry was often the

first to arrive, but it wasn’t that early and someone should have been poking around. He

pulled the truck up to the building, his front bumper just below the sign. The notice was

white cardboard. He shoved the gearshift into park and sat there and squinted and read

(not a warning or a threat at all, but a clear-headed statement), so lean it stopped his

heart). He rubbed his forehead with the tips of his fingers, pushing hard just above the

eyebrows where there’s a little ridge, and pressed until he felt bone. The sign said that

the Austin Parachute Center was out of business.

       He couldn’t think. His brain had seized and he was frozen motionless with shock.

Jerry Kahlbau’s silver pickup was parked near the flight office. Henry got out and

crossed the ramp. Inside, Jerry stood at the small kitchen counter next to the coffee pot,

a heavy ceramic cup in his hand, looking out the window at Henry’s pickup.

       “Is this for real?” Henry asked.

       “Want some coffee? Give me a minute. It’s about ready.”

       “I go camping for one lousy weekend.”

       Jerry bent to the pot and inhaled. “I hope you like it strong.”

       “Three years I’ve been jumping out here. Just like that, it’s gone.”

       “Black?” Jerry asked, not looking at him. “There’s no milk.”

       “Why didn’t anyone call me? Someone could have called. Why. . .” but he let the

sentence hang, not even sure what he wanted to ask.

       “Clark couldn’t get liability insurance,” Jerry said. “The insurance industry’s in a

crisis and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it. Someone had to be cut loose and

some bureaucrat there in Austin decided skydivers could do without, probably a few

other groups too, I don’t know.”

       “This is about insurance?”

       “That’s right.”

       “And you told him he had to leave?”

       Jerry poured a cup of coffee and set the cup on the table and slid it across the

Formica table top. “Here. Sit down.” He grabbed his own cup from the counter and sat

and sipped and put both hands on the table and stared at them. “Sit.”

       Henry tried to gather his thoughts. He thought about his drive that morning:

dDawn, a mural of a landscape; a mute stillness to things and frail clouds settling in the

bottoms; a low haze of gleaming dust inches off the ground. He drove in and out of the

haze and up a rise and down the other side. The more time he spent out there, the more

he loved it, and the more he perceived and understood and appreciated its the rural

beauty. Some mornings the panorama stretched horizon to horizon. He thought about

how Clark and he used to stand out on the wooden deck next to the tin building and look

out at the morning, how Clark would say there was nothing between them and the North

Pole but a barbed wire fence.

          Henry sat. He said, “The note there on the door. It’s a pizza box.”

          “It doesn’t mean anything.”

          “The lid, I think.”

          “Something to write on, I suppose.”

          Henry touched his cup but didn’t drink. “It sort of cheapens things, don’t you


          “I’d have of let him stay if he had insurance. I liked Clark, still like him.”

          Henry shook his head and gazed out the window. He heard a breeze, or felt it, he

wasn’t sure.

          “I didn’t have a choice,” Jerry said.

          “It breaks my heart.”

          “LaNelle and me, we talked about it. It’s just too big a risk. I’m sorry.” Jerry

leaned forward and put both elbows on the table in an unnatural way, like he was

breaking a rule or something. “No reason you should know this, but this airport, well,

it’s a mite more than we bargained for some days. Watching Clark stick that sign across

the way the other morning didn’t affect me one way or another, but seeing you right here

in front of me, the look on your face, it’s days like this I’d have to give the whole idea a

hard once- over before I’d do it again. Perhaps I wouldn’t.”

          Henry thought about something he’d heard, conceivably something his mother

had said or an aunt or Jerry himself in that because it sounded like something he’d say.

We’ll That we’ll understand it all by and by. After a while, Henry said, “It’s not your


          They sat quietly at the table. Jerry got up and went to the sink. “I did what I

thought was best.”

       Falling Apart Piece by Piece

       With the jump center gone, Bird’s Nest Airport couldn’t survive. Instead, the

airport eroded, crumbling in increments too small and inconsequential to catalogue

with any accuracy, grinding itself, not unlike shaping a crag of limestone, say a soft

Cordova cream, from angular to round to flat and always smaller, watching it waste

away to dust.

       The Environmental Protection Agency forced Jerry to dig up the two aviation fuel

tanks. Afterward, he stopped selling fuel and , he salvaged the fuel truck for pennies. In

2002, the tower burned down. Ray and Mary’s home made from telephone poles

evaporated, according to the Manor Messenger, as twenty men from the Manor Fire

Department and three from the Pflugerville Fire Department did what they could to

keep people and airplanes safe as the tower and attached shop hangar burned. The

airport was free of unsightly fire hydrants, so firefighters filled water tankers at nearby

Manor High School and hauled them back and forth over the gouged dirt road and gave

the flames a good dousing. Seven and a half hours later it was over. All traces of the

Harding’s, except for the irregular scar of gravel angled across the property, was gone--;

a dream weathered by thirty-two years of sun and rain and wind and laughter. Bird’s

Nest Airport finally surrendered to the fire, and all was scattered to the four winds.

       Still, a few pilots hung on.

       Jerry had put up a couple of T-hangars years earlier and the spaces rented out

cheap, mostly to aircraft owners who had long since lost interest in flying with , or

possibly just a once loved broken- down airplane that would never be flowny again.

Steve Burns and Rio Tenango rented space; Michael Murphy parked his Beech

Musketeer; Holton O. Harvey had his Capella Classic there; and Richard Marchant

found a place for his Mooney;, Steve Burns and Rio Tenango rented space, as did and

Jack Mayberry and Mike Green and Don S. Arsenault (, a man who a few years in the

future would raise a stink when, in his 1965 Cessna 150F, he towed a banner in his 1965

Cessna 150F over the University of Texas campus that read, “Hey Mack, quit whining. U

knew the rules,” referring to the football team’s head coach’s complaints about a recent

ranking that put Texas behind Oklahoma).

       On it went. Tin buildings rusted. Once shiny locks tarnished and rusted shut.

Hinges refused to move. Each year more of the runway disappeared and knapweed and

cheatgrass took over, and it appeared to those few who knew the tiny landlocked airstrip

still existed, that it was on hold waiting for its next reincarnation, whatever that might


       Chapter Three—A Compelling Offer

       In early 2007 Tre Deathe called my office and introduced himself as a partner

with Eagle Rock, LLC. The reason for the call, he said in a slightly hoarse voice, was to

get some advice about developing a little- known airport north of Austin. I was curious,

of course, and when he asked if I’d be willing to meet, willing to share some of my

experiences building the Houston Executive Airport, willing to confess (though he didn’t

say it) some of my more costly blunders so he might avoid similar traps. I didn’t

hesitate. By all means, fly on over and let’s have a chat. Soon thereafter Tre hopped into

his twin- engine Beechcraft Baron and just like that we had a meeting in the conference

room at the Houston Executive Airport.

       I recall the meeting now, years later, as a rushed fast-talking affair, as though Tre

had more to say than the time allowed--, a man peppering me with questions about over

overflight areas and instrument approaches and critical airspace. And what about land

use and environmental issues? What about runway orientation and engineering and

design? What about street access and parking? What about T-hangars and maintenance

hangars and a terminal building? What about county codes and city codes and neighbor

complaints and noise and politics and all the god-awful paperwork? What about paying

for the whole thing?

       Tre and I weren’t the only people at the meeting. He had invited two of his

partners, Dayle Baldauf, a commercial appraiser, and Rick Winter, a local realtor, men

who knew their way around Texas soil and who collectively had grand plans for a stretch

of black clay north of Manor. On my side of the table I had Frank McIllwain, a project

manager with Garver Engineers, the man responsible for engineering and construction

oversight of my Houston Executive Airport project, and Andrew Perry, Executive

Director of the Houston Executive Airport, and my right-hand man.

       Tre and Dayle and Rick sat across the small conference table and laid out their

plans: Buy up Bird’s Nest Airport, snag the eight adjacent properties, expand the

runway, build hangars and a terminal building, and turn some 300 acres of the 962-acre

project into a business park targeted at aviation manufacturers and suppliers. If all this

sounded a bit too easy, well, that’s what these kinds of meetings were about: tTo make

the complex appear simple,; the circuitous direct,; and the outrageously expensive a

bargain at twice the price. And before anyone had a chance to rain on this aviation

parade, Tre, or someone (, my memory is hazy here), said the whole thing should come

in at just under $47.3 million.

       I smiled and said I liked the idea. because it appealed to me. I even offered a

suggestion or two I knew would be ignored or forgotten, as all good advice offered in

these moments of optimism are, and I said I wished them luck.

       That was not the end of it.

       Several months later I got a call. This time it was from Rick Winter asking if the

group might visit again and have a direct talk. In those weeks after that initial meeting,

I learned a thing or two about Eagle Rock, LLC and a lot about the project. Tre and Rick

were pilots, this much I knew. Tre owned a thriving appliance repair and service center

in Austin and Rick was a well-respected local realtor, the kind of professional numbers

cruncher you want on your side at the closing table. Dayle, not a pilot, the oldest of the

group and gray-haired, a former geologist for Shell Oil, and a commercial realtor and

appraiser, had been in the real estate game for many years.

       Fact was, Dayle had a long history with Bird’s Nest Airport. In 1998 he and a

partner, Doug Hearne, who ran a flight school at Robert Mueller Municipal Airport,

realized that Mueller’s days were numbered and believed Bird’s Nest a viable investment

and a darn good location for a flight school. Dayle gave Jerry Kahlbau a ring and the two

met at Café 290 in Hutto, a home-style diner originally built from leftover Army

barracks borrowed from Camp Swift in Bastrop. Since, the place had been remodeled

lded half dozen times; it now consisted of wide pine floors, low ceilings, and walls

plastered filled with roadhouse memorabilia, a better place than most to discuss real

estate. Dayle ordered chicken fried steak with extra gravy, a large iced tea, sweet. Jerry

ordered coffee and couldn’t decide between a slice of lemon meringue or double cream

blueberry pie.

       After the waitress, a cutie in faded Wranglers with holes at the knees, hustled off

to the kitchen, Dayle asked, “How do you feel about carrying paper?”

       “About like you’d think,” Jerry said, half smiling or possibly wincing, it was hard

to tell. His lemon meringue arrived and he scooped up a forkful of white fluffy stuff and

put it in his mouth. “Might, though, if the price was right.”

       “I’m willing to pay what’s fair,.” Dayle said.

       “Of course you will,” Jerry said.

       And on it went. They ate and talked and drank sweet tea and black coffee and by

late afternoon had cut a deal. Two hundred thousand down, and Jerry agreed to carry

paper for the balance.

       Dayle had finished eating and played with his food, separating bits of potato from

gravy with his knife. “For this to work,” he said, “I’ll need Lew Adams next door there to

go along. I need road access to the new toll -road and he’s got it.”

       “If the road ever gets this far.”

       “Even if it doesn’t.”

       Jerry swiveled around and looked at the busy room, at men in smudged work

clothes mostly, at a single diner in a suit and tie in the corner. As if talking to the suited

man, he said, “My wife and Mr. Adams don’t get along. Something someone said to

someone, I think. I don’t recall. Whatever it was, it stuck.” He lifted his cup for the

waitress. “You understand what I’m saying?”

       “I don’t believe I do.”

       “If you try to work a deal with Mr. Adams, the owner financing is off the table.”

       “Just like that?” Dayle said and neatly placed his knife on the his napkin next to

his plate.

       “Some things don’t make sense,” Jerry said. “They just are.”

       “Without deeded access, I can’t get a title policy. And without a title policy, I can’t

get bank financing to improve the place, expand the flight school, redo the runway, and

a hundred other things.”

       Jerry pushed his pie plate into the center of the table. The plate had delicate, blue

rose petals around the rim and looked out of place in the rustic diner. Taking his time,

he lifted a tatty cloth napkin from his lap, wiped his mouth, and folded the napkin into a

square the size of a handkerchief. He placed the square on the table directly in front of

him. “Please don’t think me rude, but none of that’s my problem.”

       In all, nothing came of the deal. Jerry Kahlbau was pleasant enough, but


       Another Go at Bird’s Nest

       Then in 2006 when rumors of a new toll -road proved true enough, Dayle made

another pass at buying Bird’s Nest Airport. This time, he went at it in reverse. He

approached Lew Adams, signed him to an option to purchase his 50-acre property with

deeded access, and then bellied up to Jerry Kahlbau. In the intervening years Jerry’s

wife, LaNelle, had passed and Jerry had softened in some ways. He agreed to a 90-day

option, time enough, everyone believed, to put all the pieces in place and close a big

airport development deal. Immediately, Dayle put his team together. He contacted Tre

Deathe, head of the Texas Aviation Association, and asked him to join the team. And,

since the group needed someone who could count, Dayle invited Rick Winter and asked

him to put together a business plan, spreadsheets and forecasts.. The three formed BN

Group Development and worked for months mulling over airport business strategies

and highlighting opportunities and threats and meeting with knowledgeable parties.

       At the same time, another pair of investors, Tim Casey, a pilot, one-time flight

instructor at Bird’s Nest Airport and real estate executive, and Arlene Wohlgemuth,

pilot, former legislator, and lobbyist, formed Eagle Rock, LLC and wanted to develop

Bird’s Nest themselves.

       For months the two groups, BN Group Development and Eagle Rock, LLC,,

worked independently, feverishly running about the area talking to land owners, looking

for handshake deals and, with any luck, hustling up an investor or two with a lot of cash.

It wasn’t until Bill Gunn, Director of Airport Compliance with the Texas Department of

Transportation, Aviation Division, who had spoken to each group separately, mentioned

to fellow pilot Rick Winter that another group had the same idea that. Rick approached

Tim Casey and both agreed to show their cards. By then BN Group Development already

had options on the airport and the adjacent Adams property, which left Tim and Arlene

with little choice: Wish BN Group good luck with the project or join forces and share the

pot. Joining forces made more sense and the five would-be airport developers quickly

hashed out a partnership agreement under the auspices of Eagle Rock, LLC.

       Apart from the drama of competing real estate developers, I also learned that the

idea of a new Austin -area airport had a few things going for it.

       First, there was demand for local hangar space.

       In May 1999, the area’s only commercial airport, Robert Mueller Municipal

Airport, finally closed and moved its commercial traffic to a freshly updated, $585-

million, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, the and former Bergstrom Air Force

base located south of town. The move, while lauded by most, left a gaggle of pilots

feeling abandoned and 320 small aircraft with nowhere to nest. A month later, Austin’s

only remaining airport for private aircraft, Austin Executive Airpark, formerly Tim’s

Airpark, sold to Dell, Inc. who shut it down the airport, leaving more than a hundred

additional airplanes looking for a new home. To the aviation community, these two

closings felt much like the blast from both barrels. Private pilots had little choice for

storing their aircraft but to scramble for a place at Austin-Bergstrom International and,

if that failed, then fly off to one of a handful of airports more than an hour away. As a

side note to this sad story, many pilots went to Georgetown Municipal Airport and

reserved tie-down and hangar space before others beat them to it. Rather than thankful

for the business, Georgetown city leaders didn’t take kindly to Austinites crowding into

their airspace, and, the city council quickly proposed boosting fees to hangar and tie-

down renters--; a surcharge, they said, to help pay for a badly needed new control tower.

After a bit of haggling led by the city’s own attorney, threats, and a fair amount of name

name-calling, the city council reluctantly changed course and left rents the same as


       Second, pilots all but begged for the touch and feel of a friendlier general aviation


       As if knowing exactly how to antagonize otherwise affable pilots, the wise leaders

at Austin-Bergstrom International politely snubbed their noses at small aircraft owners

by ignoring them and failing to build a single hangar to replace those lost when Mueller

Municipal shut down. Only after some ticklish legal quibbling led by the Texas Aviation

Association did Austin-Bergstrom International agree to build a paltry 54 T-hangars to

house small aircraft. Imagine a game of musical chairs, only with airplanes, and when

the music stops more than four hundred airplanes circleing the patch, zeroing in on

Bergstrom’s 54 T-hangars.

       To make matters worse, Austin-Bergstrom International needed to recoup the

cost of the airport and did so in several dumbfounding ways. One was to charge colossal

rents to the airport’s two Ffixed- base Ooperators (FBOs). Think of an FBO as an old-

fashioned general store, a business that provides goods and services to small and

corporate aircraft owners and other operators located at the airport. The airport’s two

FBOs naturally passed on the higher costs to pilots by charging a landing fee (something

unheard of at nearly all of the smaller airports across the state) and bumping up the

price of aviation fuel by a dollar or so per gallon. As the consummate insult to general

aviation pilots, Austin-Bergstrom International then burdened pilots with new T-hanger

requirements, including $1 million in aircraft liability insurance coverage and an

additional $1 million in auto insurance coverage (that is, if you had a notion of driving

your car anywhere near the hangar). Not surprisingly, these coverages were impossible

didn’t exist unless, you had a large net worth. Wily pilots worked around the problem by

forming the Bergstrom Pilots Association and obtaineding umbrella coverage at

acceptably preposterous rates.

          Third, the FAA was on Bird’s Nest Airport’s side.

          When Robert Mueller Municipal Airport finally shuttered its doors and hundreds

of small aircraft left, the Texas legislature decided to do something about it. That

something was to set aside a pile of money to commission another study. In fact, in the

last several years a number of organizations and municipalities had commissioned

studies to determine what, if anything, could be done to improve the state of general

aviation in Central Texas. At the root of these studies was a simple question: Did Central

Texas need another airport and, if so, where should it be built? Formal investigations on

the subject included the Pflugerville Airport Site Selection Study (December 2000) and

the Central Texas Airport Phase I Feasibility Study (July 2003). In this last, the Texas

Department of Transportation needled the FAA to come up with a definitive location for

a new general aviation airport near Austin. That location, the FAA reckoned, was Bird’s

Nest Airport, what FAA staffers pointed to as the only viable location to handle overflow

traffic from Austin-Bergstrom International and thus to receive official FAA reliever


          In a more recent study, the Georgetown Municipal Airport Master Plan Update

(July 2005) pointed out that Travis County, which includes Austin and Bird’s Nest

Airport, and adjacent Williamson County, which includes Georgetown Municipal

Airport, were are two of the fastest growing and moneyed counties in the state, home to

1,147 aircraft and 2,642 pilots.

       Fourth, Bird’s Nest Airport was in the perfect location.

       In late 2006, only months before members of Eagle Rock, LLC approached me

about the airport, the first section of the $1.5 billion SH 130 toll -road opened for traffic,

and it was the section that ran past Bird’s Nest Airport.

       In short, demand for private hangars was high, pilots wanted alternatives, and

the FAA judged Bird’s Nest the perfect location for a new airport. The entire region was

growing and as a bonus new State Highway 130 was built to bypass congested I-35

through Austin. This new road shuttled drivers within a few hundred yards of the

airport. It was safe to say that the Eagle Rock, LLC team was onto something.

       Meeting Number Two

       In March 2007, Rick Winter e-mailed me and asked to schedule a follow-up

meeting. He attached a PowerPoint document to the e-mail, an update on the project

complete with an optimistic mission statement and executive summary. There was also

a long list of strategies which, if implemented, promiseds to turn Bird’s Nest into a

money-maker. That was the impression I got. As I reviewed the material, what struck

me was how much work it took to get this far. In actuality, this was not very far but only

somewhat closer to a functioning airport.

       The information Rick sent was accurate and interesting and detailed enough to

give me some substance. It contained a future vision that, once built, everyone involved

would feel good about having played a part in-- making the world a better place, at least

for pilots. And I suppose that if we were to give that same handful of papers to a

contingent of competing politicians, nearby residents, environmentalists, and noise-o-

phobes and others who oppose airports on general principleal, we’d get another

reaction. My point is that airports don’t materialize from snazzy PowerPoint

presentations or from the pros outweighing the cons or from undeniable need. Airports

don’t come into being because they promise a better tomorrow. Airports materialize

because the will to build them is stronger than the collective will of all the naysayers who

yearn to quash them. The document I had in front of me was missing the page about

yearning wills and other intangibles that must be addressed before putting shovel to


        Rather than meet at the Houston Executive Airport as we had previously, I

invited Rick, Tre, Dayle and a fourth, Tim Casey, out to my home in Houston and we

stood around the dining room table sipping Dr. Pepper from eight ounce bottles.

        “What do you think?” I asked Rick, referring to the Dr. Pepper.

        “Fine, fine,” Rick said “Look, we’ve tried. I won’t waste your time with a lot of

excuses, a lot of explanations that don’t change a thing. Bottom line, we can’t locate

investors willing to support the project.”

        “Don’t think we didn’t try,” Tre said.

        Rick was the numbers guy, costs and expenses and forecasts. Tre and Dayle and

Tim deferred to him in subtle ways, which told me this meeting was about the numbers.

Rick was fidgeting, impatient. He took up aa handful of papers in his hand, absently

pinching the pages, glancing around the table, killing time, looking out the large glass

windows onto the front lawn, at Tre and Dayle. He squeezed the papers in his one hand.

        I turned to Rick. “Okay,” I said. “What’s on your mind?”

       “Right,” Rick said. “The thing is . . ..”

       What he told me was far from news.

       He said their little group of aviation enthusiasts couldn’t find an investor willing

to come up to the table with forty-seven point three million. He hinted they had a few

nibbles, a Mr. Moneybags who came this close, but dodged biting the hook. They’d used

up most of their 90-day option looking for funding and now saw their option money,

about twenty thousand in total, slipping away. They’d worked hard, no doubt, had.

sSpoken with airport engineers, runway designers, federal agencies, local politicians,

and more aging land owners and families than they cared to admit. They also had rattled

a few banker doors, half expecting, by the look on Rick’s face, that the logic of their

proposal would lead to a long line of financiers clamoring for a piece of the action. That

didn’t happen.

       Rick half turned and took a casual, calculated look at me. “Do you have any


       “Any interest in what?” I asked.

       Dayle and Tre remained eerily silent. Rick said, “Investing, I suppose. Funding

the project.”

       “We’re looking for a loan, basically,” he said.

       “A loan?”

       “We can pay ten, twelve, percent interest.”

       “On forty-seven point three million?”

       “We don’t need it all at once. A little over two million now. Another twelve,

thirteen million by the end of the first year.”

       I had the cash flow spreadsheet in front of me. Anticipated cash from investors

(me apparently), ran $14.8 million for year one, $19.2 for year two, $5.0 for year three,

$1.6 for year four, and around a million a year for the next seven years-- all coming to a

neat $47.3 million.

       “And for all that risk, I get ten or twelve percent interest?” I asked.

       Rick shot the others a micro-glance and nodded at me as if the thought just came

to him. “We might be open to a partnership.”

       “I’m not big on partnerships,” I said. “The only thing I like less than handing over

a briefcase full of money is having no say in how that money is spent.” I told all of them

that I’m not a partner guy. If my money’s in the project then I wanted to design it my

way and build it my way. Was that so wrong? I don’t want endless meetings and

discussions and, heaven forbid, a vote on which way to go. I don’t want to ask anyone’s


       “I see,” Rick said.

