When the Goodyear Blimp circles the sky above Camping World stadium for special events, it flies back to its temporary home base at Orlando Executive Airport. There, it joins an eclectic line-up of charter planes, private jets, biplanes that carry advertising banners, and helicopters that transport law enforcement agents, news crews and medical rescue personnel.
Orlando’s first official airfield opened in 1928 on land that once held orange groves owned by local philanthropist Dr. Phillip Phillips. Today it’s a bustling hub for unusual aircraft and smaller planes that are more at home there than they would be at its larger sister facility to the south, Orlando International Airport.
An article in Aviation Pros magazine in May 2019 described the airport this way: “Orlando Executive is the preferred airport for many traveling to Orlando’s downtown businesses, sports, performing arts and entertainment venues, Winter Park, and the University of Central Florida and its research and business parks.”
In recent years, flights in and out of Orlando Executive have steadily increased to about 120,000 for 2019. That’s an average of 328 flights a day, and it’s a level of traffic the airport hasn’t seen since before the Great Recession in 2007-09. The airport acts as a “reliever” for Orlando International, recognized as one of the busiest in the nation with 50 million passengers in 2019.
“For us, this airport is extremely important for the operations of International because we try to move as much of the business aviation and general aviation traffic up to here as we can,” said Phil Brown, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, which oversees both city-owned airports. “This is our primary reliever for that, because it takes the same amount of effort for an air traffic controller to manage a small airplane as a large one.”
A Prime Spot
Located on 1,000 acres on the northern shore of Lake Underhill, adjacent to State Road 408, the airport is in a neighborhood known as the Milk District for its proximity to the historic TG Lee Dairy plant. It’s less than three miles from downtown Orlando.
“This is a prime spot for business aviation as well as general aviation,” Brown said. Corporate executives can fly in, hop into a rental car or a shuttle van, and easily get where they’re going, avoiding crowded roads like Interstate 4 and State Road 436. “For people trying to do business in Orlando, this is a hidden jewel.”
Orlando Executive is different from some other smaller airfields because its control tower is operated by the Federal Aviation Administration, just like the one at Orlando International, instead of a contractor. It also has a U.S. Customs and Border Protection office on-site to handle incoming international flights, which numbered close to 1,000 in 2019 and have been arriving from all over the world, including Latin America and Europe.
Orlando Executive generates an annual economic impact of about $191 million for the surrounding community, according to a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) report issued in April 2019. That includes almost $20.7 million spent by visitors who come in through the airport, which is responsible for about 1,576 jobs with an estimated total payroll of $62,280 a month.
The airport generates additional revenue by leasing some of its land along Colonial Drive east of Maguire Boulevard to retailers and other businesses. Longstanding shopping centers on the property include Colonial Promenade, which holds Sweet Tomatoes restaurant and an Orange County Public Library branch, and Colonial Landing, which houses Bed Bath & Beyond, JoAnn Fabrics and numerous other tenants. A Lucky’s Market and a Wawa convenience store are among the newest lessees.
“Commercial leases account for 60% to two-thirds of the total revenue,” Brown said. “That makes us distinctive because we don’t get any local tax dollars for our operations.”
Another revenue generator is the National Business Aviation Association, which has held its annual conference in Orlando every other year since 1996. For three days, manufacturers display more than 100 aircraft on the grounds at Orlando Executive, where they can be demonstrated and sold. The rest of the conference takes place at the Orange County Convention Center on International Drive. The show, which returns to Orlando in October 2020, generates as much as $50 million for Central Florida each time it’s in town, Brown said.
On some days during the year, neighbors might spot planes with wingspans of well over 80 feet, such as a Bombardier Global Express or a Gulfstream G-650. But most of the planes that fly in and out of Orlando Executive are smaller aircraft.
Technically, the airport’s 6,000-foot-long main runway is large enough for landing a Boeing 737, which can hold more than 200 passengers. It’s longer than the airstrip at Key West International, which measures just over 5,000 feet. However, the planes that fly in and out of Orlando Executive typically have 19 or fewer passengers, said Cyrus Callum, director of general aviation for GOAA.
There are two reasons for that, he said. One is because FAA rules require aircraft with more than 19 seats to schedule a flight attendant on board, which is an added expense that leads to higher passenger prices. The other is because of noise regulations. Orlando Executive and Orlando International share a noise abatement officer who monitors levels against FAA requirements and neighbors’ needs.
Houses in the neighborhoods surrounding Orlando Executive have been in place for decades, many of them built in the 1940s and earlier. Anytime the noise ramps up, Callum’s office receives phone calls and emails. In October and November 2019, a U.S. naval air squadron used Orlando Executive as its home base for a training program, with the powerful aircraft generating sounds that raised some local eyebrows and created a buzz on social media. Callum’s team assured people the activity was only temporary.
“When we have activities that are planned that we think will cause disruption to the neighboring community, we try to get information out and at least alert people that we might have noisy activities,” Callum said. “The feedback we got from the community was that this was exciting activity to see these trainers out.”
