Stormy weather hits Vashon's quiet airport

Bob Therkelsen says squabbles at the airport are making him weary. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Bob Therkelsen says squabbles at the airport are making him weary.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

The Vashon Municipal Airport has a rural charm to it, with its grass runway and its rows of colorful, metal-sided hangars.

Though it carries the name “municipal,” there are no services at the small, tree-bounded strip off of Cove Road. The most it boasts are a couple of porta-potties, a telephone and a heli-pad for medical emergencies.

In fact, in the world of aviation, Vashon Municipal Airport is an anomaly: It’s the only public airport with a grass runway in the state, Federal Aviation Administration officials believe. “A nice, sleepy little place,” as Vashon pilot John de Groen put it.

Lately, though, the community of pilots that uses the airport has been riven by controversy and disagreement, and for the first time in years, two of the three commissioners who oversee the public facility face challengers in this fall’s election.

According to the challengers and their supporters, the current commission has acted covertly, securing a $3 million FAA grant and crafting a new lease for Vashon Air Service — the organization made up of the pilots who own hangars at the strip — with little public input and scant oversight.

The commissioners fire right back: Everything they’ve done has taken place in regularly held, open meetings — meetings, they note, that the critics rarely if ever attend. What’s really behind the upset, supporters of the current commission add, is the commissioners’ determination to enforce rules that have long governed public airports.

“For such a close little aviation community, there’s been a rift driven between the commission and Vashon Air Service,” contended Ron Mitchell, a contractor who’s challenging real estate agent Phil McClure for a seat on the three-member commission. “What’s occurred in the last couple of years is that the commission is pushing an agenda.”

“Yes, we do have an agenda,” responded commission chair Al Paxhia, who’s facing George Kirkish in the upcoming election. “The agenda is to make the airport safer and to obtain federal funds.”

The airport started out as a landing strip built shortly after World War II by Masa Mukai, the well-known Japanese-American strawberry grower who owned a family farm off of Cove Road. In the 1950s, the Legislature voted to make it a real airport, and Islanders agreed, passing a bond to purchase Mukai’s land from him. Thus was born King County Airport District No. 1 — the only airport district in the county.

A few years later, five pilots asked if they could form an association that would lease the airport at $1 a year, giving them a place to park their planes; in exchange, the association would operate and maintain the airport, pay for insurance and safety improvements and keep it open to the public. And thus was born Vashon Air Service, headed today by Bob Therkelsen, one of the five pilots who formed the association more than 40 years ago.

Today, the association is made up of 44 members, the majority of whom own hangars on sites they sublease from Vashon Air Service. And for the most part, the structure the state, county and Islanders established nearly a half-century ago — where commissioners oversee a public airport maintained and managed by an association of pilots — has worked well, pilots say.

Depending on whom you talk to, the trouble at Vashon Municipal Airport began about two years ago, when the commissioners discovered that the FAA considered the airport part of its national aviation infrastructure and expressed concern over safety issues at the small landing strip.

The state had given the airport a $10,000 grant several years ago to remove some tree and improve the runway. But when the FAA said the airport was part of its national infrastructure, the airport no longer qualified for state money to take on other work. At the same time, it didn’t meet FAA standards, Paxhia said.

“We were in a catch-22,” he said.

FAA officials began meeting with commissioners to discuss ways to improve the airport, conducting a study that was published two months ago and is now available at the Vashon Library. In the course of that study, FAA officials suggested some far-ranging changes, including moving the airport west of its current location, adding about 1,000 feet to its 1,900-foot runway and paving it, Paxhia said.

“We told them that was absolutely out of the question,” Paxhia recalled.

Ultimately, the FAA agreed to give the airport a $3 million, 20-year grant that was awarded earlier this year and that will enable the commission to undertake a number of smaller initiatives.

The money, for instance, which will be awarded at the rate of $150,000 a year, will cover the costs of identifying and topping trees that have made landing at the small strip difficult, burying power lines that pilots have to clear when they land or take-off and reworking the road system so that cars and planes don’t have a chance to collide. The grant will also pay for filling in a small ditch that runs the length of the runway, a ditch a plane or two has gone into over the years.

“We’re happy that the airport commission is taking the initiative to make he airport safer,” said Jeff Winter, a civil engineer with the FAA’s Seattle office who has worked with the airport commission.

Some say the safety improvements are badly needed.

“Ditches and airplanes don’t mix,” said de Groen, treasurer for Vashon Air Service.

Trees that mar the approach have proven particularly tricky in recent years, as they’ve gotten taller. “When I land there, my wing tips are 20 to 30 feet from those trees,” he added.