       “On the other hand,” I said, “if you want to toss the project my way, I’ll take it

and run with it.”

       “The entire project, without our involvement, you mean?”

       “I’ll pay a commission on the sale of the airport and the Adams property. Other

than that, yeah, that’s what I mean.”

       The three men sipped their Dr Peppers and stared at each other, and without any

more discussion they’d come to a decision. Rick held up his empty bottle, and he looked

to me like a man with great weight lifted off his shoulders. “You mind if I get another

one of these.”

       “Help yourself.”

       “If you do decide to take over,” Dayle said, “the option money is returned to us.

Do I understand that correctly?”

       “That’s right. And no ifs about it. I’ve decided. Where we go from here is up to

you all.”

       It was a take it or leave it deal; they took it.

       Visit to the Airport

       Several days later, I arranged a visit to the airport with David Hannah III, a

friend who had worked with me on the Houston Executive Airport. David was a former

real estate developer, a great researcher, and a loyal friend, all of which made him a

perfect buddy for exploratory road trips. When we arrived at the property in my Land

Rover 4x4—there was no telling what ponderous terrain we might encounter—we

scuttled down the muddy easement road along the border of the Zschiesche property.

Aprils could be wet in Central Texas and this April was no exception. The county had

received a good soaking a week or so ago and now marshy pools of water dotted the road

like giant brown polka dots. We drove slow and avoided getting sucked into one of the

larger polka dots, and fifteen minutes later we pulled up next to the flight office, parked,

and I took my first step onto Bird’s Nest Airport property.

       Dayle Baldauf, Tre Deathe, Tim Casey, and Rick Winter were waiting for us and

we shook hands and stood around the hood of my olive green Land Rover. I pulled out

maps and drawings and laid them flat on the warm hood, and we talked about the

layout. Tre pointed a thumb over his shoulder at the flight office, a boxy structure that

exuded function over form, and he talked about potential, fortuity, lost opportunity. He

implied that it was an ugly building, but wasn’t falling down anytime soon. He glanced

at the dirt and gravel ramp and then at the old Austin Parachute Center on the other

side of the ramp, a metal building reused a dozen times since 1983 when the Center had

left the airport.

       “There’s your runway,” Tre said.

       “Good thing you pointed it out,” I said only half joking. “It’s a bit hard to tell it

apart from the weeds.” Tre was standing beside me. I turned and said, “Not much of a

runway is it?” This was an understatement, of course. It was no more runway than the

muddy easement road.

       “For some years now,” Tre said, “most pilots land in the grass next to the runway.

It’s smoother.” He angled his chin at a worn patch of flattened Bermuda.

       The runway proper was a mixture of asphalt for a few hundred feet at each end,; a

heaving swath of crumbling asphalt and gravel in the middle,; and blocks of tenacious

grassy weeds overtaking everything else. Midway down the taxiway I saw two lone

corrugated tin T-hangars and a frayed windsock high on a rusted pole.

       Reading my thoughts, Dayle said, “It looks different on paper.”

       “On paper it looks like an airport,” I said.

       It was plausible that I should have asked a few more questions before taking the

leap. Like, what about the condition of the property? Or I might have asked about the

neighbors, the Zschiesche’s, who own the easement road and all 367 acres to the east,

south, and part of the west, and who I’m told have a forty-two- year festering animosity

against the airport. The chief bearer of said fester, one Mr. Zschiesche, passed his

feelings onto his wife, Otillie, who passed the sentiment on to two sons, Jimmy Ray and

Louis Williams, and a daughter, Francine Hernandez, the current executor of the estate.

       My experience is that forty-plus years of bitterness can crimp an otherwise breezy

negotiation and property sale. At the way other end of the airport property lived Mrs.

Audrey Dearing, a woman in her eighties, if I’m any judge of ages, which I’m not, and a

nice person by all accounts, but she and Otillie were are two peas in a pod, airport-

wise—no fan of airports, airplane noise, pilots, and airport builders in general.

       I didn’t ask any of these questions, I suppose, for a simple reason: I wanted to see

it it for myself.

       We climbed into the bed of a pickup and someone, I can’t remember who (Dayle,

I think), took the wheel and eased across the 134-acre airport property, down the pitted

runway, round the rusted T-hangars, up close to the ponds, and through a thicket of

trees near an abandoned fence line. We drove up to a barbed -wire fence and all of us

gawked at the Lew Adams property, 50 acres of burgeoning foot-tall corn stalks. Sitting

in the bed of the truck, we talked in muffled voices. Tre pointed to where the new $18-

million runway would go, and the $3.1 million in hangars, and the $1.6 million terminal

and FBO structure.

       As we traversed the north end of the pitted runway, I shouted for Dayle to stop

the truck. I saw a tiny yellow sign that read said, “Pipeline.” In truth, the wording was a

little more ominous. Something like “Warning Gas Pipeline” all in caps in all-caps, bold

yellow letters on a black background. It was hard to miss. Below the official warning was

a good-natured request: “Before digging please call . . .” followed by a phone number.

       Alarm bells went off inside my head and when the noise subsided I heard a voice

say, “You can’t build a runway of any size over a pipeline.” I knew trouble when I saw it

and this was trouble, yet it was also not the best time to raise too big a fuss.

       “Guys,” I said. “We have a pipeline running beneath the runway.”

       “That,” Tre said., “Yyeah, we saw that. Shouldn’t be a problem.”

       “Looks like it runs north to south clear across the property.”

       “It does, doesn’t it?” Tre said. He stood a bit unsteadily in the bed of the truck

and stepped over the tailgate and onto the bumper and slowly eased himself down to

solid ground. He walked over to the sign, looked at it and frowned.

       Dayle got out of the truck and left his door open and joined him. He sort of kicked

at the weeds around the base of the sign, I suppose, looking for some clue as to how

deep the massive steel pipes might be underneath his feet. “I should have paid this sign

a bit more attention,” he said. “I knew it was here, or I think I did. I just never gave it

any thought.”

       I climbed down and stood next to the sign and looked east where I imagined the

pipeline ran beneath the tattered runway. “My guess is,” I said, “there’s only a couple of

feet of dirt between us and the top of that pipeline. Wherever you put a new runway,

you’ll have to lower the pipeline. No way around it.”

       No one said so, but the cost of lowering a pipeline was is nowhere in the cash flow

forecasts. I wondered what it would cost to lower a pipeline--, a hundred thousand, a

million, ten million?

       The day turned sunny and hot and Dayle wiped sweat from his forehead with the

sleeve of his shirt. “What I’d like to know, how’d Ray Harding get away with it?”

       “Good question,” Tre said.

       “He didn’t ask permission,” I said. “If he had, there wouldn’t be a runway here.”

Sometimes, it is better to apologize than to ask permission.

       I’ll need all my fingers and yours to list the reasons buying Bird’s Nest Airport

was a bad idea. One, the general condition of the place. It hadn’t been a real airport for

years. Not really. The tin hangars were this close to falling down. The roofs leaked and

several hangars had plastic tarps strung above the aircraft to shed water. One of the

hangers had a dozen or more 60-watt bulbs wired together and stuck to the rafters with

duct tape. The flight office was structurally sound but hadn’t seen an improvement in

twenty years. The property had several dented mobile homes sprinkled about as if they’d

grown ew wild and there was no more logic to explain their present locations. that’s all

the logic there is to explain why they are in their locations.

       Two, buying all eight properties in one shot was a logistical nightmare. Stretch it

out and some wiseacre neighbor might get the idea to raise his price. Word spreads and

other neighbors do the same. One morning you wake up and all the land surrounding

Bird’s Nest Airport has doubled and tripled in price.

       Three, nothing was level. Not even close. The rolling hills of the property would

will need the tops snipped and carted off to fill in the bottom land. Once you decided on

an elevation for the runway, all the other elements (taxiway, ramp, hangars, jet center,

FBO building, fuel farm, and on it goes) seek the same level, which means great tons of

dirt work.

       Four, the electrical power station north of us and the connecting towers leading

to and from the station were in the middle of the airport’s approach and departure path.

       Five, look the other way and the Manor High School and Middle School complex

is a short two miles south. It’s hard to imagine the school district supporting an airport

that points its airplanes directly over the school. One mishap some icy December

morning and a tiny Cessna 150 takes out the entire tenth grade.

       Six, street access to SH 130 requires building a new road over a low point in the

property. I’m already wondering what a bridge costs.

       Seven, even if I’m able to resolve all the other issues—no guarantees on this

point—the runway as proposed puts aircraft in the flight path of Austin-Bergstrom

International. All I needed was a nifty mid-air collision co-lide involving a Bird’s Nest

tail-taildragger and a Boeing 777 and I could can imagine seeing myself tied up in court

for the next decade.

       One more. The proposed runway would cross two creeks. And that’s not going to

happen. In the presentation Dayle and Tre and Rick put together, they inked in a 5,500-

foot runway in a more or less north-south axis, sort of overlapping the existing runway.

The problem was that the new longer runway would have to cross several creeks. Let’s

agree it was not impossible to reroute a creek, but, whether you can get the U.S. Army

Corps of Engineers to agree with you--, not to mention the city, the county, and creek-

loving environmentalists and water resource crazies from all corners--, was another

matter. And even if you could get everyone on board, my guess was the process would

take five years, longer probably, just to get the okay. Not to mention the cost and

aggravation. An alternative was is to push the tail -end of the runway around and stay

well clear of any creeks. Which leads to another problem: Realign the runway to miss all

the creeks, and you wind up with a northwest-southeast alignment. Given the region’s

winds, typically out of the south, the new alignment ensured a number of sSpring and

sSummer days with vengeful Texas crosswinds sweeping across the runway, making

takeoffs and landings difficult for all but the most skilled pilots.

       At the end of our tour, early afternoon, the five of us huddled next to the flight

office, Dayle and Tre and Tim trying to read my face, hoping for a sign.

       “What do you think,” Dayle said to me.

       “I need some time,” I said. “To think about it.”

       “I wish there was something I could say.”

       “Like what?” I asked.

       “That’s the thing,” Dayle said. “I don’t even know.”

       Weak Links

       I believe we all experience the world in our own unique way, through senses

conditioned by time and experience and truths only we can understand. Some feel

pitfalls ahead and move with caution. Others smell advantage and act quickly. I’m

tempted to say I look at the world around me as I might a machine—though that strikes

me too cold—as a thing of many moving parts. When I can, I’ll take a thing apart and

learn how it works. And when I can’t, like now, I imagine all the parts slowing down.

When the parts are moving this slowly, it’s easy to see how an adjustment here or there

will boost performance. It’s just as easy to spot a weak link, a bottleneck, a critical

component path so fragile a break is inevitable, predictable, often happening as you

watch, though happening so gradually no one else notices.

       Bird’s Nest Airport was a system of weak links, of bottlenecks, and critical

pathwayss on the verge of shattering. Yet for all its faults, I secretly wanted the airport.

It was possible I simply desired a colossal new challenge. Whatever the reason source, I

wanted it. I told myself that with enough resources and enough engineering and enough

oversight, this small country airport could be transformed into a thriving corporate jet

center that would be the showcase of Austin aviation. Much of the airport was

unrepairable, but that didn’t keep me from visualizing a new runway and hangars and a

terminal building, and, it was hard to imagine an obstacle large enough to keep me from

bringing the vision to reality. Its This realization was only possible as the a result of a

total commitment of funding and a single-minded focus of inexorable persistence,

patience, and dedication.

      But , we are getting way ahead of the story.

      Chapter Four—Starting Over

      Once I made the formal decision to buy the airport, it took a couple of months to

put all of my ducks in a row. I needed to do several things quickly: dDraft an agreement

to assume Eagle Rock, LLC’s purchase option contracts,; set up a company to own and

operate the airport, establish checking accounts, and move a lot of money around. Also,

I hired an environmental consultant to perform a phase one environmental site

assessment (to make sure there wasn’t a sneaky little hazardous waste site hiding six

inches below ground), and take out enough insurance to let me sleep well at night.

      For the airport to work I had to buy at least two properties, the airport property

itself, owned by Jerry Kahlbau (134 acres), and an adjacent tract owned by Lew Adams

(49.63 acres), which came with access to State Highway 130. In July 2007, the Eagle

Rock, LLC team and I drew up an agreement in which they assigned all rights to me. As

it turned out, Dayle Baldauf had signed an initial option contract with Lew Adams back

in November 2006, and had been paying $5,000 a month in option payments, for a total

of $30,000. Had I not come along, that money would have been flushed down the

speculative development drain. Yet, because we had struck a deal, and would close on

the properties, Dayle would get all of his money back.

      I talked with my attorney, Brian Bosien, my level-headed legal chaperone, who

suggested that the best way to purchase the property was to create not one but two

companies. First, I needed an organization, Travis County Field, LLC, to buy the land

and build the airport infrastructure-- including runway, FBO building, hangars, fuel

farm, and all the other underpinnings of a corporate airport. Then I needed a second

company, Austin Executive Airport Services, LLC, to serve as the administration—to

manage the FBO and, lease hangars;, to maintain the runway, buildings, and

surrounding environment. In structuring the legal entities this way, I would have

numerous options regarding the development and operation of the airport, as well as

flexibility with regard to future possibilities.

       The Kahlbau and Adams properties totaled 184 acres, of which approximately 52

acres would be used for airport operation—runway, taxiway, FBO, building landscaping,

hangars, fuel tanks, access roads, and parking. The remaining 132 acres would be

designated agriculture area and most of it leased to a local farmer to grow and cut hay.

       The way I had it sketched on paper, Travis County Field would buy and own the

entire 184-acre site, then lease the 52 acres dedicated to the airport to Austin Executive

Airport Services, who would manage everything necessary to operate a first-class

airport. Austin Executive Airport Services would collect revenues by from selling fuel

and leasing larger corporate hangars, smaller T-hangers, and tie-down space. Travis

County Field would show an income from two sources—lease of the airport

infrastructure to Austin Executive Airport Services and lease of the agriculture areas. If I

did it right, the two companies together might produce a small annual loss. (Small being

a relative term here.) If I were extremely lucky, the airport might break even. Most

airports don’t make much money from operations. The airport play was a long-term

investment. My thinking was that years from now, probably long after I would be ’m

gone, the airport would appreciate in value and be worth a valuable asset for my

children and their children.

      I could can only hope.

      Closing the Sale

      Purchase of the Adams tract went according to plan for a number of reasons. The

property had a remarkably clean title, the phase one environmental report came back

with no issues, and Lew Adams was a motivated seller.

      A couple of weeks prior to closing, I meet Lew Adams at the property. Mostly I

wanted to locate the thirty-foot- wide road easement across his property and determine

exactly where where exactly it connected to Mrs. Dearing’s property, west of Lew’s place.

I decided to drive over the easement property, a section of land with waist-high grasses

making it impossible to see ahead. Lew Adams was in the passenger seat and in the back

were David Hannah III and Frank Mc Illwain, the trusted and savvy engineer from

Garver Engineers. As we drove across the easement in my all- wheel- drive Land Rover,

we became mired in the mud. Lew, a gracious man even in a difficult situation, climbed

out and he, David and Frank stood in the mud behind the Land Rover and pushed on

the bumper. Unfortunately, I eased my foot onto the gas pedal and spattered them with

mud. They continued to push until my tires grabbed and I fishtailed my way forward

onto solid ground. They climbed back into the SUV, and Lew and I had a nice chat about

road easements, aviation, Central Texas weather, and the stickiness of clay mud. We

closed on the Adams tract on September 13, 2007.

      As I talked to Lew Adams, I nudged Jerry Kahlbau and his attorney to move

things along. Like me, Jerry Kahlbau did much of his business through one or more

corporations. In his case, KAHL Consolidated Ltd., which owned all of the shares of

Bird’s Nest Aviation Inc. Thus my limited liability company, Travis County Field, was

buying Bird’s Nest Aviation, which owned Bird’s Nest Airport, from KAHL

Consolidated, all in the ownership of Jerry Kahlbau. Each corporation had its own

complicated tax and legal issues.; Hhence, executing a simple property sale involved

lawyers, accountants, realtors, surveyors and title experts. There was enough paperwork

to fill the hull of a 747 freighter.

       In August, attorneys for both sides finally agreed on the terms for the option and

purchase agreement. After mutual agreement, I sent Jerry Kahlbau a formal letter of my

intention to exercise the option, and I immediately contacted my airport engineering

team and asked them to sharpen their pencils. We closed on September 19, 2007, and I

finally owned Bird’s Nest Airport.

       Taking Notice of the Competition

       With my signature on the closing documents not yet dry, Ben Guttery, Senior

Program Manager with the FAA’s Texas Airports Development Office, e-mailed me with

bad news—a new airport was coming to Austin, and suddenly I had competition. A

month earlier the Colorado Riverland Airport LP, led by developer Jim Carpenter, had

requested an airspace study from the Federal Aviation Administration to determine the

effect of jet traffic around Austin, Texas. The proposed airport with its 8,500-foot

runway was part of a 681-acre movie studio community development, Villa Muse,

located north of the Colorado River and south of Elgin. The airport was designed

specifically to shuttle motion picture executives to and from Villa Muse Studios. Austin,

I’m told, is considered by some to have more writers and directors and other skilled

creative people s, per capita, than any other entertainment city in the world. Villa Muse

Studios was Austin’s version of Universal City, California, a giant studio community and

movie-making complex , Villa Muse Studios, with production facilities (on paper at

least) for film, television, commercials, and music videos. They also planned ten

soundstages, the largest scoring stage in North America, and a super-colossal outdoor

water tank for those dramatic high-seas maritime water scenes.

       The project was scheduled to break ground any day, if you believed the news

reports, with completion of Phase One—parts of the Villa Muse Studios, Main Street,

and a residential neighborhood—set for late 2009. The new development and the nearby

airport sounded suspiciously -captivating. Better than captivating; it sounded too good

to be true and it was, frankly, hard to imagine the thing ever getting off the ground,

particularly in the time frame outlined in the newspapers.

       Austin General Aviation in Need

       In October, a month into my tenure as owner of Bird’s Nest Airport, Kate

Harrington, a writer for the Austin Business Journal, was preparing for an article about

general aviation in the Austin area and the sale of Bird’s Nest Airport to a Houston

business man—me. For background, she called Amanda Sablatura at the Austin

Chamber of Commerce who forwarded the request to Dave Porter, Sr. Vice President of

Economic Development at the Chamber, who put Ms. Harrington in touch with Dan

Sullivan, CEO of Image Trends, and a man involved in promoting general aviation in

Austin for some years. So it was Dan Sullivan who met with Ms. Harrington. According

to Sullivan, Texas had 46,000 pilots, 24,000 registered aircraft (second only to

California, he admitted without hiding his resentment), and while the Lone Star state

had a respectable 387 public use airports, only a random few distant airports serviced

the state capitol. Sullivan made an impressive pitch for improving general aviation in

Austin by pointing out that the area was in desperate need of additional hangars (noting

there were only one-third as many small aircraft hangers today as in 1999). Without the

benefits of competition controlling prices, the costs for just about everything at

monopolistic airports like Austin-Bergstrom International were considerably higher

than elsewhere in the state. He also said something I hadn’t known, or at least hadn’t

considered: tThat U.S. general aviation aircraft carried over 100 million passengers a

year, or 14 percent of the total passenger count, while consuming only 6 percent of

aviation fuel. Small and corporate jet transportation were was more efficient and fifty

percent more than scheduled service. This superior environmentally -friendly efficiency

would not occur to most people in a casual conversation.

       I didn’t need a pep talk to believe that Austin needed another airport or that

Bird’s Nest was the right airport. But if I ever did doubt it, Dan Sullivan was the man to

inspire me.

       Power Lines Prevent Takeoffs and Landings

       Rather than buy all seven properties as outlined in the Eagle Rock proposal, I

decided to see what I could do with just two—the Kahlbau and Adams properties. I

talked my ideas over with Frank McIllwain of Garver Engineers, and we decided to

design and position the runway in such a way that if I could eventually buy the adjacent

Zschiesche property due east of the airport,. I might then, at some later date, be able to

extend the runway to about seven thousand feet. The engineering team at Garver

Engineers started work drafting airport master plans and, alternative runway

configurations,, performing environmental studies, wetland determinations and

groundwater modeling. Most of the engineering work took place at or below ground

level. Then, someone looked up and discovered that the local power wholesaler planned

to run a string of high-voltage transmission towers directly in the approach path of the

runway. Two electricity providers in fact, Lower Colorado River Authority Transmission

Services Corp. (LCRA) and Dallas-based Oncor (originally part of TXU Electric

Delivery), contracted to build a 100-mile long, 345-kilovolt, bulk-power transmission

line running from Clear Springs (near San Antonio) and, connecting to the Gilleland

Creek switching station located on Cameron Road. This was a stone’s throw from the

Bird’s Nest Airport, then north of to the community of Hutto, and continuing onward

another thirty-five miles to the historic village of Salado, Texas (pop. 3,475), and home

to the Stagecoach Inn, allegedly the oldest continuously running hotel in Texas, so the

village claims.

       No doubt, all the towns between Clear Springs and Salado needed more

electricity, but making a beeline from A to B and thus erecting a couple of dozen 150-

foot- tall power lines directly in the airport’s flight path simply wouldn’t work for me.

LCRA could reroute its proposed power line or I could reconfigure the new runway. I

couldn’t reconfigure the runway because it was shoehorned onto the site in the only way

possible. I did have enough wiggle room to nudge the runway a couple of degrees either

way, but the general direction wasn’t negotiable. Either I convinced LCRA to move their

lines or there was no new runway and thus no new airport.

       I’d read somewhere that when planning a new power line route an energy

company like LCRA was legally bound to consider any airport with a runway longer than

3,000 feet. I don’t remember where I came up with this bit of legal wisdom, but I

recalled that if the runway was shorter than three thousand feet it wasn’t much of an

airport. It was just tough luck if the power lines interfered with take-off and landing

traffic on a short runway. In the recesses of my mind I reasoned that if the existing

runway was 3,001 feet, I would have status as a bona fide airport and LCRA would have

no choice but to stay clear of our proposed new runway.

       The problem was that Bird’s Nest Airport’s existing asphalt runway was only

2,722 feet long. The 3,000 foot rule, as I recalled, didn’t have any mention of runway

construction specifications or surface materials. For all I knew, the runway could be

made of chocolate pudding as long as it stretched longer than 3,000 feet. So, rather than

go to the trouble of extending the asphalt runway, which would eventually be torn up

and replaced with a highly engineered corporate runway designed to handle heavier jets

at faster speeds, I decided to extend the grass strip next to the old runway.

       In November I rushed to file form 7480 Notice of Landing Area Proposal with the

FAA indicating that I planned to extend the turf runway from 2,230 feet to 3,230 feet.

