Airports: Magic in the air

MAYFIELD TWP. – Every day there’s a little bit of magic in the air over Lapeer County as small planes are piloted in and out of Dupont-Lapeer Airport in Mayfield Township. The airport is home to a thriving community of actual and aspiring pilots, airplanes, helicopters, aviation lore and history. It plays host to visitors from all corners.

The story of wings in Lapeer County dates back almost 70 years.

As early as 1928, a committee was formed to explore the “matter of obtaining an airport for Lapeer,” according to an early newspaper item. It was not until World War II, however, that an airport came to be in Lapeer.

Harold Upper and Frank Williamson launched the 240-acre airport in the early 1940s with two planes, a Piper coupe and a Taylorcraft. Seven temporary hangars were made available, with permanent concrete ones scheduled to be built when materials became available.

Former airport owner and manager Kent Dupont says the airport was launched with the idea of fostering civil pilot training, helping people to get involved to serve in the war effort.

By 1944, The County Press was able to proclaim “Lapeer’s Airport is Thriving.” With gas rationing no longer a problem, county residents were getting excited about learning to fly. The flight school had 50 students taking lessons, with 15 airplanes on the field, and more on order.

In those early days, an air show drew crowds estimated at 5,000-10,000 people. The program included stunt-flying and parachute jumps. It also included the resident instructor’s first accident in 24 years of flying.

“[The pilot] was stunting in a Steerman, doing snap rolls at an altitude of 150 feet over the east-west runway. On the second roll, the plane stalled, crashed into a Fairchild plane parked in front of the hangar, and then cartwheeled into a BT-13,” the newspaper report said. Despite all the damages, no one was seriously injured. An hour later, the pilot flew again.

The airport did not continue to grow in the following decade. It was not very active at the time it was purchased in April 1956 by George B. Dupont.

“My dad had a love of flying,” says Kent Dupont. Dupont’s acquisition of the property led to its dual function as a manufacturing site and a private airport. Indeed, early photographs of what we now know as a much-expanded Kamax facility reveal a single, small manufacturing building with hangars and a small tower at one end. The word “LAPEER” was emblazoned across the roof for any pilot to see.

Kent Dupont came to manage the business. “I was sent up by my dad to run the manufacturing and got roped into the flying business,” Dupont laughs. “It became my first love.”

Under Dupont’s ownership, the airport flourished with flight instruction, repair work, and sales. The north-south runway was finally paved in the mid ’60s, and more hangars were built. The fixed base operations (FBO) building was built in the 70s.

The airport came into Mayfield Township’s ownership in 1996, at the same time Dupont sold the manufacturing operation to Kamax. Dupont facilitated the airport sale by donating Mayfield’s 5 percent of the purchase price of $2.2 million. A full 90 percent of the funding came from federal grant money, and another 5 percent from the state. The township oversees the airport through an appointed board.

Although the airport is owned by the township, it is managed and operated by Lapeer Aviation Inc., whose owners are Greg Johns and Ray Larner. Johns has worked at the airport since the ’80s, during the Dupont days. Johns is a licensed mechanic, often found out in the maintenance hangar surrounded by airplanes. Two other mechanics and an avionics technician also provide skilled services.

Larner has served as airport manager since May 2008, when he bought out previous Lapeer Aviation principal, Dave Hingst. Larner started the flight school, Lapeer Pilot Center, in 2007. There are currently three instructors on staff. Larner also has recently launched a charter business for local sightseeing and business trips.

“I saw an opportunity to do something I loved, and I jumped on it,” says Larner. Larner has more than 20 years in the Air Force and National Guard. He retired from the Air National Guard in 1997 as a C130 flight engineer.

The airport is entirely self-sustaining, with income to the township coming from hangar rentals. No local tax dollars are used to support the airport. In fact, Larner is proud to mention that the airport actually brings much more income into the community through employment, business and personal flights into the area, and fuel sales. Larner points out that all the people that come here to visit or to learn to fly are spending money at local establishments.

“I’m proud of this airport and I want it to show,” says Larner. “It’s my community. It’s my friends. It’s my hometown.” In that spirit, airport management has been working hard on grounds maintenance. The terminal area has seen some remodeling as well. Another advance at the airport has been the addition of a card reader for fuel, allowing 24-hour fuel sales.

Once the sale of a small strip of property to Kamax is complete, the airport will seek to complete its Airport Layout Plan, necessary for implementing improvements. Then, the airport can look at an RNAV/GPS approach for the airport – keeping pace with technology.

Another item on the wish list is automated weather reporting, so that pilots can have field conditions reported to them in-flight.

A dozen years or more down the road, the airport might see the east-west runway lengthened and paved, along with additional hangars providing more support for corporate business jet traffic.

“I see Lapeer growing,” says Larner optimistically. “There will be a need for the airport to grow.”

The airport community is keenly aware of its role in the Lapeer area. Many charitable activities take place there throughout the year, including Dreams and Wings each fall for special needs children.

During Lapeer Days, EAA Chapter 1303 hosts its annual fly-in and pancake breakfast. Funds raised help to send kids to Oshkosh, Wisc., for a week of learning about all-things-aviation. The public is invited to enjoy breakfast in the hangar while watching all the air traffic up close and personal. “It’s just fun to see all the different airplanes and the people,” says Johns.

By Nancy Angellotti, Contributing Writer for The County Press
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