At age 92 this year, Orlando Executive Airport shows no sign of slowing down. On a sunny afternoon, neighbors can clock arrivals in the sky about every 2 minutes. There’s talk of possible future upgrades to the FAA tower, and the main runway sports a high-tech instrument landing system on each end that helps planes land even in fog or thunderstorms.
Two companies known as fixed-base operators have renovated and expanded existing buildings at the site, with the promise of more work to come.
One is Sheltair, which opened a four-story terminal at Orlando Executive in mid-2019. The company offers VIP services and amenities that include new hangars, a new executive terminal, ground support and concierge services, car rentals, complimentary aircraft cleaning, catering, complimentary refreshments, executive conference rooms, and a pilot lounge.
Sheltair is looking for a partner to open a rooftop restaurant and bar that would offer views of the runway and the Orlando skyline. It would fill a void left when the popular 94th Aero Squadron World War I-themed restaurant on the airport property revamped into a World War II theme and then folded in the early 2000s.
The other fixed-base operator is Atlantic Aviation, which acquired the operation from Showalter Flying Service in 2015. Atlantic offers hangar space, a pilot’s lounge, a conference room, car rentals, limo service, courtesy cars for pilots, showers and other amenities. Its blue-and-white one-story building features a landscape mural on the side with half of a three-dimensional biplane flying out of the wall.
The historic Showalter operation had been instrumental in building the airport to what it is today. Founded in 1945 by brothers Howard and Sandy Showalter and their partner Ford “Buck” Rogers, the company capitalized on a post-World War II interest in flight training. Over 64 years, the company morphed and grew, choosing to make Orlando Executive its home base and helping transform the city-run facility into a general aviation hub.
The airport also serves as a base for Johnsonville, the maker of brats and sausages, which stores aircraft there. CNL Bank has a variety of corporate aircraft there so it can quickly reach customers worldwide. A flight training company is based at Sheltair.
“We’re constantly getting requests from companies that are interested in basing their operations here, mainly because of our proximity to downtown,” Callum said. “We are in the center of Central Florida, and the center of Florida. That is a big asset for us.”
Running an operation like Orlando Executive Airport is more challenging today than it was in years past, when the lead position was held by a city engineer whose main job was to maintain runways and facilities rather than handle compliance issues and profit-and-loss statements.
The role now requires more stringent credentials, said Phil Brown, who is CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority (GOAA), which oversees both Orlando Executive and the Orlando International Airport. Brown is accredited by the American Association of Airport Executives. In fact, his tutor was Cyrus Callum, director of general aviation for GOAA, who is not only accredited himself but also teaches accreditation classes and works as an adjunct college professor.
“Not only do I have the opportunity and fortune to help my peers, but I’ve been able to educate the next generation of future aviation leaders and hopefully open their eyes to a career in airport management,” Callum said. “As the industry gets busier, and with a pilot shortage on the horizon, it’s important to try to keep that pipeline going with a strong succession plan for the future.”
Brown and Callum joke that their jobs are perfect for people with short attention spans. Callum grew up in Denver, where he dreamed of being an airline pilot and started flight training well before graduating from high school. Today his office window looks out over the runway at Orlando Executive Airport, and he’s glad his original career aspirations didn’t pan out: “I think I would get bored being a pilot.”
Brown wanted to be a cowboy when he was a kid, but there weren’t too many openings for that career in Northern Virginia. After he finished graduate school at the University of Tennessee, he worked for Orange County government and became executive director of Orlando International. He left there to work for 14 years in investment banking, where he handled transactions for numerous airports. He returned to Orlando and eventually was named chief executive of GOAA in 2010.
“That was fortunate for me,” Brown said. “I’m not a pilot, but I became very familiar with the economics through having worked with airports in the finance area. That was important to me because you’re making strategic decisions. Running an airport requires you to have a long-term plan because of the assets.”
Today the job suits him perfectly. He was named the Florida Department of Transportation Aviation Professional of the Year for 2019.
“Every day is different,” Brown said. “What I do today I will not do tomorrow. That can be good sometimes and challenging other times.”
Lawmakers have introduced legislation in the U.S. House, the Promoting Service in Transportation Act (H.R. 5118), that would authorize the U.S. Department of Transportation to develop a $30 million media campaign to promote job opportunities and foster diversity in the transportation workforce.
In response, Selena Shilad, executive director of the Alliance for Aviation Across America, released this statement in
“Our country is facing a critical shortage of aviation professionals, with an estimated need of over 131,000 commercial pilots, 60,000 business aviation pilots, and 21,000 civil helicopter pilots in the coming years. For this reason, it is incredibly important that we foster enthusiasm in flying and ensure that the many talented, skilled workers across our country are aware of the vast opportunities that exist within the aviation industry. We applaud the introduction of this legislation, which will help to address these challenges and increase awareness of career opportunities in the transportation sector, including aviation pilots, safety inspectors and technicians, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, truck drivers, engineers, transit workers, railroad workers, and other transportation professionals.”
As featured in the January 2020 edition.