After I sent in the form, I called the FAA’s Ben Guttery on a regular basis to help

expedite the approval process. A couple of weeks later Ben e-mailed me the thumbs up

to start construction. In the meantime, I’d gotten a bid from Colby Company, Inc. to

grade and level the extra thousand feet, all for a low $70,000. At the time, considering

that I’d just spent $2.2 million buying the properties, spending a few thousand to stay in

the game didn’t strike me as a bad decision. I was proceeding in a judicious and prudent

fashion in staking my claim quickly and decisively. I thought I was outmaneuvering an

intimidating energy company for less than a hundred thousand dollars. I was wrong, of

course, and not to ruin the surprise, but extending the turf runway was a waste of time,

energy, and money.

       As the crew with Colby Company Inc. was blading a crown in an otherwise nifty

stretch of well-groomed dirt, I discovered that a lengthy turf runway didn’t settle

anything. The runway could be a mile long, two for that matter, and a dispute of this

nature still had to be settled by a judge in a court of law. I’d just spent $70,000 for dozer

work, grading, water and seed, to keep the Texas wind from blowing my new runway

into the next field. All of the heavy equipment fuel and supervisory costs had not made

one bit of difference.

       My newest problem was that the deadline to intervene in LCRA’s direct A to B

plan had come and gone. Without intervening I couldn’t prevent the energy giant from

building its ominous power lines, which would put Bird’s Nest Airport out of business.

First, I hired a legal beagle or two to help me understand the situation, and it occurred

to me that Bird’s Nest Airport and its endless complications could become a full-time

job for a small team of attorneys and consultants. Second, I had to go to court and

convince a judge that deadline or no deadline, I had a legitimate case to plead.

       Cleaning Up the Mess

       The tidy new turf runway extension notwithstanding, the airport property was a

mess—three old not-so-mobile homes were scattered here and there and a handful of

rusting cars slumbered under the sunshade next to the old Austin Parachute Center

building. The real runway (not the $70k smooth-as-a baby’s-bottom turf runway, but

the other one) was so chunked up it wasn’t safe for an afternoon stroll, the flight office

hadn’t been painted in decades, and a spiteful oil and gas pipeline was salted away

somewhere under my runway. The pipeline issue had to be addressed and my guess was

that it wouldn’t be cheap.

       The mobile homes had been were livable at some point in the distant past, but

not now. They were placed in spots that probably made sense once upon a time, but the

homes but now appeared to be dropped from the sky. One was partially sunk into the

soft earth; another had had a chunk of wall and part of the roof torn off or blown away in

a storm.

       I hired an airport manager, Jim Craig, a tall man with a perpetual sunny

disposition and vast amounts of airport management experience, and one of his first

tasks was to make the trailers go away. Jim, the clever negotiator that he is, convinced a

hunter that the trailers would make a great makeshift cabin for a hunting camp. The

price was right—free—that is, if the hunter/buyer was willing to take all three. It was an

all or nothing proposition and hard to pass up. Within days the trailers had disappeared

from the airport.

       A couple of rusting cars, —a 1952 Cadillac and a Ford Bronco, sat in the soggy soil

underneath the tin sunshade close to the old trailer’s location. Additionally, the Bronco

had fliat tires, rotting seats, and interior plastic that looked like fifty- year- old peanut

brittle. Completing the sorry sight were broken windows and masses of spider webs and

insect nests. Again, Jim worked his magic and not long after, the cars disappeared from

the future corporate gem of an airport.

       Repaving the Old Runway

       We closed on the properties in September 2007., Five months later there were

not a lot of visible changes. The engineers were burning up No. 2 pencils designing a

new access road. The same team was designing a new 4,420 -foot runway, taking into

account elevations, grades, winds, landing loads, thresholds, stopways, and K values ad

infinitum. I’d made a few spontaneous attempts to locate the new T-hangers on the site.

X marked the spot, but a constantly moving better location and orientation resulted in

nothing final. In March, Jim thought seriously about installing a 1,000-gallon

temporary fuel tank. I’d had several aimless conversations with anyone willing to listen

about the pipeline problem. In short, we went down a lot of roads to nowhere.

       I wanted to show the aviation community that this was a serious endeavor. A lack

of progress was nagging at me. Design and construction of the new runway would take

more than a year, probably much longer by the pace of things, and my biggest challenge

in the meantime was the old runway; it was very unsafe for airport operations. The pride

of airport ownership was quickly being eclipsed by the frustration over of a

dysfunctional runway.

       I had other reasons for wanting to repair the runway—I wanted to keep a close

eye on the airport’s progress. The best way to do that was to buy an airplane. So I went

out like any Sunday shopper and bought a shiny new Cessna Caravan, a hulking single-

engine turboprop, one of the most dependable airplanes on the market. My plan was

that I would take off in my new Caravan from the Houston Executive Airport, about 25

miles from my home, in the morning and fly over to Bird’s Nest Airport once a week or

so and back to Houston in time for dinner. This would turn a five-hour round trip by car

into a one-hour round-trip flight. Airplane dealerships aren’t like auto dealerships. They

rarely have the one you want sitting there on the lot waiting for you to write a big check

in a steady hand, climb in, and fly away. On the contrary, after I signed on the dotted

line I wouldn’t take possession for eight months, which gave me plenty of time to decide

how to make the old runway serviceable.

       The simplest solution was to repave the old airstrip and taxiway, though in

hindsight that didn’t make much sense.

       For one, it costs a lot of money to pave a 2,722- foot runway and taxiway. Tribble

& Stephens Construction politely offered to do the job for a large $339,000. I could

blacktop around the two existing hangars that were located about halfway down the

runway for $196,000 that were located about half way down the runway, but I didn’t

want to do that. Those hangars, it turns out, would be flattened by the new jet runway,

so any paving was a waste of money. Subsequently, I received a slightly less painful bid

from FT Woods Construction for $255,000.

       Also, I had an oil and gas pipeline planted under the runway. I didn’t know the

exact location and finding it meant tearing up a large section of the runway and taxiway.

Why pave it if I just had to tear it up in the near future?

       There was another vote against repaving; even if I could make the pipeline

magically disappear, much of the money spent on paving would be lost forever. The new

jet runway we had in mind ran directly across the old runway, which meant tearing up a

good 1,000 feet or more of the old, freshly black-topped airstrip in a few months.

       Nevertheless, I decide to resurface the runway anyway.

       With little hesitation I selected FT Woods for the job, signed the contract, sent

them a check, and asked them to start immediately.

       At first the contractor balked. They weren’t used to doing shoddy work, but that’s

exactly what I was paying for. Without dDoing it right, the contractor said, which in

contractor language meant that the runway would crack and heave without using lime

and other additives to stabilize the soil and without laying in a solid base of compacted

crushed limestone and applying a layer of hot mixed asphaltic concrete paving. This

extra care came at a cost and one I wasn’t willing to pay, for even though if it was all

true. With a straight face, I asked the contractor to give me the quarter-million-dollar

version, the one in his bid, and we’dll call it good. Grade it, lay a base of rock to fill in the

holes, and lay down an inch or two of asphalt. Do that and I promise not to complain

when it starts coming apart at the seams. They agreed to my terms.

       A crew of hard-hatted stocky workers showed up driving super -duty trucks

hauling trailers filled with heavy equipment, and they mowed the weeds down to the

nub and churned up the rock and sections of forty-year-old asphalt and piled great

mounds of refuse nearby. They hauled in 7,640 square yards of base and subgrade and

rolled it flat and put a layer of midnight black asphalt on top. Tthey smashed it all down

with a couple of dirty-yellow, double-drum, counter-rotating, independent vibrating

asphalt rollers: Mission accomplished.

       You Get What You Pay For

       Good to my word, I didn’t make a peep (to anyone at FT Woods) when the

runway began to pull apart. Some of the gaps were big enough to step in and lose a shoe.

My slowly crumbling quarter-million-dollar runway didn’t crumble happen overnight.

Nor did it crumble happen in a day or a week or even a month, but it did eventually

come undone just like the foreman had predicted. Without a stable sub-grade (what

airport know-it-alls refer to as a heavy fluid base with a uniform reaction coefficient) for

the asphalt to lay upon, something had to give; and after several months of sun and rain

and a handful of aircraft rolling up and down the runway, the surface turned wavy, more

so along the edges at the line between blacktop and grass where a rampant Bermuda

grass was determined to reclaim lost territory. The graying surface had become covered

in a web of crooked dark lines, some a foot deep, most of them running roughly parallel

to the airstrip.

       Jim Craig and I examined the cracks, stood there, shook our heads, and

measured the depth of a few whoppers. Then we hired another contractor to come out

and do what they could to keep things from getting any worse. The new crew filled each

crack with sand and poured a sloppy hot tar into each crevasse. Now given the right time

of day and just the right angle, it looked like I had an infestation of large black snakes

slithering down the old runway.

       Flight Office Rehab

       As the runway gang were coming and going, I got bunch of carpenters to take a

look at the flight office and see what was salvageable. Before they could get started they

had to do battle with a few dozen wasp nests. I suggested to the man in charge that he go

down to the hardware store to a buy a case of super wasp/bee/hornet juice, the kind

with a twenty-two- foot spray and that is toxic enough to slow down a water buffalo. I

was thinking of a frontal assault: Arm every hand with a can of super spray, take our

positions, and slaughter the enemy in one fell swoop. The giant hanging wasp hotels

were attached under the eaves and each contained countless individual cells. Wasp nests

are made from wood fiber, chewed up, and formed into paper-like combs. It’s likely that

the soft chewy wood fiber came from the wooden siding of the flight office. Up close I

saw that the siding was blotchy with rot and patches where something small and angry

had eaten through.

       The wasp raid was as exciting as it got. Thereafter, the carpenters and helpers

spent three weeks pounding, patching, painting, ripping up walls and sections of

crumbling drywall and old flooring. The sheetrock was patched and they put up a couple

of new walls and doors and hardware. Finally, after installing a truckload of new trim we

had a relatively intact flight office that started to resemble a business.

       Back in July of last year, a month or more before we closed on the properties, I

asked the engineer, Frank McIllwain, if he would contact someone at Atmos Energy and

inquire about the pipeline. Frank sent an e-mail to Doug Knautch at Atmos and asked a

long list of questions: sSize of the pipes, age, contents, easement width, and others. and

others. He politely inquired how they would feel about lowering their pipeline a bit so I

could build a heavy weight corporate runway over the top.

       Doug’s response: “Huh!”

       Chapter Five—What Pipeline?

       Back in April, when I first visited the airport and stumbled across the yellow sign

warning of a pipeline underfoot, I knew we had a big problem. I had recently worked

with a pipeline company in Houston, which happened to have its own pipeline running

across the airport I was building there, and I knew that whatever happened, it wasn’t

going to be easy. Or cheap.

       I asked Garver Engineer’s Frank McIllwain to contact the pipeline company,

Atmos Energy Corporation, and explain our situation—that is, we had a pipeline below

ground, under our proposed new runway and, if possible, we’d like it lowered. What

exactly were our options?

       Easements and More Easements

       In August 2007 my attorney reviewed a barely -readable Bird’s Nest Airport

natural gas pipeline easement agreement. Four decades earlier, on October 2, 1964,

Lone Star Gas Company had paid Walter Carrington, then owner of the property, a one-

time payment of $127 for the right to run a natural gas pipeline across his 113.66-acre

property. Lone Star Gas Company had a rich history in the state. Founded in 1909 as a

utility company to transmit natural gas, the company began construction on what was

then one of the longest pipelines in the world, stretching from the Pretoria oilfield in

Pretoria, Texas, 135 miles southeast, to Dallas-Fort Worth. Lone Star Gas Company

(under the new name Enserch Corporation) was sold to TXU Energy in 1996 and then

sold to Atmos Energy Corporation in 2004.

       As part of the easement, Loan Star Gas promised to “. . . bury all pipe to a

sufficient depth so as not to interfere with cultivation of soil, and to pay any damages

which may arise to growing crops or fences from any construction or operation of said

pipe.” No mention of burying the pipe deep enough to accommodate airports and jet

runways. The easement was twenty feet wide, ten feet on each side of the pipe, and

promised 42 inches of cover. I had no doubt that forty-three years ago the pipeline did

in fact have three and a half feet of soil on top of it. That was a long time ago, and who

knows how much earth had since washed into some nearby stock pond.

       Five years later, on January 14, 1969, the pipeline company offered Ray and Mary

Harding $127 for another easement to run a second pipeline parallel to the first and

extend the width of the existing easement by 10 feet. One hundred and twenty-seven

dollars was nothing to sneeze at in the late sixties and Ray and Mary pocketed the cash,

then told Lone Start Gas to have at it.

       I noticed two things about the easement agreement: 1) the pipeline company was

required to grant me a domestic tap, and 2) Atmos Energy was required to maintain not

less than 42 inches of cover over the pipeline.

       A domestic tap basically meant that the easement grantor was allowed to tap into

the natural gas pipeline for domestic use—hot water heating and gas ovens and clothes

dryers and other appliances. This was a moot point given that I didn’t live on the

property. Nonetheless, I understood the language to mean that if I wanted, I would pay

for the meter, saddle, and labor to install the tap, and Atmos Energy would pay for

everything else. At the same time, I wondered if a high- pressure line was capable of

being tapped at all. And if not, might this be an element of leverage for future


       If a measurement showed less than three and a half feet of cover, could the

company simply come in with a dozer and pile up more dirt on top, producing a berm

running across my property? Or were they required to lower the pipeline in such a way

as to maintain the required depth from the existing grade?

       When Frank McIllwain told his contact at Atmos Energy that we planned to build

a jet runway, a survey crew appeared at the airport for a look around. The first thing

they did was unload an industrial-strength metal detector and search until they heard a

low-level hum coming from it his machine. The man without the metal detector, a

helper carrying a milk jug filled with water and a steel rod and mallet, poured some

water from the jug onto the ground to soften things up and pounded the steel rod into

the earth ground until he hit something hard, presumably the pipeline. The two men

spent the afternoon taking measurements, and the subject of cover never came up again.

       The Cost of Not Having a Choice

       In September 2007 Frank McIllwain received what Atmos Energy called a

“ballpark” estimate to relocate 750 linear feet of 20-inch pipe and the same length of 30-

inch pipe. The estimate was $2.2 million. My experience in Houston was that lowering a

1,200-foot length of natural-gas pipe cost me around $200,000. In Austin the price tag

was more than ten times that.

       According to Atmos Energy, if I wanted to get started, I could write a check for

$2.2 million and engineers at the company would order up a batch of official surveys,

draft construction drawings, solicit bids from contractors to perform the excavation, and

schedule the pipeline to be shut off somewhere upstream. On the other hand, if I wanted

a formal cost estimate (as opposed to the ballpark) I had to come up with $326,000 to

cover the expense cost of surveys and engineering. No matter how you cut it, digging up

the old pipe and burying it eight feet or so deeper was going to cost me a bundle.

      When I calmed myself enough to examine the ballpark estimate , several things

jumped out at me. First, I tallied around $1.1 million from four categories:

“miscellaneous” ($324,000), “overhead” ($421,000), “interest carrying costs”

($351,000), and “total estimated gas loss” ($199,000). To make sense of the estimate, I

spoke with several oil and gas consultants who agreed conferedconferred that something

was strange about the estimate. At the same time, each suggested that it was in my best

interest to accept the estimate and move ahead.

      I didn’t have a choice.

      I couldn’t move forward with the new runway without lowering the pipeline.

Deep down I knew I’d pay what I had to. I had estimated the airport to take around $30

million to complete, and here was a $2.2 million expenditure I hadn’t planned for, and I

just hoped I wouldn’t didn’t run out of money before I completed the project.

      The silver lining was that about this time Atmos Energy sent me a notice, warning

that if project expenditures came in higher than estimated I had to pay more. This

notice seemed to say that, regardless of the estimate, I would have to pay whatever they

requested. The notice also contained good news. If the actual costs came in less than my

up-front payment, the company would send me a refund. I wasn’t holding my breath.

      Yet, that’s exactly what they did.

      Jump forward to In June 2009 and Atmos Energy sent me a refund check for $1.1

million. After I got over the shock, I eyed the accompanying spreadsheet of actual versus

estimated costs. The biggest savings were in the category “miscellaneous company

expenses,” in which someone had guesstimated $427,000 when and the actual costs

were about nine dollars. Next came “overhead,” where I got back $267,000, followed by

“interest carrying costs” (at a rate of 18.15 percent), where I recovered another

$185,000. The numbers were staggering, both the original estimate and how much the

company returned. In fact, it was tough to sit back and casually glance at the breakdown

without growing alarmed at the size of the error. How exactly did America’s largest

natural-gas-only distributor with 3 million customers and 4,600 employees get it so


       Delays and Excuses

       Long before I knew I’d be getting any money back, I resigned myself to the

expense and wrote a check to begin construction. My choices were to act now or risk

months of delays. I acted did so for two reasons. First, some of the pipeline materials

had a lead time of up to six months. Second, Atmos Energy shut down its line twice a

year for maintenance. Tie-in of the newly relocated pipelines had to happen within this

maintenance window. If I got the company a check by the end of January, the project

would be completed by November. If I missed the month-end deadline, I would be lucky

if any of the pipelines were lowered before May of next year.

       I read over the draft Relocation Agreement and the Easement and Restrictive

Covenants Agreement—fourteen pages of dense language—and I grabbed the closest ink

pen and I signed the check while I still felt optimistic. I sent the payment to Thomas

Holley, Atmos Energy’s, Senior Right of Way Agent, and waited.

       And waited.

       And waited.

       Four months later, in early May, Atmos Energy still hadn’t ordered the materials.

       I asked Frank McIllwain to send Thomas Holley a pithy e-mail explaining our

position—that it was crucial the new pipeline be in place by October, so we could open

up to air traffic in Spring 2009. I also wanted to avoid any potential fallout from my

dispute with Lower Colorado River Authority over the location of their high-voltage

transmission towers. Both LCRA and I were waiting for the Federal Aviation

Administration’s Part 77 determination. Before the FAA would approve LCRA’s

proposed power lines, the agency had to file an FAR Part 77—Obstructions to Navigation

Form—which identified and evaluated potential aeronautical hazards, and subsequently

issue a formal approval. When an airport builder had plans to construct a new runway

and an energy company, like Lower Colorado River Authority, wanted to put up a string

of high-voltage power lines directly in the airport’s flight path, Part 77 was the my

vehicle to voice my complaint and have the FAA take notice.

       Bottom line, I needed to get the runway and airport up and running by sSpring or

risk LCRA making a case that the new runway was all talk. If I couldn’t get the runway

build, I had a significantly weaker argument for forcing the LCRA to reroute its power

line. If the airport opening was delayed due to a lack of action on Atmos Energy’s part, it

might give LCRA ammunition to use against me. If that happnedhappened, I would

have a very real problem on my hands.

       Frank and I crafted an e-mail to Atmos Energy in which we basically said that we

had done did our part and now it was time for Atmos to do theirs. Just before hitting

the “send” button, I asked Frank to include a sentence hinting at legal action if they

didn’t follow through.

       In trying to get my head around the delay, I reviewed a pile of old e-mails. What I

discovered was that back in September, seven months earlier, Thomas Holley had asked

Frank McIllwain for a list of documents required before the company would move

ahead. These documents included drawings showing the existing grade, site maps,

utility plans, and the location of railroads, creeks, and streets, and a copy of the property

deed. Frank didn’t supply the items. Somewhat rashly, I shot off aan e-mail to Frank all

but accusing him of not supplying Atmos Energy with what they needed. I was wrong of

course. Frank had sent the items, or all but one, as it turned out, and. tThe delay had

little to do with any requested documents. Atmos Energy and its subcontractors had

much of the pipe materials on hand and all the worry was for naught, which still didn’t

explain why it had taken took months to begin construction.

       According to Tom Holley, in a subsequent e-mail, pipe materials were in -hand,

fittings reserved, and bids for the work were expected any day. He assured me the

relocation was on schedule for a December completion, possibly even November.

       The Price Keeps Climbing

       Atmos Energy was in the natural-gas transportation business and not in the

construction business. The company subcontracted out all the excavation work—

trenching, welding and micro-maneuvering 750 -feet of polyethylene- coated, hardened

steel so that point A lined up with point B. In July bids finally arrived in which where we

discovered the formal costs had risen from $2.2 million to $2.7. Very quickly, I had to

come up with an additional half million dollars.

       In a sense I was partially responsible for the increase.

       I had recently asked for a change to the specifications. I wanted to see what it

would cost to extend the amount of pipe lowered from 750 feet to 850 feet just in case I

ever decided to widen the space between runway and taxiway. In conversations with

aviation friends, I heard rumblings of possible changes in FAA runway and taxiway

requirements. True or not, I could foresee the FAA extending the offset between runway

and taxiway up to 500 feet. The offset was measured from centerline of runway to

centerline of the parallel taxiway. The idea was to design an object free zone between

aircraft on the runway and aircraft moving in the opposite direction up the taxiway,

making a collision all but impossible. The extra one hundred feet I asked for would

accommodate heightened FAA safety requirements, should they ever take eaffect, as

well as account for any yet unimagined aircraft with super -long wingspans.

       Building an airport was a long-term play. For me that meant looking twenty, fifty,

or even a hundred years ahead and designing an airport that wouldn’t be obsolete for a

very long time. I’d hate to go to the expense of lowering the pipeline only to find out a

few years from now that state-of-the-art airports were following new offset


       I had a second reason for leaving myself room for a wider offset. I wanted to

encourage jet owners to lease large hangars at Bird’s Nest Airport, and I didn’t want to

kill the deal because an insurance carrier required these million-dollar aircraft to meet

up-to-date FAA regulations.

       Without the extra hundred feet, the price tag was $2.7 million. Another hundred

feet of pipe, times two, came to $2.9 million.

       A Bigger Job Than Expected

       In August, airport manager Jim Craig and his number one, Jamie Jackson,

ambled out to runway 16 with a bucket of white paint and got to work taping and rolling

out new runway markers. They also painted twelve- foot- tall arrows marking the new

displaced threshold. A runway displaced threshold was essentially a series of arrows

painted on the runway that told pilots where to touch down. The old displaced threshold

was back up the runway near the fence line adjacent to the Gates property. We needed

new markers because the pipeline crew was hours from digging up the offending

pipeline, and we couldn’t have pilots landing only to find a trench in the runway waiting

a thousand feet ahead.

       No sooner did the paint dry than a handful of heavy duty trucks and three yellow

hydraulic excavators showed up and began scraping away at the earth, channeling a

giant stepped V in the dirt. The excavators kept inching forward, right through the old

freshly-paved runway. There was an art to digging up a pipeline and Bobcat Contractors

LLC was just the artist for the job. The backhoe operator took his time scooping up

buckets of earth in thin layers until he had a neat three- foot- deep and three- foot- wide

slot in the dirt. Then he shifted his attention a few feet to the right and did the same. He

kept digging wider and deeper in what resembled a massive stairway leading down to

the pipeline. Once the operator sensed the pipe beneath his bucket’s teeth, he gently

skimmed the surface until the 20-inch pipe was visablevisible.

       All this scraping and skimming took time.

       In late September, a month into the job, the excavation crew had the 20-inch line

dug up and pulled above ground as one continuous piece of steel (nearly three times the

length of a football field). Atmos Energy then asked me to sign a release acknowledging

the existence of the old pipe, now resting in full view above ground and impossible to

ignore,; and made me promise not to do anything environmentally inappropriate to the

pipe before they could hack it into sections small enough to fit on a gooseneck trailer

and haul it off.

       Bobcat Contractors then lowered a massive length of new dull green pipe in place,

welded forty-five-degree pipe fittings onto the north end and capped it. When I visited

in late September, I had a brief conversation with site foreman Shorty Janek, who

predicted the 20-inch pipe would be in place, x-rayed, and hydrostatically tested by the

end of the month.

       “Fine as cream gravy,” Shorty said when I asked about the job.

       “Any challenges?” I asked.

       Shorty picked up a fist-sized rock and looked at it and dropped it. “This here’s

easy,” he said, indicating the rocky soil. “Some jobs we got to call out the rippers and

rock trenchers. That won’t do it, we get to blasting. Not here. You know that, of course.”

       I glanced at the long string of dull green pipe at the bottom of the squarish

trench, sections of the string resting atop wooden timbers propping up the line.

       “You know anything about welding a pipeline, ‘cause if you don’t this here’s not

like anything you ever seen.”

       I had been here before with the Houston airport and therefore had a pretty good

idea how it all went together.

       Shorty reached up and absently pushed at the brim of his hardhat, which didn’t

budge. “Your pipe gang gets everything in place and your welding crew--, that’s one of

them there, the squat one with the arms and the ten-gallon mouth on him--, and they

put a stringer bead to it.”

       “The initial weld, you mean.”,” I said.

       “Then other welders come in behind and make filler passes. That’s your firing

line: yYour stringer, like I just told you, followed by a hot -pass and your capping

welders. Some of the hard-to-fits, if you was to look closely, you might see a back weld

or two, it all depends.”

       “Okay then,” I said. “I’ll let you get back to it.”

       Shorty eyed me and I could tell he was a man who took his job seriously, a

character who wanted that seriousness to get through to people like me, owners,

managers, bosses of all brands. “We x-ray every weld, if you was wondering.”

       “So I understand.”

       “You want, I can tell you about the hydrostatic testing. Ever seen a pipe filled with

twenty thousand gallons of water? A couple of days, you can come back and see for


       “I’m more concerned with the schedule,” I said.

       “The twenty-inch, end of the month, like I said,” and he was right.

       A Matter of Scale

       On another visit, my oldest son James, then thirteen, flew over to Bird’s Nest

Airport with me in late October. By then Shorty had the 20-inch pipe patched and

partially reburied. He also had the new 30-inch pipe welded, lowered, and in place ready

for testing. James crawled down into the hole and I took a photo of him standing next to

the enormous pipeline. It wasn’t until I saw him standing there, a young five- and- a-

half foot tall teenager next to this massive high-strength steel tube, that I felt the

magnitude of the pipeline relocation project. On paper the project looked trifling, so

many lines on oversized sheets of paper, yet here I was on-site with the excavators and

backhoes cranking out enough decibels to split eardrums and fling massive hunks of

rock flung about like toy marbles. From here the project looked like what it was, an

engineering marvel.

       Chapter Six—LCRA Dispute

       Flying was easy. It was the landings that took practice.

       Ask any pilot and he or she will they’ll tell you the safest way to land an airplane

is a precision instrument approach, that is, easing onto the runway while gazing, not out

the window like any sensible person, but at the shiny dials a few inches in front of your

face. A precision approach consisteded of two overlapping systems: Lateral guidance

(using a directional aid called a localizer to keep the aircraft centered on the runway)

and vertical guidance (called a glideslope to prevent the aircraft from drifting too low).

Any pilot can land in good weather and miles of visibility. What about all the other days?

The days you find yourself falling fast, ducking through thick clouds, zeroing in on a

runway you can’t see, and all you’ve got between the perfect touchdown and a jumble of

torn metal are a couple of fancy dials?

       Precision instrument approaches don’t work at all with a handful of high-voltage

towers sticking up into your glideslope.

       On Wednesday, November 7, 2007, I heard from Garver Engineer’s Frank

McIllwain that the runway layout was complete. Frank e-mailed me a drawing of the site

plan superimposed over an aerial photo of the airport property. The background was a

mass of greens and on top of all that green was a clot of computer generated ink-black

lines—solid for runway and taxiway, dashes and dots for property lines, long dashes for

runway approach surfaces. The drawing was jammed with notations and labels—wind

cone, rotating beacon, aircraft apron, runway safety area, displaced threshold—and

overcrowded dimension lines. What little white space remained was filled with half a

dozen charts neatly spaced above and below the green of the photo. We’d worked for

months to come up with a runway, taxiway, and future terminal and hangar

configuration that resulted in the longest runway—positioned onto the odd- shaped

property in just about the only way it would fit—that and didn’t require rerouting rivers.

       I was at home when I opened Frank’s e-mail, at my desk, with the dull November

sunlight peeking through the window. As I was staring at a letter-sized color printout of

the site plan and congratulating myself on a job well done, I opened another e-mail, this

one from Bill Gunn with the Texas Department of Transportation Aviation Division., in

which Bill he closed with, “There is nothing the FAA can do to stop it. You can always

sue,” which struck me as a harbinger of things to come.

       Bill Gunn had also attached a file to his e-mail, a map showing the route for a

proposed new high-voltage transmission line. Someone, presumably Bill Gunn, had

highlighted the 85-mile- long power line route in yellow.

       I clicked “print” and waited while my printer revved up and produced a copy of

the map with the yellow line. I shoved my keyboard aside and placed the map on the

desk in front of me, next to the site plan of the new runway layout.

       It took me a moment to figure out what I was seeing. Then it hit me--, the yellow

line outlining the new power line was too close to the airport.

       I’d heard rumors of the proposed power line route a couple of weeks earlier. The

Lower Colorado River Authority Transmission Services Corporation, LCRA for short,

wanted to construct a series of metal towers and stretch a high-voltage power line from

tower to tower. Much of the new line ran along the toll road, State Highway 130, west of

Bird’s Nest Airport. Then it angled east until it ran into the Gilleland Creek Switching

Station, a stone’s throw from the airport. The power line was actually two separate lines,

one in yellow hugging the highway and another running nearly parallel to the first,

about five miles east. The two north-south lines had several connecting links in between.

Next to each link was a circle with a number inside indicating the link number.

       I squinted at the map and the crooked yellow line. Then at the site plan. Map. Site

plan. Map.

       I got it.

       While the steel towers were large, the lines themselves could be impossible to see.

It wasn’t hard to imagine some flyer gliding in for a touchdown only to clip a high-wire

line and send three hundred thousand volts through the aircraft..,Chances were slim,

but it could happen.

       The real show-stopper was that the Federal Aviation Administration, or more

accurately Bill Gunn with the local Texas Department of Transportation Aviation

Division acting on behalf of the FAA—an agency always on the lookout for avoidable

aircraft disasters—flat out refused to approve Bird’s Nest Airport’s precision instrument

approach with LCRA’s towers in the way. This was no trivial matter. Without precision

instrument procedures at Bird’s Nest Airport, landing in nasty weather was not only

dangerous, but forbidden by regulation, regulation-wise forbidden thus thereby

rendering the airport, for all but fair weather pilots, as useless as wet bread.

       Bird’s Nest Airport v. LCRA

       Six days later I hired a good attorney, Kay Trostle, to represent the airport in our

fight against LCRA. The plan was to raise a legal objecti9on and hope to convince LCRA

to choose another route, one that bypassed the airport, thus allowing the Federal

Aviation Administration to give me approval for my precision instrument approach.

       We were filing our motion late.

       LCRA had filed its application with the Public Utilities Commission back in

March, eight months earlier, and the administrative judges assigned to hear the case

were not obliged, nor inclined, to allow us to intervene, knowing full well that we’d likely

stretch out an already preposterously long process. Kay quickly drafted a Late Filed

Motion to Intervene, in which we explained why it took us so long to speak up—that I’m

not a mind reader and thus had no idea what LCRA had up its sleeve regarding power

lines near the airport—and she submitted the motion to the PUC.

       Earlier I had recounted to Kay an idea Frank McIllwain and I had been batting

around. It was Frank’s idea, really. The issue of towers too close to an airport had been

around for a while. The telecommunications industry, for example, had been sprinkling

cell towers across the country for years, and many of those eyesores sat in the flight

path of your friendly neighborhood airstrip. In Frank’s experience the FAA didn’t have

the authority to stop a tower from being built. What they could do was file a bunch of

paperwork letting the Federal Communications Commission—the federal agency that

regulates telecommunications—know which towers caused a hazard to aircraft and toss

in some foreboding language about preservation of navigable airspace and mitigating

measures and avoidable aircraft catastrophes. If the FAA objected, the FCC typically did

likewise. It was reasonable to assume the same concept worked with power lines and the

Public Utilities Commission—get the FAA to say they hated the idea of transmission

towers near the airport and maybe, just maybe, the PUC might goad LCRA into choosing

another route.

       When I contacted Ben Guttery, Senior Program Manager at the FAA, to plead my

case, he said he didn’t know anything about the proposed power line. Not officially. As

far as the FAA was concerned, the agency was out of the loop.

       Thus a part of our argument to the PUC was that Bird’s Nest Airport was located

within the FAA notification parameters for at least one portion of every proposed route,

yet LCRA had taken the position that it didn’t intend to notify the FAA until after the

PUC had approved a route for the line. We wanted the FAA involved now, to yell and

scream and circle the offending towers (those that would squelch my precision

approach) with a big red marker and pray that the PUC had sense enough to refuse to

approve a route for in which the FAA had pointed out clear aeronautical hazards.

       Kay then spoke to LCRA's Associate General Counsel, Fernando Rodriguez, who

obligingly agreed to send her a copy of their original application to the PUC, along with a

host of current maps outlining various power line routes and individual links. In a calm

voice, Mr. Rodriguez intimated that LCRA would oppose our Motion to Intervene,

knowing full well that the two administrative law judges assigned to the case would

allow the intervention anyway.

       The big question, Kay told me, was whether we were allowed to wallow in the joys

of legal discovery.

       “What exactly does that mean?” I asked in one of our many telephone


       “Will the judge allow us to ask questions of LCRA, staff, anyone else involved? If

so, we can request documents, file requests for admissions, and hold depositions.”

       “Why wouldn’t they give us a chance to ask questions?”

       “This case has been on the docket for awhile. We’re late in voicing our objection,

and the judges might not want to drag out the process.

       “And if they say no?”

       “Let’s wait and see.”

       A Small Win

       A few days later, on November 16, 2007, Kay attended the pretrial hearing in

which Administrative Law Judge, Lilo Denise Pomerleau, ruled in our favor, allowing us

our day in court and access to all the legal wranglings that go along with it. At the same

time, Judge Pomerleau hinted that she wasn’t convinced we had a valid objection, and

she referenced a 1978 case involving a proposed power line by Southwestern Electric

Power Company, running near the Houston County Airport, in which the PUC decided

that the mere speculation that a runway might be added in the future was insufficient

grounds for altering the proposed transmission line whose need was immediate. In

short, while the judge allowed us to intervene, she wasn’t buying it. We either had a

bona fide runway in place now, or we didn’t.

       And, of course, we didn’t.

       The judge also discussed a second transmission line case in which a utility

company wanted to build a power line across a future residential development. In the

this later case the developer lost because future residential land use was too speculative

to alter the proposed transmission line. According to Judge Pomerleau, it was one thing

for Bird’s Nest Airport to complain about the power lines upsetting the existing airport

and quite another to grumble that the proposed route would upset future use.

       In the meantime, Kay had researched the 1978 case involving Southwestern

Electric Power Company and believed it was easily distinguished from our current

situation. At the time, a county judge testified in the case that the transmission line

would “prevent construction of an east-west runway” at Houston County Airport. Yet,

there was no testimony that an alternate runway was needed nor planned.

       “I’m pretty confident,” Kay told me.

       “That we’ll win the case?” I asked.

       She exhaled into the phone, slowing things down and choosing her words before

speaking. “That I can persuade the judge that a new runway at Bird's Nest Airport is

needed, engineered, and will soon be built. In other words, our runway isn’t


       “And if she wants to see an actual asphalt runway on the ground?”

       “That’s not likely.”

       “What if?” I asked.

       “In your written testimony, just be sure to emphasize your ‘firm’ plans with

respect to the new runway. No mention of speculation. The runway will be built. Soon.”

       “Tell the truth, you mean?”

       “Always a good strategy.”

       “And if that’s not enough?” I ask. I ask.

       “It’s possible the judge can strike our testimony.”

       “WithIn which we have no case.”

       Kay breathed into the phone, one long inhale and an equally long exhale. We

hadn’t yet met face-to-face and all I had to go on was her voice and the length of her

breathy pauses. I heard the whisper of rustling papers in the background, presumably a

pile of important documents atop her oversized desk, which I imagined was made of

three hundred-year-old virgin sinker cypress salvaged from the bottom of the

Guadalupe River, a symbol, at least to me, that she took the law seriously and that she

cared about the environment, something we had never discussed but made me feel

better believing it anyway.

       “Here it is,” she said, all business. “In evidence presented at the 1978 hearing, the

Federal Aviation Administration approved the new transmission line because, and I’m

quoting here, it did not violate the airport’s horizontal zone. Yet in our case, the towers

do violate the horizontal zone. A reasonable inference is that if the new lines violate FAA

regulations, the judge has reason to withhold approval.”

       “Or ask LCRA to select an alternate route?”


       “It sounds logical,” I said. “So, why am I not convinced?”

       Another pause. “Let’s wait and see,” Kay said.

       Getting the FAA On Our Side

       The Federal Aviation Administration was finally brought into the loop. Sort of.

       On November 21, 2007, Bill Gunn with TxDOT Aviation Division received a letter

from LCRA Associate General Counsel, Fernando Rodriguez, in which Mr. Rodriguez

explained that his client would formally notify the FAA of the new power line running

past Bird’s Nest Airport only after the PUC had selected a final route at the February 4,

2008, hearing. In some ways this was a chicken- and- egg dilemma. LCRA had two

choices: Get formal advice from the FAA on which routes hampered air traffic, or get

approval from the PUC and then get the FAA involved when it was too late to make any

meaningful changes. What LCRA was saying, without saying it, was that the FAA should

keep its nose out of LCRA’s business and not muck up their plans until after the hearing,

whenin which any mucking the FAA may care to do was a waste of effort.

       At some point I remember Kay suggesting she had contacts within the economic

development group at the governor’s office and rumor was the state might pony up some

money to bury the offending power lines that ran in front of the runway. That is, if

nothing else could be worked out. When it came to a state government handing over

millions on my behalf, I was hesitant at best. That the state would offer to help Bird’s

Nest Airport out of our jam without any strings attached, didn’t strike me as likely. Even

if the semi-offer was genuine, I didn’t see it ever happening. The cost of a mile of

overhead line might run $700,000, while the cost to bury the same line ran upwards of

$2.8 million. State governments were, by their nature, tighter than two coats of paint

and I didn’t see any chance the state would spend a dime to keep Bird’s Nest Airport in


       In the run up to my December 12, 2007, three o’clock deadline to submit my

written testimony, Kay and I e-mailed dozens of drafts back and forth, trying to make

the sworn statement both accurate and compelling. The entire process made me realize

just why I hated lawsuits—they were jumbo time wasters with that consumed bunches of

time by mobs of genuinely intelligent people who naturally charged out the gazoo for

wasting all that time on my behalf.

       I said things in my testimony like that I didn’t mind the idea of a transmission

line in the area. I did mind, however, if the new line got in the way of take-offs and

landings. I had dished out $2.1 million for the property, $225,000 to have the old

runway re-asphalted, $50,000 to Garver Engineers to design a new runway, and

another $375,000 to engineer and prepare construction drawings. My point was, that I

had already spent gobs of money to improve the airport and only to now I find out LCRA

wanted to put up a web of appallingly tall lattice towers that would, at a minimum, limit

airport traffic, ruined Austin’s only realistic shot at a new modern corporate jet center

with a precision instrument approach being completed anytime in the next ten years,

and devalueed my investment. I said that I hoped (oops, planned) to have the new

runway in place by March 2008, long before LCRA would had even have broken ground

on the transmission line improvements scheduled for March 2010.

      I wasn’t the only one required to file written testimony. Frank McIllwain did the

same, and in February we got to look forward to showing up in court to get grilled by

opposing counsel.

      An Endless Request for Information

      The same day Kay Trostle submitted my testimony to the court, she e-mailed to

say we had oodles of more work to do. In fact, we had little time to respond to LCRA’s

formal Request for Information, in which they got to ask me any old thing they pleased

and I was legally obliged to answer. Truthfully. O. Our response, Kay reminded me in

efficiently clipped sentences, was due the following Monday. I had five lousy days to

gather a bucketful of documents and answer twenty-one agonizingly detailed questions

designed, no doubt, to trip me up and thus weaken my position.

      Nevertheless, I did as I was told, and Frank McIllwain and Kay and I dug into the

RFI documents, producing draft after draft of our response. Exactly five days later, our

somewhat pencil-whipped team met the deadline, submitted the RFI to the court, took a

collective breath, and waited. Not three days later, LCRA and its nitpicking band of legal

defenders hit us with a Second Request for Information, this one with fifteen additional

questions, nosing ever deeper into my life and business.

      About this time Kay inherited an additional pile of paperwork, a new Request for

Information on extra bright 24-lb bond, this one from fellow intervenor,

Pollard/Ohlendorf, a family of land owners along transmission line links 71, 99, 102,

and 103, most of the links a part of Routes 16, 19, and 22. Note that not a single link was

contained in LCRA’s preferred Route 24, the offending route sidling up to the Bird’s

Nest Airport.

       The point of the Pollard/Ohlendorf RFI, if these things indeed had a point other

than to soak up my time explaining my side of things in ever more creative ways, was to

weaken my argument that LCRA’s preferred Route 24 was a bad idea, airport-wise, and

at the same time to strengthen Pollard/Ohlendorf’s position that Route 24 was the best

possible solution precisely because it didn’t come close to any of the Pollard/Ohlendorf


       In short, what was best for me was not necessarily best for the Pollard/Ohlendorf

clan and vicesa versa. Robert Ohlendorf, on behalf of his family, was afraid that if I

convinced the judges that my airport was a valuable and much-needed addition to the

Austin community, the judges might just choose an alternate transmission route that in

effect ordered LCRA to legally trample across some of the Pollard/Ohlendorf’s fifteen

hundred-plus acres.

       And as much as I hated thumbing through more nonsensical paperwork, I soon

realized that Mr. Ohlendorf’s reasons for wishing LCRA might magically vanish were

every bit as valid as my own. According to the somewhat stilted text, building a power

line across some or all of the Pollard/Ohlendorf’s twenty-one properties would:

dDisturb an ancient Indian burial ground and prevent the US Air Aerobatic team from

future air shows along link 71;, crush land values for a planned new home to be built

along link 99;, destroy six or more 100-year-old heritage live oaks (some nearly 4 feet in

diameter) and in the process strand great gaggles of purple martins, red-bellied

woodpeckers, and cattle egrets (a species whose foremost claim to fame was gobbling up

ticks and flies from the backs of grazing cattle, of which the Pollard/Ohlendorf outfit

had many) while sullying the view from Robert Ohlendorf’s vacation home along the

banks of the San Marcos River, which happened to rest way too close to link 103.

       For these reasons and others, the Pollard/Ohlendorf bunch politely asked the

PUC and its learned judges to disregard any of the soul-crushing power line routes that

raun anywhere near their properties and instead choose the only route that excluded all

four links (Route 24)--; and, in doing so, make the whole ugly mess someone else’s


       The Pollard/Ohlendorf properties were some forty miles south of Bird’s Nest

Airport and had absolutely squat to do with the airport--, pilot safety, or the comings

and goings around Bird’s Nest Airport. Nonetheless, I reviewed their requests, answered

each question as best I could, returned the RFI in a timely manner, and that was that.

       Administering the Law is Slow Business

       All court proceedings are agonizingly slow and this one was no exception. Three

months after I had entered the fray, on January 15, 2008, the Honorable Lilo Denise

Pomerleau and the Honorable Travis Vickery ruled on a handful of motions, most of

them to strike the testimony, or portions of testimony, of intervenor witnesses. The high

point of the ruling, as far as Bird’s Nest Airport was concerned, was spelled out on the

top of page two, in which the judges declared that testimony regarding future-planned-

use would will be admitted and given appropriate weight. What this meant in plain

language was that my written testimony, along with Frank’s, did not get pitched or

shredded or whatever the court does with useless paperwork. On the contrary, it

appeared that our statements would be read and considered when it came time to bring

this exasperating story to a close.

       But tThis tale is not without bright spots.

       A few days later Texas Congressman, Michael T. McCaul, a member of the U.S.

House of Representatives, sent a glowing letter to Ben Guttery at the Federal Aviation

Administration supporting the airport and encouraging the FAA (in a somewhat

schoolingish tone I suspect wasn’t intended) to fulfill its obligation to protect the

airspace of existing and planned airports. In our case, that meant, according to

Congressman McCaul, that the FAA should stop at nothing in its zeal to convince LCRA,

and if not LCRA, then the PUC, to choose another route for its power line.

       My take was that Ben Guttery, Senior Program Manager with the FAA, was

already on board. It’s hard to tell if the letter by Congressman McCaul greased any

wheels.; Hhowever, a few days later Ben Guttery sent his own letter to Thomas Mason,

(General Manager, Lower Colorado River Authority), explaining that the FAA had in fact

approved a request by Bird’s Nest Airport to extend the existing runway and approved

and the construction of a new 4,754-foot runway and would, therefore, do whatever it

had to must to protect the associated airspace. The letter went on to explain that LCRA,

for its part, had failed to request a formal airspace analysis of the proposed transmission

line as is required by Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 77. After preliminary

studies, Ben said, the FAA found that one or more 185-foot towers, what appeared to be

the tallest possible structure height anywhere near Bird’s Nest Airport, would be

objectionable from an airspace utilization standpoint. An acceptable structure height,

according to Ben, was approximately 86 to a -100 feet above ground level.

       Alternate Route 19

       After months of preparing our written testimony, late nights reading other

intervenor testimony, squinting at hundreds of e-mails, many with attachments

featuringshowing maps and diagrams and detailed spreadsheets of costs and links and

alternate routes—after all that—the formal hearing was five days away, which explains

the timing of a request by attorney William B. Steele, (representing Cameron

Crossroads, an investment group which,o like me, opposed the transmission line route

along portions of SH130), for me and others to review a draft of a statement he planned

to submit to the court. Because the upcoming hearing didn’t allow opening statements

by counsel, Steele and his client thought it best to get as many land owners and other

interested parties together and try a last minute Hail Mary play. In a sense, Steele

wanted to knock the wind out of LCRA’s argument before any official bell ringing. And

the best way to do that was to gang up on them, get a whole bunch of us together, and

convince the judges we had a better idea.

       Steele aimed to file a Statement of Position encouraging Judges Pomerleau and

Vickery to select what Steele referred to as “modified Route 19” over LCRA’s

troublesome Route 24. Route 19 was better for several reasons, the statement said—it

was cheaper by some $15 million, avoided potential air hazards with both Bird’s Nest

Airport and Austin Bergstrom International Airport, mollified the City of Martindale

who already had a whopper 345-kilovolt power line running through town and couldn’t

stomach another, and made the folks at Scenic Texas giddy at the thought of moving the

hideous space-age towers out of sight of travelers tooling along State Highway 130,

which as it turned out was the organization’s sole mission in life.

       My first thought was, count me in. When I ran it by Kay, she disagreed. “You sure

you want to do this?”

       “What am I missing?” I asked into the phone.

       “I have a couple of concerns. First, by agreeing to the statement, we may be

limiting our ability to get additional evidence into the record.”

       “What kind of evidence?”

       “At this point, I have no idea,” Kay said. She sounded worn, tired, but

determined. “My second issue is that while Route 19 works for Bird’s Nest, so do several

other routes.”

       “Hitching our wagon to Route 19,” I said, “you see it as a bad idea?”

       “Why lock ourselves into one route?”

       “If we do this, Robert Ohlendorf and his family will fight us all the way.”

       “They won’t like it, no,” Kay said.

       “So why do I feel inclined to move with the herd on this one? Several other folks

are in, nine altogether, I think. We’ll make ten.”

       “It still doesn’t answer the question: Why go all-in this early in the game?”

       “Strength in numbers, I suppose.” I paused and glanced at the e-mail in front of

me. Neither of us spoke for a long moment. I finally said, “You think the judges might

select a route other than 19?”

       “I have no idea. Judges evaluate evidence, facts, administrative procedure. If

avoiding aircraft hazards is a primary concern, Route 19 is a good bet. Who’s to say

some other issue isn’t driving the decision, say nearby homes. If the number of habitable

structures isare a deciding factor, then Route 19 is out of the running.”

       “Then it’s a no?” I wait through another long pause and I get the feeling Kay is

reading something—maybe the draft statement, maybe not, she’s quiet about it—


       “Not necessarily,” she said.

       Kay had a way of laying out her case and then deferring to her client, me. She

could be subtle, sometimes not, or she might muster a flimsy argument leading me

down one path only to switch sides on me, which was where I was now.

       “I’m still inclined to sign it,” I said.

       “Okay then.”

       In the end we did sign the Statement of Position, along with Cameron Crossroads

LP, Kings Gate LP, and Eleanor C. Stone; ACD GREP II Hutto Real Estate; Butler

Family PSHP and Cerco Development Inc; Cooper Land Development Inc; Avery

Intervenors Group; LB Deerwood Property LP; City of Martindale, Scenic Texas Inc; and

the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. And as far as I could tell, it didn’t make a

lick of difference in the outcome.

       The Hearing

       The hearing on February 4, 2008, was a non-event. I showed up, listened to the

same arguments I’d read about dozens of times, took the stand and said my piece, and

then left. The real fireworks started days later when LCRA found a hole in our argument

big enough to throw a cat through.

       Back in November, four months earlier, the engineering team at LCRA submitted

to the FAA Form 7460-1 Notice of Proposed Construction or Alteration for its Gilleland

Creek to McNeil upgrade which included several new high-wire towers. This

transmission line was not a part of the proposed Clear Springs to Hutto power line, yet

was nonetheless in the vicinity of Bird’s Nest Airport and had the potential to affect the

airport’s precision instrument approach certification.

       What happened can be summarized in three words: Someone screwed up.

       On December 26, 2007, the FAA issued a Determination of No Hazard to Air

Navigation concerning the Gilleland Creek to McNeil upgrade, which contained at least

one tower 122 feet above ground level. Then in January 22, 2008, less than a month

later, the FAA made its final determination regarding Bird’s Nest Airport’s Form 7480-1

Notice of Landing Area Proposal, in which the agency said some of LCRA’s structures

would be objectionable from an airspace utilization standpoint and indicated acceptable

tower height could be no moretaller than 100 feet above ground level.

       So, in December the FAA approved towers 122 feet tall. In January the approval

height shrunk to 100 feet. Both couldn’t be right and LCRA planned to make hay from

the mistake.

       The reason for the mix-up, if I understand all the machinations correctly, was

that the earlier aeronautical studies did not take into account Bird’s Nest’s proposed

new runway 13-31, even though we had filed the required Notice of Landing Area

Proposal back in November 2007, and FAA regulations stipulated that once filed, all

future determinations must take into account the proposed new runway.

       From LCRA’s point of view, why it had happened was less important than making

the earlier determination stick.

       Kay and Frank and I quickly scrambled to contact Ben Guttery with the FAA, who

it turned out was well aware of the goof and was in the process of setting the record

straight. Turns out it takes longer than you’d think to verify the correct height of a single

tower. Thirty days later—coincidently, as LCRA was in the process of constructing its

towers along the Gilleland Creek to McNeil upgrade based on the earlier erroneous

determination—everyone agreed any tower over 100 feet was trouble. The problem was

that nobody bothered to tell the gang at LCRA, who naturally went several shades of red

when, in May, my sagacious attorney Kay Trostle filed a brief in the case that included

an internal FAA e-mail exchange between Ben Guttery and several managers and staff.

The gist of the back and forth was that yes, we, the FAA, got it wrong the first go- round,

but we’re not wrong now. After checking and double checking and triple checking, the

correct maximum height for transmission towers in and around Bird’s Nest Airport was

a flat 100 feet tall. Anything taller and something had to give.

       The brief and accompanying e-mail exchange was a clever bit of lawyering.

       Kay submitted the e-mail chain as a "late-filed exhibit." In truth, she didn't think

the judges would admit the e-mail, which wasn’t her goal anyway. Her strategy was to

get the judges to read the e-mail and, once read, it was hard to ignore. The facts noted in

the e-mail were presented in the starkest possible terms—that plans for a precision

instrument approach to new runway 13-31 were on file and that the correct “no effect”

height was 100 feet above ground level—and left little room for legal waffling.

       After she filed the brief and e-mail exhibit, LCRA’s legal team went apoplectic,

claiming, somewhat weakly, that they had already installed the structures for the

Gilleland Creek to McNeil upgrade at the height approved by the FAA late in 2007. The

Pollard/Ohlendorf group was quietly enraged. None of it a surprise.

       The Ruling

       In late June, the Administrative Law Judges issued a 144-page Proposal for

Decision, in essence a preliminary order in which parties had the opportunity to

comment on the proposal prior to the issuance of a final order. The judges

recommended that LCRA's preferred Route 24 be approved, with minor

modifications. Count one win for LCRA. In addition to recommending minor route

deviations, the judges recommended that LCRA be required to construct low-profile

structures in the vicinity of Bird's Nest Airport.

       After nine months of struggle, nine months of legal squirming, nine months of

paperwork and data gathering and late nights fretting over a single sentence of

testimony, we had (I’m scarcely hesitant to say it aloud or even write it here, now more

than two years after the fact, for fear I might kibitz the whole thing) won.

      Chapter Seven—Initial 4,420- Foot Runway

      In some ways I’d begaun designing the runway even before I had bought the

property. The original presentation that Eagle Rock investors put in front of me had one

particular image I remember well, a photo taken as if you were flying over the airport

peeking out the smudged window at a patchwork of farms below--, greens in far off

patterns that, from this distance, reminded me of manicured lawns, and off to the left

was the four-laner, State Highway 130, running north and south. The Adams and

Kahlbau properties were outlined in a bold yellow line and inside the yellow were a pair

of fat white lines that represented the new runway and taxiway sort of overlapping the

old—a layout that didn’t work in the long run, but at this point seemed as plausible as

any other.

      In July 2007, as the escrow and title company gurus were gathering up all the

paperwork to close on the airport properties, I asked Frank McIllwain with Garver

Engineers to sketch out several more runway options. Right away Frank favored a more

northwest pointing runway, 12-30, rather than the airport’s old heading of 16-34.

Runways are named after their magnetic heading, generally one-tenth of the heading. A

runway with a heading of 130 degrees (south), for instance, was referred to as Runway

13, pronounced “one three”; a heading of 310 (north), in the opposite direction, wasas


       Part of designing a runway meant looking around at nearby airports, imagining

you had a bunch of airplanes in the air, all of them coming and going at the same time

and all plugging in the appropriate instrument approach, and making sure you didn’t

have any overlap, say aircraft A and aircraft B in the same place at the same time.

       Approach procedures were a set of ticklish maneuvers—prescribed altitudes and

headings, arrows pointing at obstacles to avoid, notes of terrain to be aware of—all of it

aimed at getting pilots safely on the ground. Frank studied the approach procedures and

sectional maps for the closest airport south of us, Austin-Barnstorm International

Airport, and the closest north, Georgetown Municipal Airport, and looked for overlap

with Bird’s Nest Airport’s proposed runway 12-30.

       Instrument approaches, A-Ookay.

       Next, Frank and his team cranked out three computer- generated runway

alignments and overlayed them atop an aerial view of the property. In each, he inked a

5,000-foot baby-blue line that represented the runway across the airport property and

the adjacent Zschiesche property to the southeast (which I didn’t own), and an

additional 2,000-foot dotted baby-blue line at the other end showing a possible runway

extension (if and when I bought more property to the northwest). Assuming it all came

together as planned, I had a 7,000-foot runway capable of handling just about anything

Austin’s corporate aircraft community could throw at me.

       Runway #1, Frank’s choice, ran parallel to the north property line.

      Runway #2, my preference of the three, ran parallel to the north property line,

more or less identical to Frank’s choice, only the entire runway had been scooted four

feet or so to the southwest and consequently ran through a large black blob on the

photo that I took for the duck pond. A part of the taxiway came awfully close to the spot

where Ray Harding’s old house of poles used to sit before it burnedt to a crisp in 2002.

      Runway #3, Andy’s pick, angled the runway ten degrees closer to true north.

      We took a vote and decided, with modifications, that Andy’s runway was our best

bet. Only one problem remained:, Nnone of the runway layouts worked without buying

the Zschiesche farm.

      Appraising the Zschiesche Property

      As far back as June, I’d given serious thought to buying the Zschiesche property,

a large sweep of land, 370 acres in total, twice the acreage I already owned, and which

wrapped around three sides of the old airport. I sent Rick Winter and Tim Casey and Tre

Death each an e-mail asking if they knew of a good appraiser. I hit Tim up for additional

information—legal description, an old survey if one existed, copies of tax records, or

anything else the appraiser might need to move things along.

      In September I finally signed a contract with an appraiser, Butler Burgher, to take

a look-see at the property. A month later I got an 18-page appraisal document. All I

really cared about was a price per acre. Page one, paragraph three was all I needed. It

said, in bold-faced type no less, that the Zschiesche property was worth $9,000 to

$10,000 per acre.

      Fact was, the number was too low.

      State Highway 131 pushed property values higher the closer you got to the road.

That was the general consensus among landowners in the area. What bothered me about

the appraisal was that nearly all of the comparable properties were nowhere near the toll

road, and some as far as ten miles away.

       I sent appraiser, Kyle Lewallen, a note outlining my concerns. Kyle made his case

this way. Regarding property prices near Bird’s Nest Airport, a premium didn’t make

any sense because the new toll road was in effect a parkway with no entrances, exits, or

frontage roads anywhere near the airport. State Highway 130 was there all right, but

how exactly you got from the road to any of the adjacent properties was no easy task,

hence he considered it farm land and not pricy commercial property waiting to be

exploited by some savvy developer with bags of cash cruising SH130, well under the

posted speed limit, scouting for potential bargains. Kyle admitted this wasn’t true

farther north up nearer Hutto, where property values on both sides of SH130 were

climbing, residential and commercial developers were gobbling up land by the fistful,

and a property’s proximity to SH130 was something to boast about, as most developers


       The same was happening south of the airport in Southeast Austin, for example,

where developers planned to hammer out 1,250 new homes (with nearby hiking and

biking trails, baseball fields, swimming pools, a kayak launch, and oodles of parks

spread over 400 acres), as well as bolting together 390,000 square feet of onsite retail

and office space--, all of this activity precisely because the new toll road sidled up to

what was formerly a semi-worthless pasture, now strikingly transformed into a valuable

commercial commodity.

       Claiming that property values along the stretch of SH130 from Manor to to say

Pflugerville Parkway, let’s say, were in line with that of a spiffy pasture struck me as a

fine bit of hairsplitting.

       Evaluating All My Options

       I had two big issues to resolve. And both had to be settled at the same time:

hHow to go about buying the Zschiesche property (if that was even possible), and

designing and building an airport that worked equally well if: (a) I bought the adjacent

property,; or (b) I didn’t. That said, I called Frank and told him the runway heading 13-

31 was fine. “But what do you say we move the whole thing off the Zschiesche property?”

       “What, they won’t sell?” Frank asked.

       “There’s no telling. I need to move ahead and I can’t build a runway on land I

don’t own.”

       In truth, buying the Zschiesche property was crucial to the airport for two

reasons: The additional land allowed me to build a longer runway and the section that

horseshoed its way around the airport to the west allowed me to locate the terminal and

hanger buildings about three thousand feet closer to SH130 and save me the cost of

building all that road.

       “Moving the runway’s not a problem,” Frank said, “but a five thousand-footer

might be tight. My guess is we’ll have to go shorter.”

       “How much shorter?”

       “Give me a couple of days and I’ll have a number.”

       The only remaining problem was shoving the runway closer to the creek, but not

so close we upset the flow of surface water into and out of the duck pond, of which the

United States Army Corps of Engineers would have a thing or two to say.

         Before we got off the call Frank asked, “So what happens if the Zschiesches won’t


         Why Buying the Zschiesche Property Wouldn’t Be Easy

         Raymond John Zschiesche and his wife, Otillie Marcella, bought the family farm,

all 370 acres, in 1949 for a whopping $54 per acre. The odd-shaped parcel was mostly

flat land and a few shallow creeks, not so different from the farmstead they’d left up in

Bartlett, Texas, about an hour north. Raymond Zschiesche was thirty-nine years old

with a wife and three children , (Jimmy Ray, fourteen, Louis “Speedy” William, eleven

(who everyone called Speedy), and the baby of the family, little Francine Priscilla

Zschiesche), when the clan resettled in Manor.

         Raymond Zschiesche worked that piece of dirt for the next nineteen years, first

growing cotton and a winter-season legume cover and later maize and corn, all this

before he died in 1968, only three years after Ray and Mary Harding had bought the

adjacent land-locked property and beguan scraping the clay soil into a runway.

         As Francine remembers it, the Hardings and the Zschiesches were the best of

neighbors. As a teen, little Francine recalled affable Ray Harding putting the finishing

touches to one of his self-built airplanes, and no sooner than the last piece of whatnot

was screwed in place, Ray convinced her daddy to crawl aboard and take a look at the

family farm from a few thousand feet off the ground.

         Ray Harding had a way about him that beguiled people into trusting him. With a

grin and a steady voice, he cajoled anyone within earshot into putting their fuddy-duddy

ways aside for just a few moments and give in to the freedom of flight, live a little.,

Hhe’d say, what could it hurt?

       So that’s what Francine’s daddy did. Raymond Zschiesche took a breath and

eagerly stepped up into the cockpit, strapped himself in, and held on.

       Twenty minutes later when the two touched down and taxied the airplane to a

standstill, Ray asked if Francine might want a spin around the patch.

       “Well,” Francine said, staring at her daddy, whose expression before and after the

flight hadn’t changed one iota. “I wouldn’t mind, if you think it’s okay.”

       “You sure about this?” Raymond Zschiesche asked.

       “I think so.”

       He gave her a serious judicious look, then glanced at the airplane and then out

pastsed the runway to the pasture beyond. “Go on, then,” her daddy said. “You buckle

up tight, you hear me.”

       “I will.”

       “Do what Mr. Harding tells you,” Raymond Zschiesche said. “I mean it, now.” Off

her look, he said, “You don’t have to do this?”

       Now more confident, she said, “I don’t have to. I want to.”

       Years later, after Raymond Zschiesche was gone and little Francine had grown up

and married and had two children of her own, the airport still played a part in their

lives. She recalls packing up the kids and making the short trip from her home in Austin

up to Manor to visit her mother, now living alone. Otillie’s old brick home had become a

place for weekend visits and family gatherings on special occasions. Francine’s husband

would drive slowly along narrow Gregg Manor Road and hang a left onto Fuchs Grove

Road, and when the car got close to the airport the children would put their faces to the

glass and point out airplanes sitting on the ramp or under the sunshade and skydivers

floating over head aiming for a big circle of gravel in the field, and if the family arrived

early enough one of the children, Scott or Kimberly, whoever shouted first, might point

out a massive hot air balloon laying on its side, half- inflated, with nylon and color

flapping in the wind, a wicker basket somewhere in all the lines, a flame shooting out the

top of the basket and a dozen people standing around holding onto ropes to keep the

showy balloon from floating away, and Francine and the kids might bypass mom’s house

for a few minutes and see if they couldn’t lend a hand getting a balloon or two off the

ground and up into the air.

       As much as the Zschiesche family liked the Hardings, the neighborly relationship

had its problems. Otillie, living alone after her husband passed, didn’t take kindly to

pilots running off the end of runway 13 into her corn fields (which didn’t happen too

often), nor to skydivers landing willy-nilly on her property (which happened all the

time)--, most of the jumpers scared witless that they’d missed the drop zone so badly

and here comes some halfwit friend in a pickup truck zooming out into the open field to

pick them up before anyone noticesd, and flattening great swaths of bamboo-like stalks

with their pale yellow silk tassels as if none of the Zschiesche’s could figure out what had

happened nor care that all that destruction came at a cost. It wasn’t the missed landing

that did so much damage to the crops, but the quick getaway and the knuckleheads who

tried to hide the fact that they’d been there at all.

       Missed landings weren’t the only bone of contention. For the last forty-two years

the Zschiesche family had had to contend with the nagging easement road in and out of

the airport.

       In the years Ray Harding owned the airport, the poor condition of the road was

mostly a nuisance. About three times a year he’d ask Raymond Zschiesche and later

Otillie to grade the road or allow him to spread a truckload of gravel about or maybe just

let him widen the path so that two cars could get around each other without flattening a

couple of rows of crops. Raymond Zschiesche had always been civil and courteous, and

he’d always said “no.”

       When Jerry Kahlbau and his investor group came along in 1979, any pretense at

neighborly politeness had vanished. That the investor group sued the county in an effort

to convince itthe county to take over the road and turn it into a smooth two-laner didn’t

make any friends with the Zschiesche’s. Otillie was sixty-nine years old when she got

wind of the devious plan and sent her youngest boy, Speedy Zschiesche, off to the county

courthouse to tell her side of it—that the road was private property, always had been,

always would be. The county agreed.

       By the time I came along and made an offer to buy the family farm, the

Zschiesches had put up with four decades of pilots and jumpers and sightseers zooming

back and forth up the dusty road, each time rumbling past the Zschiesche home’s front

door not fifty feet away. I imagined Francine’s father, old Raymond John Zschiesche, in

the last years of his life, holding up a gnarled fist each time he heard a car or an old

Dodge D-100 pickup with a pair of noisome glasspack mufflers blowing past, each time

some thrill-seeker turned off of Fuchs Grove Road with his radio blaring, fat truck tires

spitting rock and loose gravel every which way, each time a fine layer of dust settled over

the damp laundry Otillie had pinned to the clothesline earlier in the day, and I imagined

Raymond Zschiesche cursing the day a crazy, idealistic couple of kids, Ray and Mary

Harding, bought the landlocked piece of Texas scrub next door and for some screwball

reason got it into their heads to build an airstrip.

         And who could blame him?

         All to say that the property came with some history, and a history the Zschiesche

clan would just as soon put behind them. wasn’t in any hurry to rid itself of.

         Round One With the Zschiesche’s

         In October 2007, Rick Winter, acting as my real estate go-between, finally got a

hold of Francine Priscilla Zschiesche, now Francine Hernandez, the only surviving child

of Raymond and Otillie Zschiesche, and he presented what I believed was a gracious


         One, I agreed to buy the property for $11,500 per acre ($1,150 more per acre than

the highest appraisal price) or approximately $4.2 million in total. Two, I agreed to put

$500,000 down and I asked the sellers, Francine and the four other heirs (Speedy

Zschiesche’s wife, Betty Jean, and her two children, Caroline Bullock and Craig

Zschiesche, as well as Jimmy Ray Zschiesche’s son, Allen Zschiesche) to finance the

balance for ten years with interest. (This had the effect of paying the Zschiesche gang

approximately $1.4 million in interest over and above the purchase price.) And three, I

agreed to pay a separate nonrefundable $25,000 for a 60-day cancellation clause, just in

case anything weird surfaced as we raced toward the close.

         Francine was curt, not in a mean way but in a tone that said she’d heard a lot of

offers over the years and wasn’t prone to believing everything she heard. She wasn’t so

much cold as cool, even clearing her throat into the phone came across as her way of

chiding a caller to get to the point. Rick Winter offered to meet, to hand over the

documents, semi-ceremoniously, and in his experience sellers couldn’t wait to get a

bona fide offer in hand.

       “Thank you, but that won’t be necessary,” Francine said.

       “It’s no trouble. Really, I’m not far—”

       She coughed this time, a low grumblerr, but it got Rick’s attention. “Mr. Winter is

it?” she said. “Please e-mail the documents at your convenience. I’ll distribute copies to

the rest of the family. We shouldn’t need more than a week.”

       “Of course. When you get the e-mail, can I ask that you send me a confiormation,

you know, just so’s I know everything arrived in one piece?”

       “Thank you for calling, Mr. Winter. Goodbye.”

       The Runway Get’s Shorter

       While we waited for a reply, Frank was hard at work doing some calculated

wriggling and was able to reposition the runway firmly within the bounds of my own

property. At the same time he penciled in a planned extension to the southeast, onto the

Zschiesche farm, in the event the Zschiesche heirs ever wanted to sell. The downside to

sticking to the parameters of your own property was that the runway continued to get

smaller with each iteration. As of December 2007, the longest possible airstrip, property

line to property line, was 4,754 feet. By January the runway had dwindled to 4,420, an

impressive length but shorter than I wanted.

       The Reply

       In November Francine e-mailed a reply to my offer of several weeks earlier. in

which Sshe said, no thank you. The price was too low and I was welcome to make a more

reasonable offer. Or not. The brevity of the e-mail seemed to imply she didn’t lean one

way or the other.

       I prepared a response, with Rick’s help, and with his permission eventually

decided to bypass my real estate agent and send Francine Hernandez an e-mail directly.

In it I laid out my case: tThat I purchased the airport property next door for $10,700 per

acre, that I offered her 15 percent above the highest appraised value, that properties

directly adjacent to SH130 (which the Zschiesche property was not) were worth more,

and that I would delete the stipulation for owner financing and instead pay cash. I

explained my thinking in detail and closed by saying that I hoped we could come to

some agreement.

       Thereafter I waited. And waited.

       And waited.

       How Strong is Strong Enough?

       In mid-December Frank needed answers before he could wrap up the

construction drawings and get the contractor to work on Stage 1 Construction. The

question that most nagged at him was, how strong was strong enough? This referring to

the design of the runway.

       I had two concerns. First, I didn’t want to build a multi-million-dollar runway

and have it age before its time, crumble, and cause some airport owner decades down

the line (possibly me or my own family) to have to contemplate rebuilding an obsolete

runway simply because I had failed to think far enough ahead. Second, I wanted a

runway tough enough to handle large jet aircraft and a runway stronger than those of

my competition, which included Austin-Bergstrom International, Georgetown

Municipal Airport, San Marcos Municipal Airport, Lockhart Municipal Airport, New

Braunfels Municipal, and Giddings-Lee County Airport.

       When you got down to the nitty-gritty, runways, like the one planned for Bird’s

Nest Airport, had only three ingredients: aAsphalt on top, crushed rock in the middle,

and lime-treated dirt underneath it all, the lime used to stabilize our Jell-O-like Central

Texas clay soil. The trick to both wear and strength was how much of each went into the

mix. A typical combination for light aircraft was 2 inches of asphalt, 6 inches of crushed

stone, and 8 inches of lime-treated soil, all guaranteed to handle a 30,000- pound,

single-wheel aircraft at around twenty departures a year.

       So what happened when a heavier airplane touched down, say a Learjet 85 or a

Gulfstream 200 or a Hawker 4000, any one of them a genuine possibility for Austin-

area executives tooling around the country on business. And what happened when the

number of landings exceeded twenty, or say two hundred, two thousand?

       The minimums wouldn’t do and after much research and debate with airport

engineers, road builders, and my own accountant, I decided to pay up and nearly double

the thickness of everything—3.5 inches of asphalt, 19 inches of base, and 13 inches of

lime-treated soil. Why it was so important to me that the runway last forever or be

capable of holding up to bulging aircraft twice as heavy as those it might typically

handle, I couldn’t say. The stronger runway came at a cost, an extra $1.8 million, and

though you might not believe it, just knowing I had built a thing of substance and

quality, to me as least, was worth every cent.

       A Countero Offer

       More than a month after revising my original offer and hearing nothing, I

       e-mailed Francine and made a pitch to buy just 52 acres, what amounted to one

leg of the horseshoe-shaped property, located nearest SH130, for an unthinkable

$20,000 an acre. This was a hilly parcel of land on which I’d have to spend scads

flattening into a pancake and the least desirable slice of the entire tract. My idea was to

relocate the terminal building and hangars from their current planned location and,

slideing them West, closer to SH130 for easier customer access, and saving me the cost

of a stretch of road in the process. Bottom line, if I could get a yes out of Francine

anytime soon, the Zschiesche crowd would walk away with a cool $1.04 million and get

to keep the remaining 318 acres to hold or sell or for whatever other purpose scheme

they had tumbling around in their noggins. To my way of thinking, I’d just made one of

those offers impossible to refuse.

       I was wrong, of course.

       Ten days later, I got a somewhat laconic message from Francine saying she’d

received the offer and that the family would ponder it if and when she could ever get the

whole posse together, which to my way of thinking was unlikely to ever happen.

       Once again, I was wrong.

       In March, Craig Zschiesche (Speedy and Betty Jean’s son) called and invited me

to his home in Leander, Texas, for a family get- together at which where Francine, Betty

Jean, Caroline, and Allen, would all be in attendance to discuss selling, or not selling,

the property. I met with the Zschiesche’s, told them of my plans for the airport, and

listened to their concerns. Mostly the heirs wanted more money. Secondlyarily, they

wanted something intangible that I never got my head around precisely because no one

in the room could manage to put the thought into words—possibly to walk away with

millions and at the same time hold on to the family farm and its collective memories

forever, which wasn’t such a lousy wish as wishes go, but unlikely to happen.

       What I didn’t know until much later was that this somewhat awkward gathering

was a turning point. In meeting me, the clan put a face to the offer and, more

importantly, as Francine shared with me years after the fact, the family was able to see

that a living breathing person, and not a feckless development corporation, was behind

the push to expand the airport. My offer to buy their property, to expand the airport, to

build something of substance and quality and meaning, at least to me, was in fact a

genuine heartfelt fantasy of mine. Standing before them was a man with a dream, a pie

in the sky vision no less important to me than the notion of honoring their father and

mother by making sure the family farm was nurtured and celebrated long after they

released their hold on it. At a minimum, life would feel a whole lot better if they passed

on the family farm to someone who cared.

       And on that day in late March 2008, according to Francine, I came across as a

man who cared.

       How I’d come by this artifice of negotiating I have no idea. Or possibly it was no

ploy at all, but the opposite, a truth so obvious to others that any stranger couldan take

one peek at me (you or us), you, us and know what matters and what doesn’t. Possibly in

sixty-two years of living I’d gotten so clear on what mattered and the legacy I’d chosen to

leave behind that any artifice had been gradually replaced with a candor and frankness

so fundamental that I couldn’t hide it even if I wanted to. And what mattered to me was

paying the Zschiesche’s a fair price and then constructing an airport Austinites could be

proud of for decades--, hell, why not centuries, to come?.

       By meeting face-to-face I made the negotiation personal. And once it got

personal, the conversation began to flow. For the better part of an hour we sipped coffee

and chatted about the “what ifs.”

       Someone at the meeting, I can’t remember who, came up with the idea of moving

the runway almost entirely onto the Zschiesche tract, therefore avoiding the pipeline

altogether and saving me a couple of million in pipeline rejiggering costs, thus (and no

one said this out loud) freeing up monies that I might be able to pay to the Zschiesches

in a higher sales price.

       Back at my home office that evening, I did some quick calculations, what it might

cost me to: (a) purchase the entire Zschiesche property and not move the runway,; and

(b) buy the Zschiesche property and move the runway in such a way to avoid crossing

the pipeline.

       Option A—buy and don’t move—resulted in a shorter road from SH130 to the

airport, ergo, saving me around four hundred thousand dollars in road costs.

       Option B—buy and move—initially saved me a couple of million in pipeline

relocation costs, and at the same time soaked me for up to ten times that depending on

how badly things got mucked up in the process. For example, did moving the runway

weaken my case against LCRA, and if I did nudge schooch the runway roundabout and

LCRA put up towers blocking the new flight path (which I wouldn’t put passed them),

would I then, on my own dime, be forced to have the towers taken down and the power

lines put underground? And I’d have more road to build, not less, road leading to the

relocated terminal building, and extra dirt work and engineering; and what about the

moola for a whole new set of construction drawings? What would all that cost? I didn’t

know, exactly, but I had a guess.

       To fully and accurately evaluate Option B, I needed a penny-pinching bean

counter; a band of engineers (construction, environmental, water resource,

transportation); a construction lawyer; a real estate lawyer (it wouldn’t hurt to have an

aviation attorney on my side, one with the tenacity of a dog bite lawyer); an aeronautical

strategist with an in at the FAA; a marketing guru (to tell me which, A or B, would likely

grow a critical mass of pilots faster and to answer the ten thousand dollar question:

which would sell more aviation fuel, the life blood of any airport); a futurist (to tell me if

twenty years from now Austin and the world even needed what I was selling); a

reasonably accurate clairvoyant with experience in critical path analysis (to point out

which unanticipated catastrophe might hit me first); and weeks to evaluate all the what-

ifs--, none of which I had. To answer all this, I cleared my mind, put on my expert hat,

and listed my best guess at the cost to solve every issue in option A and option B.

       Best case, I might save $450,000.

       Worst case, I could spend close to $17 million and get absolutely the same result.

       Put in such simple financial terms, moving the runway struck me as a bad idea.

       A day after my meeting with the Zschiesche family, I received an e-mail from

Craig Zschiesche, who said he was speaking on behalf of the family. Craig politely

offered to sell the entire property for $17,000 per acre. I quickly counteroffered:

$14,000 per acre (up from $11,500 per acre), $25,000 earnest money, a $25,000 option

payment that alloweds me to back out anytime in the next sixty days, a $25,000 option

payment if I choose to extend the close date by 45 days (just in case I raun into trouble

finding a bank who thinks like I think), and, best of all, I agreed to get my own

financing, letting the Zschiesche tribe off the hook for bankrolling the sale. We haggled

some and arrived at a sale price of approximately $5.9 million ($15,835 per acre, if you

were wondering) and we agreed to close the sale on July 25, 2008, which we did.

       Breaking Ground

       A short three months later Tribble & Stephens Construction, the general

contractor we had selected to build the runway, hauled out to the site a dozen trucks,

massive yellow graders and skip loaders and some kind of giant scraper with “CAT

621G” painted on the cab.; and Mmen in hard hats wheeled the equipment slowly off the

trailers and lined up the graders between the tall stakes the surveying team had

pounded into the ground.

       In a matter of minutes, we had broken ground.

       I’d first met Jay Tribble, cofounder of Tribble & Stephens, years earlier when my

aviation attorney, Drew Coates, introduced Jay and me at some political event in

Houston, now long forgotten. At the time I was looking for a contractor to build the

Houston Executive Airport. Jay seemed like a nice enough guy so I added Tribble &

Stephens to the bidders list, evaluated five or so bids, and not long after awarded his

company the contract.

       That was all in the past. By 2008 Jay Tribble was long gone, having sold his share

in the company, presumably for a wad of cash, and was now out combing the planet for

greener pastures. The newly reorganized Tribble & Stephens, minus Jay Tribble, offered

to build the 4,020-foot runway for $4.9 million, a lot of money, granted, but not even

close to the actual price tag of $6.4 million that I’d have to contend with months down

the road. We signed the contract in September 2008, and a month later Tribble &

Stephens’s grading subcontractor got busy scooping up the first of a half million cubic

yards of dirt from one end of the property and dumping it at the other, creating a more

or less level four thousand foot long swath of black dusty clay angled across the


       Only days after getting started, it seemed, I got my first “Work Change Directive,”

a common request for more money by anothery other name, and they kept coming with

spectacular regularity for the next eight months. Early on I received an appeal for an

additional $32,000 to tie in the old and new taxiways;, followed by a polite requisition

for $1.8 million to increase the depth of lime-treated dirt subgrade, crushed rock base,

and asphalt;, followed by a call for $47,000 to add a layer of asphalt emulsion between

the lime-treated subgrade and the crushed rock;, a request for $352,000 to upgrade the

rock base under the entire runway to a high-tech rock known as P209, and on it went.

To be fair, few of the changes came as a surprise. What aggravated my project team and

Andy Perry, especially, was the change order process itself.

      Andrew D. Perry held the dual role of Vice President of Development for Bird’s

Nest Airport and Executive Director of the Houston Executive Airport. For a young man,

he came at the job with a notable history of managing airports, including stints at

Dubuque Regional Airport, Terre Haute International Airport, and Cape Girardeau

Regional Airport. With respect to change orders, it was Andy’s chore to review the

paperwork, make sure the proposed changes and costs were more or less plumb, and if

not, then give a shout to some number- cruncher at Tribble & Stephens and square

things and, once squared, to give the request his blessing. With all that behind him, he

sent the paperwork along to me for official sanction.

      When put on the page, this nifty little process sounded like a mundane drill, an

easy-going check in a construction process already burdened with lots of checks. Only it

wasn’t easy-going. The process was contentious and cranky and querulous. From Andy’s

point of view, the Tribble & Stephens change order routine was as exasperating as

swimming in glue. A good example of just such a swim took place in April as the project

was winding down and a handful of fat yellow asphalt rollers lolled back and forth

across runway 31, when Tribble & Stephens dispatched change order #15, in this case a

credit that reduced my costs and should have made both Andy and me giddy as Lotto


       The problem was that the credit wasn’t enough.

       Months earlier I had approved changes to the runway (change order #8) and,

lickety-split, the project team at Tribble & Stephens gleefully sent along a request asking

for more money. Long before the change ever got implemented I found a better way to

beef up the runway, talked it over with the Tribble & Stephens’ project team, nixed the

earlier change, and waited for another change order crediting me with the exact amount

of the earlier change order. That didn’t happen. The credit, when it arrived, was less

than the earlier charge. Why one didn’t match the other, given that no work had taken

place, was a bone of contention for weeks.

       Andy had been shielding me from such squabbles for months, and with each

confrontation he’d lost some of that old Andy charm. By April, he was raw-nerved raw-

nerved and more stubborn than he once was. He shot off a series of e-mails and follow-

up telephone calls to Tribble & Stephens’ staff, politely bellyaching that things didn’t

add up.

       Before I going on, I’ll be the first to admit that any conversation, especially one

that took place years ago, is nearly impossible to recreate here on the page with any

accuracy, so I won’t even try. What I will do is offer up the flavor of one such

conversation, a composite dialogue if you will, and you tell me if this sort of give-and-

take wouldn’t drive a sane man cuckoo. The following conversation didn’t happen, not

exactly, but it could have.

       “Hold on,” Andy said into the phone, “I’ve reviewed the change order and it looks

like we got shorted.”

      A Tribble & Stephens staffer, let’s call him Milo to protect the innocent,

responded in an altogether professional tone, “It might look that way, but we’re square.

Trust me.”

      “How can that be? We paid for a change you never started. The final lift of

asphalt, it never happened. Removal of the old pavement markings, new markings, none

of the work ever got done.”

      “That’s right.”

      “It never even got approved,” Andy said.

      “Which explains why we never did the work,” Milo said, somewhat proud of


      “I’m not sure that’s the point.”

      “I’m listening.”

      “My point is that we deserve a credit on this change order in the exact amount of

the earlier change order. One should cancel the other.”

      “I’m not sure I’m following you.” Milo seemed to take pleasure in this.

      “The credit you sent me, it’s thirteen percent too little,” Andy said. “You owe us

more money.”

      “You understand the difference between net and gross, right?”

      “What I don’t understand is—”

      In a calm voice, Milo said, “The net cost is the direct cost of the work. Gross is the

direct cost plus a markup for overhead and profit. We agree on this much, am I right?”

      “I don’t see that that makes any—”

      “It does, trust me.”

      “I wish you’d stop saying that,” Andy said.

       “I’m trying to explain,” Milo said, “that the contract language is clear. The correct

amount of any credit is the net cost, that is to say the actual costs.”

       “That clause doesn’t apply to change orders.”

       “It does.”

       “It doesn’t.”

       “I’m reasonably sure it does,” Milo said.

       Andy thought about ways to reply to this. “But we paid you costs plus a thirteen

percent profit.”

       “That’s right.”

       “And now you want to keep the thirteen percent.”

       “I think it’s only fair.”

       “Over fifty thousand dollars, in profit,” here Andy paused for effect and leaned

back in his chair and stared at the mound of paperwork on his desk that wasn’t getting

done while he was on the phone deliberating, well arguing, sort of, about profit margins

on nonexistent revenues, “for work you never completed, never even started?”

       “It’s in the contract.”

       “Fifty thousand,” Andy said, “and all you did was shuffle paper.”

       “Item 9.8,” Milo said. “I forget the page number. I can look it up if you want.”

       “This is insane!”

       “I agree,” which wasn’t technically true. “Blame the lawyers,” Milo said.

       Andy had run out of logical arguments and was willing to consider illogical

arguments, if he could think of one, which he couldn’t. He said, “Can I ask you

something? Do you honestly feel good about this?”

       “I’m a numbers guy,” Milo said. “I don’t take any of this personally,” which is to

say, feelings weren’t really involved.

        At the risk of repeating myself, this conversation never took place. Not in these

words and in this order and certainly not with all the arguments and counter-arguments

lined up in a nearly comprehensible string as I’ve presented them. Not exactly.

        As for the actual fate of change order #15, after a month or so of thorny e-mails

and phone calls in which Tribble & Stephens’ project management staff made an

altogether reasonable case for charging me for work never done, I got my attorney

involved to draft a letter to Tribble & Stephens outlining our understanding of the

contract. Thereafter, all parties agreed that a balanced “this for that” seemed like a good


        In the construction industry, disputes over change orders are as common as

cornbread. That said, even mildly nonsensical spats had a way of weighing on you, piling

up over time until you were psychologically slump-shouldered, and stooped from the

weight. By the time change order #15 ambled down the construction turnpike, Andy

Perry was dog-tired from arguing. When the debacle finally faded and almost everyone

was once again back-slapping pals, Andy’d had had his fill of wrangling over money and

irrational legal nitpicks and wanted nothing more than to work with a contractor who

gave us a fixed price and built the project for that price, if indeed such an animal existed.

        The New 1,605-Foot Runway Extension

        At some point in the runway’s construction (my guess is way back around change

order #5), I got word that property adjacent to the airport was available to purchase. I

bought a tiny 3.76 acres of the Graham tract west of the Dearing place and an additional

20.2 acres of the Gates tract located north of the airport.

        Having enough land was no longer an issue. The issue was what to do with it.

        Months earlier when the Zschiesche property finally closed, I asked Frank

McIllwain to finalize the construction plans to extend the runway to the southeast. In

one of our many telephone conversations, we talked over what would and wouldn’t


        “I want the runway as long as possible,” I told Frank.

        “Six thousand feet?” Frank asked. “Seven thousand? That kind of length comes at

a cost.”

        “Six thousand,” I told him. “No less.”

        “At six thousand feet we need at least two connector taxiways. We can also

remove the displaced threshold we talked about on the south end.”

        “Fine,” I said. “One last thing. I don’t intend to open the airport until the entire

runway is ready to go. All six thousand feet, or better, so it’s important we don’t have

any delays between completing the initial runway and starting work on the extension.

Can you give me a timeline, so I’ll know what’s happening when?”

        He didn’t answer right away, but dallied, stroking his chin, or so I imagined, a

sure giveaway he was deciding what exactly to say. “Already done,” Frank said. Another

pause. “But you won’t like it.”

        “I don’t like it already.”

        This part of the conversation took place in October, as I recall, days away from

Tribble & Stephens and their grading contractor preparing to work on the initial


        “In October, we submit our completeness check to the City of Austin for the

runway extension,” Frank said. “In November, we wrap up the completeness check with

the City. This is an involved process, so I won’t waste your time with the details unless

you want.”

       “Just give me the timeline.”

       “Let’s see here. In December, we receive updates and feedback from the City,

things they want reconsidered, changed. We make changes to our plans and resubmit.

In February, we go through a second round of feedback—“

       “Frank,” I said, “just give me the bottom line. Do I need to worry about delays?”

       This time he chewed on a fingernail, exposing his large white teeth and gnawing

the nail of his index finger to the nub, a picture I’d cooked up in my head and something

I’ve never actually seen him do, but the image came to me anyway—a nervous young

man sitting at a junky metal desk piled with oversized construction drawings, stacks of

paperwork, several worn calculators (what good was a civil engineer without at least a

handful of spiffy scientific calculators nearby?) and a coffee cup filled with color-coded

mechanical pencils and the image of the periodic table painted on its side.

       “Short answer,” Frank said. “Yes, permitting for the runway extension will set us

back some.”

       “How much is some?”

       “It’s hard to say,” Frank said, but I could tell he was holding back so I waited him

out, pressing the phone to my ear and silently counting, one, two, three . . . until he said,

“A couple of months, maybe more.”

       “This two-month setback, it’s likely or guaranteed?”

       “The City requires us to submit three master comment reports, minimum, and

each round takes time. If they don’t like what they see, they can ask for additional

reports. More time, more delays.”

       “Best case,” I said, “when will the runway be complete? All of it, all six thousand

feet ready to handle air traffic?”

       “I hate to say this.”

       “I need a date, Frank.”

       “The runway itself, October 2009. Then we wait on FAA approvals, let’s say

another month. November. We’ll still need dirt work on the shoulder and infield ditch,

probably the holding area. That should take us to February 2010.”

       “February. You’re sure?”

       “It could be longer.”

       In the months that followed, Frank and his team completed the construction

drawings, snagged permits from cautious city officials, and solicited contractor bids to

extend the runway to exactly 6,025 feet, a length, according to Frank, as close to 6,000

as possible and consistent with Stage I runway light spacing.

       Andy pushed hard for a change in contractors and when Cash Construction

Company came in with the lowest price, he had all the ammo he needed to convince me

to make a change. I was hesitant to go with a new contractor, worried, I suppose, over

problems I had no business worrying about—that the old and new runways might not

align, that any squabbles over change orders might pale when compared to larger and

more costly catastrophes, like my contractor going belly up halfway through the job, or a

worker run over by a turbocharged motor grader, or inspection failures or material

shortages or monsoons or a hundred other misfortunes that can bring a construction

project of this size to its knees. None of that happened. Not a single worry ever came to

pass. Cash Construction Company did a startlingly first-rate job and finished the project

on time and on budget.

By October 2009 my new runway was complete.

Then someone noticed the runway was sinking.

       Chapter Eight—Unforeseen Challenges

       It was time.

       In May 2009 we changed the name from Bird’s Nest Airport to Austin Executive

Airport. To make it official, we issued a press release in which we said we were

establishing the premier general aviation facility in the Austin area.

       Also in May Atmos Energy mailed me a courteous refund check for $1.1 million—

the exact amount I had overpaid to have the two pipelines lowered. In October, a short

five months later, I discovered that the taxiway and runway were sinking in the precise

spot the pipeline had been lowered.

       Issues of the runway and taxiway settling weren’t new. Some months earlier,

Frank McIllwain noticed that a section of the taxiway had sagged where Tribble &

Stephens Construction had buried a pair of double 36-inch drainage culverts. The

problem, as far as we could tell, was that the seven or so feet of dirt piled on top of the

concrete culverts wasn’t compacted according to the specifications, which were

surprisingly specific, even wordy, and frankly, took great effort to overlook. What should

have happened was for that the fill dirt to be was tamped in 8-inch layers—known as

lifts in the dirt-compacting trade—resulting in around 11 11 lifts with density tests

performed after each lift. That hadn’t happened.

       After several meetings with Tribble & Stephens’s onsite construction crew (men

with rough hands the size of baseball gloves and a knee-jerk impulse to deny all

wrongdoing) along with a couple of executive types in clean jeans and white shirts from

the head office who needed time to pencil things through, the Tribble & Stephens team

dug up the soil over the culverts, layered in fresh earth, compacted the new stuff

according to the specs, and leveled out my taxiway.

       This new problem was more of the same.

       Atmos Energy, who owned the pipeline, had selected Bobcat Contractors to lower

said pipes, and thus it was Bobcat Contractors who took most of the blame for the

sinking runway. In truth, the runway didn’t look so bad. The taxiway, on the other

hand, was an aeronautical disaster.

       In December, Airport Manager Jim Craig marched out to the depressed section of

taxiway and stretched a plastic red tape across the crevasse and tried to measure just

how much the whole shebang had sunk. He eyeballed the low point, now puddled with

water, put a measuring tape to it, and as unscientific as all this was, Jim reasoned that

the taxiway and surrounding soil had sunk 9 inches, give or take, more than enough to

cause a major heartache for some unlucky pilot in a large-cabined Gulfstream IV or a

classy Bombardier Global or even my own high-winged Cessna Caravan tooling down

the taxiway when the landing gear is unhappily torn off by a 9-inch gash in the taxiway.

       The runway and taxiway were separated by 225 feet of dirt and grass, all of it

with the look of an earthquake fault line after a mild tremor. From above, the line of

sunken earth and asphalt was as obvious as a roadmap. In fact, at some point I pulled up

satellite photos of the airport using Google Earth—a virtual globe and map application—

       that showed off startlingly vivid images of the settled runway and taxiway to

anyone with a computer and fifteen minutes to kill.

       As near as anyone could tell, the source of all the trouble was water.

       Austin had been as wet as a soggy mop from early August through September and

all that rain meant tons of saturated, heavy earth. I called Frank McIllwain at Garver

Engineers, who sent out a crew of dirt-gurus to test the soil in the affected areas. And

much like our drainage-culvert-sinking-problem, Frank’s best guess was that someone

had forgotten to run a steamroller or two over the backfill as outlined in the

construction drawings.

       Next I hired an engineering firm with geotechnical savvy, Rodriguez Engineering

Laboratories, to take more soil samples, and based on the samples one of the engineers

discovered that the construction crew had done did some compacting, just not enough.

It appeared that Bobcat Contractors had flattened the porous backfill about every 2 feet

(not every 8 inches as required). That’s one pass every 2 feet versus the three or four

passes the specs called for, which would have been fine if I’d planned to grow hay atop

the pipeline, but it didn’t work so well to support the daily comings and goings of 30-ton

corporate aircraft.

       Once I gave Atmos Energy the bad news, a couple of construction executives

ambled out to the site and took a peek at the damaged taxiway and shook their heads (a

motion intended to fend off blame as well as express the doggone unpredictability of

earth and rain and the natural world). They stood there and ground their teeth for a

good thirty minutes, and finally the taller of the two pulled out a cell phone and rang

their subcontractor, Bobcat Contractors, who sent out a team to look around and do

more headshaking. Team two had with them clipboards and calculators and measuring

devices, and between them they came up with a figure. It’ll cost around $90,260 to fix

the mess. The head man handed over the estimate with no mention of who might have

done what to prevent such a thing or even who it was he expected to pay for the repairs.

In the end, some higher-up at Atmos Energy suggested that Bobcat Contractors fix the

runway and taxiway at their own expense, or the energy giant might consider using

another subcontractor for subsequent jobs.

       Repairing the Runway

       In December a gaggle of surveyors showed up to mark the dig-site with little

yellow flags stuck into the ground every eight feet or so, outlining what was an

impossible-to-miss sinkhole. The plan was for Bobcat Contracting to dig up the

offending dirt and perform the initial backfill and compaction. Then Cash Construction

would lay in a thickness of new lime-treated soil, a layer of P209 crushed rock, and a

new cover of asphalt.

       To make sure everything went according to plan, I asked Garver Engineers to

assign an overseer, Johney Boles. I insisted, nicely, by the way, that if the contractor so

much as touched a dirt clod, I wanted Johney on-site staring over someone’s shoulder.

In my mind Johney had two tasks: 1) to ensure that the engineering specifications were

followed to the letter, and 2) to coordinate density testing for each lift of backfill with

Rodriguez Engineering.

       Before any actual work got done, Atmos Energy and Bobcat Contractors and I

spent weeks negotiating who would do what. Finally, in late May, Bobcat Contractors

made a pair of neat cuts in the taxiway and runway and hauled in several dozers to tear

up and haul away 3.5 inches of asphalt and 19 inches of high-dollar P209 rock base and

below that 13 inches of lime-treated soil, before finally trenching out the antagonizing

uncompacted dirt which now resembled a dark brown chocolate pudding.

       Weeks later I got a somewhat pointed e-mail from Airport Manager Jim Craig

outlining his concerns: tThat the job was taking way too long, that Bobcat Contractors’

estimate of a three week project was laughable (three months was more like it), that the

current trench dug around the two gas pipelines had subsequently filled with water from

a couple of recent Texas gushers, and that as of this moment not a single worker was on-

site. In the intervening weeks, design and repair of the faulty runway/taxiway had

undergone a handful of evolutions—as if no one was completely sure how to stabilize the

earth surrounding a couple of hulking pipelines and keep the runway eight feet above

from ever sinking again.

       While this same batch of engineers was trying to come up with a fix—scribbling

away on graph paper and refiguring compaction rates and comparing soil densities and

making the odd inside joke about soil mechanics—Bobcat Contractors was pumping

water out of the trench, and had been for a solid three weeks. Then one of engineers got

wind of all the water in the trench and threw up his hands in despair. No one had

bothered to mention the water problem and the resulting foot-thick mud or he would

have told them that any chance at compacting what amounted to a few dozen tons of

sludge was not only a waste of time but couldn’t possibly support the runway nor a

60,000 pound light jet lurching along the taxiway readying for takeoff.

       In his e-mail Jim Craig had a final bit of advice. If it were up to him, he’d excavate

around the pipelines, pour in enough concrete to cover the pipes(, and then some), lay

in some fill dirt in lifts, tamp it, rebuild the section of runway/taxiway, and be done with


       Which by mid-July was more or less what happened.

       The True Cost of Free

       In theory, the fix didn’t cost me a cent. In practice, the entire experience cost me

in two different ways. First, I had to pay several smart and trustworthy people like

Frank McIllwain and Johney Boles and Jim Craig and my own construction supervisors

to be on-site as much as possible to keep an eye on things. Second, the runway had been

shut down for four additional months and in the meantime I wasn’t able to move

forward with other projects—installing runway lighting, painting stripes, and, most

important, scheduling for the FAA to come on-site and evaluate and approve our

instrument approach procedures by flying in and out of the airport.

       I suppose there was a third cost, one harder to put a price on—the cost of a two-

color runway. In the months since laying the asphalt the runway/taxiway had faded to a

nice charcoal gray. The new sections, however, were a glaring midnight black, which

from above looked like a fat 30-foot-wide black stripe across the runway/taxiway at an

odd angle of say 30 degrees.

       Would the difference in runway color affect durability? No. Would it affect

landing and takeoffs? Other than to give a landing pilot pause to consider what the

stripe meant, probably not. The cost, at least to me, was that my brand- new runway

now looked old and patched and we hadn’t yet opened the airport nor landed a single

airplane on its pristine surface. That, and a two-color runway was just plain ugly.

Bottom line, I had a choice to make. I could make the runway/taxiway a consistent color

by rejuvenating the whole thing, using a pricey asphalt sealer at a cost of a cool sixty

thousand dollars. Or I could learn to live with a patched runway and stop complaining.

At this point in the story, I still hadn’t decided which way to go.

       Wetland Mitigation

       Environmental protection rule number one: If during construction you disturb a

wetland, you then have to mitigate any harm by building another wetland in its place.

That was the City of Austin’s position, and as far as I was concerned, it was a good one.

Because our new 6,025-foot runway and taxiway ran too close to three existing stock

ponds—one located behind the old flight office, another north and east of the runway,

and a third at the north end of the runway on Mrs. Dearing’s property—we had to

mitigate the harm to the environment and wildlife by building a new wetland located


       So it was in May 2008., Eenvironmental scientist Ryan Mountain with Garver

Engineers proposed a new wetland of approximately 500 feet by 500 feet (slightly larger

than the pond behind the old flight office), and this new wetland included an additional

150-foot setback surrounding the entire mitigation area. He located the new wetland at

the north end of the runway and east of the tarmac by a couple of hundred feet. Later

we proposed a second mitigation area, a triangular-shaped patch of sloped earth and

grasses east of the flight office pond.

       It turned out that matching wetland area for wetland area and planting the

appropriate grasses wasn’t near good enough for the City. After we bumped heads with

the folks down at the planning department one too many times, I hired an

environmental consultant with a cheery disposition, Shannon Dorsey with Horizon

Environmental Services, to help us finalize the wetland mitigation plan and shepherd us

through the approval process. Even with Shannon’s help, the permitting procedure was

burdensome and time consuming and included more than a smidgen of old-fashioned of


       Austin Executive Airport fell within the City’s exterritorial jurisdiction, an area

extending five miles outside the City corporate limits. All developments within the ETJ

were required to obtain a rash of permits—site plan permits, plumbing and electrical

permits, County Health Department permits (if the project needed a septic system,

which we found out later ours did), US Fish and Wildlife Service permits for endangered

species habitats, Texas Water Commission permits, and receive Texas Parks and

Wildlife Department Corps of Engineers approval for drainage modifications.

       To get the final okay, we had to appease several persnickety permit reviewers,

including the City’s Planning and Environmental Board and the Conservation Services

Department, and everyone, it seemed, had a different take on what they would and

wouldn’t approve.

       To get the new wetlands in shape, we had to move a lot lots of dirt. And when the

City took a gander at where all that dirt was coming from, some humorless reviewer

realized we had a fourteen-foot hill on the site that we planned to level out before and

using use the unwanted earth, in part, to form slopes and berms surrounding the new

wetlands. According to the City, there were limits to the size of hill you could flatten

without yet another permit, and 14 feet was well beyond the limit.

       No way around it, the cut and fill requirements applied to Austin Executive

Airport, and as much as we wanted, we couldn’t manage to separate the two permits—

one for wetland mitigation and one for razing our fourteen-foot hill.

       Rather than meet the City’s puzzling and impractical specifications (which were

so arduous and convoluted that I still don’t fully understand how we could have

complied, much less why the whimsical specs read as they did) we opted to apply for a

wetland mitigation variance and a cut and fill variance.

       KSA Engineers Joins the Team

       About this time I hired a local engineering firm, KSA Engineers, to help design

the airport ramp, oversee hangar construction, finalize any drainage issues, coordinate

with the architect and contractor to build the terminal building, and draft a workable

wetlands mitigation plan. (Covertly, I hoped my new local engineering firm had

professional connections with the City that might expedite the permitting process.) KSA

assigned engineer, Bob Nelesen, as our primary contact. Bob had a glut of local hands--

on experience and turned out to be a huge help on the project.

       After several frustrating meetings with City planning staff, in which Bob Nelesen

and Shannon Dorsey finally convinced them that a wetland design that attracted birds

(who geot a kick out of pestering pilots and clogging up propellers) was a bad idea, we

trashed our initial wetland plan that included two separate mitigation areas west of the

runway and proposed an upland grass design—basically a habitat for prairie animals—

and opted for a single upland conservation area located well east of the runway. This

would be a somewhat isolated territory that included all impacted zones around existing

ponds #1, #2, and #3, with a total mitigation area of 172,824 square feet.

       Our new plan was simple.

       It was direct.

       We could mobilize in a matter of days.

       And it was rejected.

       For whole minutes after submitting the plan, I thought we had smooth sailing

ahead, but something odd was in the Austin air. (Crazies of all strips were acting out, it

seemed. I’d recently read in the Austin newspaper that an local real estate developer had

hired a crew to illegally cut down a large tree on City property so that he had a better

view from his living room, a father had shot his baby in the foot to get back at his wife,

and days later-- (and in the midst of a trial--) a juror had snuck a gun into the Travis

County Courthouse, for what purpose no one was exactly sure.) I don’t know what all of

this meant except to say that a mild form of senselessness had infected Austin and that

the City planning staff was not immune.

       We made more changes to our mitigation plan and tried again.

       Shannon Dorsey and Colin Bible with Garver Engineers sent the City another

draft, which the City swiftly and politely denied. This time the City’s Andrew Clamann

offered a handful of helpful suggestions. Andrew noted that any plantings should

include a mix of native shrubs and woody plants at a rate of 50 per acre. (Check.) That

simply reseeding a pasture in exchange for a wetland would not be considered 1:1

mitigation and therefore a detailed planting strategy was required. (We’d submitted a

planting strategy, but okay, check.) Andrew recommended a mix of native shrubs and

woody plants placed in the general vicinity of the property’s natural drainage patterns at

a rate of 50 per acre for the inner mitigation area of approximately four acres. (Already

done. Check.) The mix should be around 25 percent trees and 75 percent shrubs chosen

from the "Native and Adapted Landscape Plants" manual from the “City of Austin Grow

Green Manual.” (It couldn’t hurt to repeat: Trees attract birds and birds and airplanes

don’t mix. But all right already. Check.) PMost preferred are drought-resistant plants

that can provide a habitat and at the same time some yummy food for wildlife—i.e.

lantana, butterfly bush, columbine, Chile pequine, Texas persimmon, Mexican plum,

pecan, bur oak and the like. (Helpful suggestion. Check.)

       In July we made the changes, submitted the newly revised mitigation plan once

again, and waited for a good-natured rejection.

       We didn’t have to wait long.

       This time, City staff detailed nine specific reasons for nixing the plan. For

example, we mislabeled several Critical Environmental Features with a numbering

system the City didn’t like, the required silt fences didn’t coincide perfectly with some

feature setbacks, the grading activities in wetland areas hadn’t been previously approved

(hinting, I believe, at the need for yet another permit from yet another department), and

the City wanted us to note just what we hoped the revegetation might look like when all

was said and done, so that any myopic nearsighted site inspector would know a finished

project when he saw it.

       By the end of July 2008, we finally submitted a wetland mitigation plan the City

could live with. We outlined the grasses we planned to use (bBuffalo grass, prairie,

sideoats grama, green sprangletop, etc.) and the wildflowers (huisache daisy, scarlet

sage, bundleflower, black-eyed Susan, partridge pea, and others) and the scrubs

(American beautyberry, evergreen sumac, button bush, Mexican buckeye, redbud, and

so on). In all we distributed nearly 700 pounds of grass, cover, and wildflower seed over

a four-acre area, and what the Texas rain didn’t wash away eventually blossomed into a

charming, though scruffy, patch of grassland to rival any in the state.

       Fire Flow Doesn’t Come Cheap

       In January 2009, only months after putting our wetland mitigation challenges

behind us, we turned to the issue of supplying water to the airport. For basic water

needs (toilets and drinking water and faucets) we could get by with installing a low-cost

2-inch water line. Then the Travis County Fire Marshal (yet another new player in the

approval process) “suggested” we install fire sprinklers in the airport terminal and all of

the hangars. Problem was sprinklers required considerably more water than a 2-inch

line could handle.

       Note to reader: Fire sprinklers may help prevent fire damage, but they also cause

massive jumbo water damage even when the fire itself is harmless, say when an ornery

aircraft mechanic throws a half-lit cigar into the shop trash can and the nasty cigar

smoke triggers the fire sprinklers. I called my insurance agent, who confirmed a nagging

suspicion of mine—that if I installed fire sprinklers, my insurance rates would go up not

down. According to my agent, his company had paid out well more in aircraft-related

water damages for falsely triggered fire sprinkler systems than they’d paid in actual

damages from smoke and fire.

       I explained all this to the fire marshal, who rolled his eyes and suggested I take it

up with the authors of the International Fire Code. No getting around it, we had to meet

fire flow and duration specifications, which meant a water system capable of supplying

1,500 gallons a minute for two solid hours, or somewhere in the range of 180,000

gallons of water over a two-hour period.

       A standard 2-inch line running across the property wasn’t cheap. A water line of

sufficient size to supply 1,500 gallons a minute, likely a 10-inch line, stretching clear

from Fuchs Grover Road at the east end of the airport property to the new terminal

location at the far west end of the property, (or roughly 10,000 linear feet of water line)

would cost me a small fortune.

       Immediately, I grabbed Bob Nelesen and Frank McIllwain and Andy Perry and

locked the four of us in a conference room until we could come up with some

alternatives to installing a massive new water line. One early idea was to create a

detention pond and, in the event of a fire, pump water out of the nearby pond. Bob

Nelesen worked up an estimate for the detention pond idea that included a 12-inch fire

line; three fire hydrants; a massive fire flow pump; a wet well, intake screen, and

discharge header (basically a series of pumps and pipes that gathered water from the

pond into the surge tank), and a 300-kilovolt backup generator. The whole detention

pond package came to $935,000.

       Bob thought the detention pond a bad idea for several reasons: The pump system

was complex and costly, the well itself had to be huge (20 feet deep and 10 feet

across20-foot deep and 10 foot across), and code required that the pumps be in a

temperature controlled enclosure. Again, more cost. At one point, someone, Bob I think,

recommended talking with our local water supplier, Manville Water Supply

Corporation, and determining if we could tap into their existing water line. I scheduled

the meeting, and while I was far from convinced an oversized water line was needed,

and in order to prevent even more delays, I asked Bob to prepare preliminary drawings

showing a new water line from the main water supply on Fuchs Grove Road to the

proposed new terminal building.

       Another Bad Idea: The Bird’s Nest Fire Brigade

       In March I stumbled upon another option. Hidden deep inside the International

Fire Code was a section on exemptions. The exemption that applied to the Austin

Executive Airport read, “An industrial facility (like an airport) that has a fire brigade

that conforms to the requirements of the Occupational and Health and Safety

Administration,” did not have to comply with fire code. I asked Andy Perry to do some

research into the pros and cons of a volunteer fire department and let me know what he


         A week later Andy sent me an e-mail suggesting that a volunteer fire department

was a sketchy notion on several fronts: a) even if we put a department in place, there

was no guarantee the County Fire Marshal nor the City would stop pestering us, b) it

was possible to countermand fire marshal authority, but we’d need a judge to make a

formal ruling on the matter, c) we’d need a boatload of liability insurance to cover

employees and volunteer firemen who got hurt on the job, and d) we had to consider the

cost of training volunteers and the cost of whatever special equipment was required to

make such a willy-nilly department capable of putting out a fire in the event we actually

needed them to do so.

         The fire brigade idea was out.

         A New Water Line Layout

         In March I received a tentative water line layout and construction drawings from

Bob Nelesen that showed a 10,000-foot crooked line from Fuchs Grove Road to the

proposed terminal building. Now all we had to do was determine the most cost-effective

way to get the new water line installed. If we built the new line according to the City of

Austin’s gold-plated specifications, the cost would run us twice the normal rate. Or we

could go another way and ask Manville Water Supply Corporation, who had jurisdiction

on installation and maintenance of water lines within its district, to build the line for us

and let us reimburse them. (An estimate to build a 10-inch water line to the City of

Austin’s specifications ran around $42 per linear foot. The same line built to the

Manville WSC specifications would cost only $20 a linear foot, or about 52 percent less.)

With this in mind, we met Tony Graf at Manville WSC to talk over fire flows and tapping

requirements and septic design and metering requirements.

       After several meetings, and a spoonful of diplomacy, Manville WSC and I agreed

to the following: Manville WSC would design the water and septic systems. I would hire

a contractor (who the Manville WSC Board recommended) to install the new 10-inch

water line across the airport property and build the septic system in accordance with

their standards. Once the new line was installed and inspected, I would then deed

ownership of the line to Manville WSC for their operation and maintenance. One final

bonus to avoiding working directly with the local water district was that Manville WSC

wanted to upgrade their water lines in the area and agreed to upsize our 10-inch line to a

16-inch line at no additional cost to the airport. Not only was the larger line more

structurally stable, but as the surrounding residential areas continued to grow and the

demand for water increased, the airport would still be guaranteed a fire flow of 1,500

gallons per minute for two hours.

       Meeting the Governor

       In September my wife Sheri and I attended a political fundraiser and happened to

spend a few minutes chatting with Governor Rick Perry. Governor Perry was a

proponent of Austin Executive Airport and was himself an airplane enthusiast. He told

several stories—one involving his time as a pilot with the Texas Air National Guard and

another about flying an F-16—and he was proud to say that he had some 7,000 hours in

the cockpit. I told him I appreciated all the help we had received from his office—the

work of Secretary of State Phil Wilson and the governor’s Deputy Chief of Staff Kris

Heckman and his transportation policy advisor and others within the economic

development office—who each in their own way had opened doors to developing the

airport that might not have opened otherwise.

      Days later, and still elated at meeting the governor, I got a double whammy of

bad news. First, our head engineer and chief fixer (and a man with many local contacts

within the City of Austin planning and permitting bureaucracy) Bob Nelesen quit KSA

Engineers (and our project) and moved out of state. Second, I discovered that even

though Manville WSC had designed the new water line and would own and maintain it,

Travis County Deputy Fire Marshal Mike Slaughter still had to sign off on the plan. And

to get that signature meant over-designing and over-building the line to meet the City’s

onerous standards.

      I fought the idea of spending more money when it was clear no benefit would

come of it, but in the end I acquiesced. In October I meet with the deputy fire marshal

and we came up with several options that might cut muster. One idea was to install fire

hydrants near the terminal and hangar buildings with the source of water from either

public water lines or on-site storage tanks and fire pumps. A second option was to omit

the hydrants and instead put in place one or more sprinkler systems within the terminal

building and the attached large corporate hangar but not the smaller T-hangars or shade


      After some discussion, we opted for a hybrid approach that included a new water

line, hydrants, and fire sprinklers in the terminal and large hangar. The new water line

and hydrants alone set me back $250,000, and Manville WSC pitched in an additional

$75,000 to upgrade to a 16-inch line.

      My Advice: Focus on What’s in Front of You

      In the early days of constructing the airport, I faced more than my share of

unforeseen problems. I had not one but two gas pipelines to lower, a costly dispute with

LCRA energy company about power lines interfering with our flight path, a dispiriting

series of talks with my neighbor before buying her property, a sinking runway, and

ongoing wetland mitigation hassles. And most recently I had to contend with a fire

marshal who insisted on following the letter of the code when all logic supported an

alternative contrary view.

      Given the hurdles, it’s no wonder so few airports get built.

      I ask myself if architects and builders and city planners, as well as lowly airport

developers, could envision what lies ahead, whether they would ever begin a new

project? If having somehow seen the unforeseeable mishaps and disappointments on

the horizon, would they bother to plop down their money and take their chances?

      It’s possible that I have this backwards.

      In fact it’s likely that not seeing the future—the arguments and missed

calculations and pressures from special interest groups and the shear bone-headedness

of some bureaucrats—is the very thing that allows people like me to invest tens of

millions of my own money without any guarantee of making a dime on the back end,

without even a conservative promise of breaking even. In many ways, not knowing

what’s around the corner is the secret to progress. Which is my way of saying,; I have no

idea of the trouble ahead.

       Chapter Nine—The Ramp and Terminal

       We had a problem.

       The elevation of the runway was 620 feet above sea level. The terminal and

airport ramp area was a rolling section of farm land that included a hill with an elevation

of 638 feet above sea level.

       The City of Austin allowed us to cut 4 feet off the top of the hill without obtaining

a permit. Any more and we’d need a building code variance, a process guaranteed to

take forever and frustrate everyone involved.

       One of the engineers had an idea. What if we cut 4 feet from the hill and then

steeply sloped the 200- foot- long connecting taxiway from the runway to the ramp—

       basically a structurally reinforced arrival and parking area for airplanes. The

problem with this set up was that an aircraft had to taxi uphill to reach the ramp and

airplanes don’t like to travel up hill. To minimize the slope of the connecting taxiway,

someone suggested we slope the mammoth ramp itself to the north by about 3 degrees.

       Something didn’t sound right.

       I asked the engineering team to evaluate what would happen if we had several

jets parked on the ramp with a 3- degree slope. What we found was that without a

heavy-duty break in place, a corporate jet would begin to roll. It was only a matter of

time before a multimillion dollar jet scooted off the end of the ramp or into another

aircraft. If that happened I’d have a lawsuit on my hands and likely dish out more

money in legal fees and damages than it would have cost to build the connecting taxiway

and ramp correctly in the first place.

       Bottom line: A sloped ramp wouldn’t work. We needed to level the hill and that

meant filing for a code variance.

       The City of Austin permitting process was as painful as any paper-pushing ordeal

could be. I had several exceptional people working with me to keep airport construction

moving forward, but that didn’t prevent the City from slowing our progress. Vice

President of Development Andy Perry oversaw construction and permitting and in May

2009 he requested a permit to level the 18-foot hill taking up space where our new ramp

and terminal would go.

       At the same time, Andy requested permits for the hangars, fuel station, terminal

building, access drive, drainage and water quality pond and other improvements.

       The process goes like this: The City reviews our construction documents, signs off

on completeness, performs a detailed review of the drawings and specifications, and

sends us written comments along with a long list of changes the City would like to see—

       demands, in other words, for changes sometimes so inconsequential that they

defy reason. We send the comments to KSA Engineers who read through the nitpicks,

give a collective groan, proceed to make the easy changes, and ring me up when a

modification means dishing out more money. Once all of the changes are made, we,

meaning Andy, sends the entire package back to the planning department for another

round of reviews.

       If everything goes smoothly (and, which let’s be honest, does it ever?) a variance

and permits of this sort will take a couple of months.

       That didn’t happen.

       Seven months later, a somewhat worn Andy Perry came up with a new timeline to

finalize the permits. The new target date: December, when with any luck we go before

the environmental review board and get their unqualified A-Ookay.

       That said, Andy tried desperately to get on the December agenda. It turned out

someone at the planning office hadn’t reviewed our project according to the prescribed

schedule and we were therefore pushed back to January. In January 2010 the

environmental review board cancelled its first meeting of the month. Then one of the

City staff asked for more information—detailed specifications regarding the silt fence

surrounding the construction area—which meant sending the drawings back to the

engineers to prepare yet another written response explaining their calculations, and in

the meantime we missed another review board meeting. We got on the agenda for

February, missed the first meeting of the month for reasons I can’t recall, and were

rescheduled to go before the board in late February.

       This time we were ready. To bolster our position with the review board members,

we invited more than a dozen local pilots to show up and if need be to demonstrate their

glowing support for the airport. Overkill, it turned out, because not a single angry

neighbor or competing real estate developer with an ax to grind showed up to oppose

our permit. After a long-winded speech by a resident regarding another project, an

exhausted and disheveled chairwoman invited Andy Perry to the podium, and instead of

listening to whatever he had to say, she lifted a hand (as if to say, “Don’t speak”), took an

informal vote of board members who all agreed, abruptly approved the permit and

politely asked Andy to skedaddle (without having said a word).

       Our next step was to go before the planning and zoning board—the bureaucratic

body that officially issued our variance and permits. Days before the planning meeting

in March Andy received a call from the City’s case manager with bad news: The

environmental review board had goofed. Apparently the chairwomen hadn’t followed

the rules of order and thus our approved permit was invalid. Without a valid

environmental review approval, we were bumped off the planning and zoning board

agenda. Andy moved quickly, met with the environmental review board only days later,

got the formal approval, and zipped over to the planning and zoning meeting the

following day.

       I describe this process in detail as a way of expressing just how much work went

into getting us nowhere, or close to nowhere.

       An Issue of Motivation

       Andy Perry came to work for me in March 2006 and each year thereafter he

politely inquired about a pay increase. Like clockwork, the third week of March Andy

popped the question. His timing couldn’t have been worse. The only thing on my mind

was completing the airport. At the top of my list was getting one lousy cut and fill

variance and one equally lousy construction permit. The next handful of items all had to

do with the details of actually grading the area, constructing the concrete ramp, building

the massive 200-foot by 200-foot jet hangar, and breaking ground on the terminal

building. Andy’s pay raise didn’t even make the list.

       That said, Andy assured me we’d have both permits soon. “Two weeks. For sure.”

       “All right,” I said. “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you a five percent raise.”

       “I won’t let you down.”

       “The way this works,” I said. “You get three percent today. You get the remaining

two percent if we get our permits by the end of April.”

       “It won’t take that long,” Andy said.

       “That gives you five weeks. If we don’t have permits by the end of April, then your

two percent raise drops to one percent. If no permits by the end of May, then you’re

stuck with a three percent raise this year?”

       Suddenly, Andy Perry is a man on a mission, badgering people at the City and the

engineers and my own lawyer to get a move on, or else. Until I had put the new pay plan

in effect, any delays only hurt me. Now they hurt both of us.

       The first week of April arrived and still no permits.

       In late April we flew over to Austin to talk to architect Randy Fromberg. Mid-

flight I hear Andy’s phone ding—e-mail arriving. He sat there thumbing through his

message. Over my headphones I hear him say, “This can’t be happening.”

       “What is it?” I ask.

       “We have a small problem,” Andy said.

       We believed we were days from receiving final planning approval. The only

unresolved items were the exact language hidden in the fine print of two agreements

required by the City: 1) an easement granted to the City of Austin that prevented Austin

Executive Airport from building on the new wetland for the next 100 years, and 2) a

Unified Development Agreement.

       The terminal buildings, hangars, and ramp area were designed to sit on what was

the old Zschiesche property, yet because the 370-acre Zschiesche tract was itself

composed of several smaller parcels of land, the City required an agreement that treated

the entire tract as one unit with rights to the new wetlands in perpetuity. Even after all

of the department approvals (though no actual permit), Andy had spent weeks

negotiating the language of both agreements with the City’s attorneys.

       Of the two, the UDA was the more contentious because the City wanted to use its

standard boilerplate contract while airports are anything but standard. (One of the

clauses I recall allowed the City to unilaterally maintain and upgrade wetland areas at

their discretion, which could have the effect of introducing aircraft and pilot hazards like

birds. A deal killer from our perspective.)

       Now, we had yet another issue.

       The City of Austin had long required that we post a bond or issue a letter of credit

in the amount the City estimated it would cost to step in, in the event we went belly up,

and complete the wetlands mitigation project, including any environmental controls we

planned to put in place. The logic was that if we didn’t finish the job, they would. We

bickered over the amount of the letter of credit and tentatively agreed on $600,000. At

the last minute, some number- cruncher at the City rejiggered the figures numbers and

decided more was better. Get us a new letter of credit or no permits. We finally conceded

to posting a $2.4 million letter of credit issued from our bank.

       That done, the following day, on May 6, 2010, we officially received our cut and

fill variance and our permits.

       The Architecture of Airports

       In about 2005, I was determined to build an executive airport in Houston, where

I live, and I asked a friend, Drew Coates, an aviation attorney and partner with the law

firm Coats & Evans P.C., if he knew of a good architect. He did.

       Drew is also founder of the Houston Aeronautical Heritage Society, formed in

part to renovate Houston's William P. Hobby Airport air terminal and turn it into the

1940 Air Terminal Museum. One of the architects working on the Society’s renovation

project was Howard Hill.

       Howard and I quickly sketched out a master plan for the Houston Executive

Airport—runway layout, main hangars, and location of the airport terminal building,

and although that particular master plan didn’t get anywhere, it did get things started.

Howard whipped out several dramatic architectural renderings of the terminal building

and hangars, inspiring images of steel and glass mostly, and I asked him to go ahead and

design the terminal building, large jet hangar, and arrival canopy—three structures that

seemed to sit side by side, that were in fact attached, and were conceived as a single,

gargantuan architectural superstructure.

       According to Howard, airport architecture had a distinctive building typology

with features that originated in the Golden Age of Aviation—the period between World

War I and World War II (1918-1939)—when aviation was booming and airport

architecture took on a look all its own—with sweeping terminals and curved walls and

vaulted roofs and angled control towers.

       Until the 1920s airport architecture was as dull as an old shoebox, utilitarian and

mind-numbingly functional. As for soaring, light-filled, and surprisingly welcoming

spaces, forget about it. Airport buildings were considered a drain on cash flow and thus

constructed as cheaply and efficiently as possible, using common materials and right

angles with little or no muscle put into the artfulness of the design.

       After the war all of that changed, in part, because of America’s new fascination

with flying. In the years after World War I, Americans had become enamored of flight,

of airplanes primarily, and to a lesser degree of airports.

       The aeronautics craze was fueled my many things: Patriotic war movies, a glut of

inexpensive military aircraft, military pilots with plenty of time on their hands, the

growth of air racing as a viable pastime, barnstorming, stunt piloting, and even flying

circuses boosted aviation in the public’s collective consciousness. Air shows blossomed

across the country and air races dazzled an eager public. The wonder of aviation was

everywhere. It didn’t hurt that wealthy businessmen were offering major-league prize

money for any pilot brave enough to fly across the Atlantic or around the world.

       In 1927 a twenty-five-year-old Charles Lindbergh flew his airplane, the “Spirit of

St. Louis,” in a solo non-stop flight from New York to Paris. Then in 1932, Amelia

Earhart became the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic. Three years later the

legendary and newly minted 14-berth sleeper aircraft, the Douglas DC-3, took its

maiden flight on Dec. 17, 1935, 32 years to the day after the Wright Brothers' historic

launchflight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Both passenger air traffic and general

aviation was on the rise and that meant a need for more airports big and small.

       In 1937 architects William Adams Delano and Chester Holmes Aldrich designed

the New York Municipal Airport (later renamed LaGuardia Field), which served both

land planes and seaplanes and included a marine air terminal with a dramatic curved

drum-like structure that resembled the Pantheon in Rome. In 1956, TWA airlines hired

unorthodox architect Eero Saarinen to design a new terminal. Saarinen suggested that

the entire building should say "flight” and crafted a new terminal that most admit

resembles a giant winged bird with its pinions wings spread in flight. Nicknamed by

some the “Grand Central of the Jjet Aage,” Saarinen’s ultramodern, wavelike structure

shaped the future of airport design.

       A history buff and architect, Howard was intuitively drawn to the airport

buildings of 1930s and 1940s. Mostly he was attracted by the role that curved surfaces

played in the design. The vast majority of small airport builders didn’t put a lot of money

into the design of the terminal building. Instead they made life easy on the airplanes by

creating smooth runways, simple traffic patterns, and ample hangar space. The actual

terminal structure was a sort of afterthought, often nothing more than a tin box or a

squat modular building hauled on site and bolted in place.

        I wanted to build something very different.

        The Problem of Front Doors

        Most buildings have a single entry, a location where you arrive, enter, and move

to your destination. The problem with our terminal building, as Howard pointed out,

was that we had two arrival points--, two front doors, if you will.

        The first entry faced the airport parking lot and entrance road where hurried jet

owners, pilots, and passengers rolled up to the building via automobile.

        The second entry faced the arrival canopy, runway, and airplane ramp where jet-

setting owners, pilots, and passengers buzzed in via airplane. Both arrival points were

equally important.

        In this regard, designing a 50-story office tower was an easier task. The majority

of office building users arrived via the front door into an oversized lobby in the center of

which stood a bank of impossible-to-miss elevators to carry people up and away to their

final destination. Given this unambiguous design set up, it was nearly impossible to get


        Not so with an airport.

        With every airport you have at least two arrival points, often more, with people

coming, people going, and gaggles of people waiting. The experience can be chaotic. To

avoid such chaos, Howard, in a stroke of genius, designed an internal corridor—a

quarter-moon-shaped “gallery” that connected one arrival point to the other. The gallery

was in fact a wide, curved corridor with shallow setbacks along one wall to house a series

of artworks. The curve itself created a dramatic, fluid space that connected the parking

lot to the arrival canopy in such a direct and graceful way that the experience was

intuitive—making it impossible to lose your way.

       For a patron who arrived by auto, parked, and entered the sliding door and took a

half-second to look around, the gentle sweep of the gallery was the only option. What

made moving forward and through a bowed hallway all the more entertaining was that

you couldn’t see around the corner, no peek of your final destination, and therefore each

step was a discovery of sorts. In some ways the pedestrian flow was aerodynamic,

beginning with the smooth curve of the gallery and transitioning to the contour of the

polished wood reception desk in the waiting area, one giant slow-moving right hand

turn, which led passengers directly out the doors to the arrival canopy and a waiting

aircraft, all in a single, predictable motion.

       The Wall of Glass

       Follow the gallery and you got a surprise. The corridor opened up to the

waiting/lounge area, a voluminous two-story space with a commanding concave wall of

glass and an impressive view of the airplane ramp and runway.

       In many ways this feature paid homage to airports of a bygone era, in which

airport-goers felt compelled to put their nose to the glass and see what they could see.

Air travelers of yesteryear wanted adventure and a part of that adventure was watching

the comings and goings of these radiant industrial objects known as airplanes, some

gliding in for a landing, others barreling down the runway ready to take flight, and still

others rolling slowly up to the debarkation door, engines rumbling, walls and floors

noticeably humming, and finally stopping all that mass, all that mass settling in place

for a split second before passengers clamored off the steel hulks as they might a space-

age theme ride at Disneyland.

       Twenty years ago, passengers longed to witness airplanes arriving and walls of

inch thick glass made that possible. Air travel was much more than the jolt of

acceleration at take off or the bump of landing. The excitement of air travel began the

moment you arrived at the airport. It included the bustle of baggage and the roar of gas

turbines and the thrill of witnessing with your own eyes the airport happenings in real

time. The architecture of early airports accommodated those all important details with

raised observation decks and oversized waiting rooms and big panes of clear glass

separating passenger from aircraft apron.

       Modern commercial airports, on the other hand, are internally focused, aiming

our attention not outdoors but inside, where we might spend money on designer coffees

and food and books and travel gadgetry of all sorts. Newer airports did away with much

of the glass and replaced it with solid and unimaginative walls plastered with advertising


       Again, I wanted something different. In this case, the exact opposite of a trend in

airport design that denied travelers the excitement of seeing through the terminal into

the outdoors. And one way to do that was by creating monumental spaces surrounded

by walls of glass.

       Designing for Pilots

       While the experience and flow of users within the building was our primary

concern, exactly how we divvyed up the functional spaces (administrative offices,

operations center, conference room, break room, storage, laundry, bathrooms, service

court, and pilot services) was another challenge.

       Most airport developers catered to the people who own the airplanes—business

leaders and CEOs and tycoons of all stripes. After all, these executives operated

multimillion- dollar aircraft, and with any luck flew in and out of the airport and spent

oodles on aviation fuel—the currency that kept airports afloat.

       It may sound counterintuitive, but I believed targeting airplane owners was the

wrong approach, or at least partly wrong.

       Our true audience—and the backbone of all corporate flying—was pilots.

       The reason I wanted to focus on pilots was simple: Given that most metropolitan

areas were serviced by more than one general aviation airport, the decision to fly into

Austin Executive Airport (over say Austin-Bergstrom International or Georgetown

Municipal Airport or San Marcos Municipal or Killeen-Fort Hood Regional or even San

Antonio International) was often left up to the pilot.

       And a pilot made that decision based on many factors, not the least of which were

airport features that mattered most to them—a pleasant or even stylish airport

atmosphere, a state-of-the-art pilot briefing room, a spacious pilot’s lounge, dedicated

and sound-proofed media rooms with cushy oversized leather chairs to kick back and

watch a movie, ultra -quiet sleeping rooms for an afternoon nap, and elegant high-end

locker rooms and bathrooms. Oh, and a spiffy snack bar.

       I wanted the airport to cater to pilots who flew in, unloaded executives and their

guests, and who then spent hours, sometimes entire days, in the pilot’s lounge killing

time until the executives finished their business, climbed aboard, and were piloted


        Take care of the pilots, I theorized, and the pilots would take care of the airport.

Thus early in the design, Howard and I agreed to ascribe a good portion of the square

footage of the building over to pilots.

        I also recognized that the airport would be used by some of the region’s most

influential business owners, who were routinely flying business prospects, clients,

customers, and partners throughout the nation. I wanted an airport that would awe

those travel companionscustomers. I wanted the forms and finishes to make debarking

passengers pause and take a look around, to stand and look up at the expansive volumes

and wonder, just for a moment, how or why this jewel of an airport came to be.

        Many executives and their guests would arrive via airplane, taxi to a stop

underneath the vast umbrella-like arrival canopy, walk a short thirty feet from the

airplane directly into the terminal waiting area, and march along the curved gallery to

the front of the building and on to the parking lot. Many passengers would be tired.

Others would be chatting into cell phones or texting or lost in thought about closing a

business deal, or distracted by a thousand other concerns, all of which had nothing to do

with the airport. In all cases, I wanted passengers and pilots alike to enter the terminal

and be inspired by the space. I wanted the anatomy of the structure to take their breath

away. I wanted passengers to stop whatever they were doing and look around, to

comment on the wall of glass, the high-ceilinged lighting, the art work and textured

craftsmanship that make up those spaces.

        Howard Hill’s design did just that.

        The downside to such a design, if downside there is there was a downside, was

that it took time. A design project initially intended to take five or six months took a year

and a half.

       Recall that Howard’s design was intended for Houston Executive Airport, yet by

the time we were ready to break ground, I’d begun work on Austin Executive Airport

and had I’d decided to hold off constructing the terminal building in Houston. In time, I

choose to transplant Howard’s terminal design from Houston to Austin. Why is a bit

harder to explain.? For now I can tell you that I believed the building could make a

bigger splash in Austin. The City of Austin was growing, it desperately needed another

general aviation airport, demand for hangar space was high, and the only nearby

airport, Austin-Bergstrom International, actively discouraged corporate aircraft by

overcharging for aviation fuel and other services. Whether all of those reasons led me in

the right direction, whether planting my multimillion homage-to-the-Golden-Days-of-

Aviation in Austin rather than over Houston, was a good idea, I have no idea. I do know

I wanted Austin Executive Airport to be a success, and showcasing Howard’s design in

the state’s capital was one way to ensure it happened.

       Start Over, Redesign, or Build It As -Is

       Howard and I had archived the project for about a year, and when it was time, I

hired a local Austin architect, Randy Fromberg, to update the drawings to meet the City

of Austin’s building standards.

       The first thing Randy did was take a look at costs. He estimated the building

would take around $3.5 million to build as is, without any alterations to Howard’s

design. At the same time, Randy felt we had several options.

       Option A: He could design something similar, though smaller, for considerably

less, maybe as much as $1.5 million less. If we started over, Randy would need three

months to draft a new design and prepare construction drawings, and more months to

send the drawings out to bid, all of which would soak up time, add to the cost of design,

but significantly lower the cost of construction. In the end, I’d end up with million and a

half dollar savings and a million and a half dollar smaller building.

       Option B: He could alter the design and construction drawings, possibly

minimize some of the curves, downgrade materials and finishes, and deliver the same

amount of space at a lower overall cost.

       Option C: We could more or less build it as is, which in the end is what we did.

       As Randy dug into the drawings, he and his team performed what he called

“value engineering,” which in shorthand meant delivering the same building at a lower

cost. He suggested several alternatives that saved money I ended up spending on

upgraded features elsewhere. For example, he proposed an alternate exterior composite

panel that made up the skin of the building and ultimately reduced the cost by around

$130,000. He specified a new paint finish on the arrival canopy—from a Kynar resin

finish to anodized aluminum—and shaved another $20,000. He substituted the

honeycomb aluminum interior wall panel—the most expensive material on the planet,

according to our contractor—for a wood panel and cut more expense. Randy was also

tasked with bringing the design up to code and that meant redesigning the lighting

systems to be more energy efficient—specifying different light fixtures, spacing, and

recalculating energy usage.

       The way we worked with Randy was somewhat unorthodox. Typically, the

architect acts as the official design team coordinator—gathering information from the

engineers, interior designers, and construction manager, and delivering that

information to the owner. On this project, however, Andy Perry coordinated the design

team. One of the things that kept the construction moving along, according to Randy,

was Andy’s decisiveness--, if not his forceful doggedness-- to complete tasks on time,

and his seeming inability to kowtow to excuses of any kind.

       At some point I brought in an experienced interior designer, Gail Lyons, who I

had known for many years, and Gail worked with Randy and Andy and our contractor to

select the finish materials, furnishings, and artwork.

       When it was all said and done, I wanted the airport to be something I was proud

of. And that kind of perfection could drive the design team batty. What made the

construction process more difficult, and in my opinion resulted in a better outcome, was

the number and frequency of changes. I didn’t look at the construction drawings as a set

of rules cast in stone. On the contrary, throughout the process, and with the advice of

experts like Gail, we made changes to the design (nearly all of them upgrades) to room

sizes and shapes, finish materials, and small details only the keenest observers would

ever notice.

       I recall at one point I spied a gap at the overhang of the arrival canopy and the

roof of the terminal building—a sort of horizontal sliver of light (say 6 inches high and

50 feet wide) and I was concerned that a glaring afternoon sun coming through the gap

might get in a pilot’s eyes and blind him for a moment, potentially causing a safety issue.

I spoke with Randy Fromberg and project architect Antonio Naylor about my concerns.

We squinted and glanced up at the sliver of light and wondered out loud exactly how

much sunlight could squeeze under the canopy. A little. A lot. My guess was, more than I


       Randy had an idea. He created a computer model (in effect a short video) of the

building showing the sun at different times of the year and how the arrival canopy

shaded the ramp as the sun crossed the sky. I watched the video a dozen times and what

I really wanted to know was whether or not a pilot driving a multimillion- dollar jet

could get even a snippet of sunlight in his eyes. The answer was no. Our half-million-

dollar arrival canopy did exactly the job it was design to.

       At the final tally, the new terminal cost the airport around $3.7 million to build,

the attached corporate jet hangar another $1.4 million, and the arrival canopy an

additional$541,000. All told, I spent roughly $5.6 million on three airport structures,

and in my opinion the outcome was worth every penny.

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