But some question the safety improvements, fearing that it will increase use at the small airport.

Laura Leonard, a pilot who lives on the northern edge of the runway and an active member of Vashon Air Service, recalled a time a friend was going to visit in his airplane but couldn’t land and was forced to turn around and return home.

“He wasn’t used to landing a short strip,” Leonard recalled, adding, “In my opinion, this airport is perfectly safe for people used to operating in a short strip.”

Perhaps more upsetting to some is the fact that the FAA grant triggered a change in the financial arrangement between the pilots association and the commission.

The federal grant requires a five percent match by the airport district — or about $7,500 a year — and will force the airport district to incur other costs; the FAA, for instance, is requiring the airport to move three hangars that are too close to the runway, but the federal agency will only cover the costs of demolishing the structures, not rebuilding them, Paxhia said.

As a result, the commissioners voted to increase the amount it charges Vashon Air Service — from $2,300 to $23,000 a year — to enable it to meet the new financial requirements; at the same time, they decided to end the requirement that the association pay for insurance or oversee safety improvements, since the FAA money would enable the commissioners to take that on. Vashon Air Service, in turn, raised its subleases for a hangar site from $80 a month to $100.

According to Therkelsen, president of Vashon Air Service, the pilots association agreed to the increased dues at its membership meeting in April 2008; two of the most outspoken critics, challengers Mitchell and Kirkish, were there, minutes from the meeting show.

But several members grew angry earlier this year when they found out that Therkelsen — without seeking a vote of the association’s members — signed a new lease with the commissioners committing the organization to pay $23,000 a year.

Therkelsen also drafted new subleases for all of the members which tie back to the new master lease, even though those individual subleases don’t expire until 2018. The new leases include rules that some members — like Laura Leonard — consider onerous, such as a requirement that hangars house planes, either completed or in construction. Leonard has sometimes kept a boat rather than a plane in her hangar.

Therkelsen, a soft-spoken man with an easy-going demeanor, said in hindsight he shouldn’t have signed the lease with the commission without a vote of the air service membership.

But he also said the new subleases, like the new master lease, are professionally and thoughtfully written, drafted with the help of a lawyer and premised on state laws that govern airports as well as the air service’s own bylaws. The outcry, he added, has been over the top.

“It would seem that some members are upset and creating an atmosphere of hysteria by spreading the word that the members will lose all their rights under the new lease; this is absolutely NOT true,” he wrote in an e-mail sent to Vashon Air Service members two months ago.

In April, after a particularly stormy membership meeting, the air service agreed to put together a committee of members to review the new subleases and propose changes. In the meantime, no members are required to sign them, Therkelsen said; instead, they can stick with their existing leases until they expire in eight years.

The controversy has weighed hard on Therkelsen, 77, a retired Boeing engineer.

“After 50 years of mothering this thing, … this is probably enough,” he said last week, sounding weary.

Some pilots, meanwhile, have taken aim at the three commissioners — particularly Paxhia and McClure, who are members of Vashon Air Service. The third commissioner, Liz Otis, does not rent a hangar site at the airport.

According to Mitchell and Kirkish, the commission crafted the new master lease without letting Vashon Air Service members or the public know about it and have made Therkelsen its puppet, using him to force the new subleases on the members.

“Bob’s trusting personality was misused and abused,” said Mitchell, who recently used the state public disclosure law to examine boxes of records compiled by the commission.

“He’s a big-hearted guy,” Mitchell added, referring to Therkelsen. “They threw him under the bus.”

The commission, Mitchell and Kirkish also contend, is trying to exert far more control than in the past. Recently, for instance, they wanted to take a look at everyone’s hangars to ensure planes were housed there — a tactic Kirkish referred to as “gestapo” like and a violation of his constitutional rights.

The commissioners, the only government that oversees the airport, were told by the county that it was up to them to issue building permits, and they recently red-tagged a hangar still in construction after the owner failed to prove it had been approved by a structural engineer, Kirkish noted.

“It’s like a dictatorship,” said Kirkish, who operates Vashon Island Air, the only commercial operation based at the airport.

The accusations frustrate Paxhia, a retired Boeing manager who has served on the commission 10 years.

“Nothing was done behind closed doors. Everything was done in commissioner meetings,” he said. “The problem is that in the last 10 years, George Kirkish has been to two meetings and Ron Mitchell has been to one. To say this was done surreptitiously behind their backs is just not true.”

The requirement that planes occupy hangars has long been a requirement and has grown more pressing in recent years, Paxhia added; about 30 pilots are on a waiting list for a hangar site.

Other issues have driven a wedge between Kirkish and the current commissioners, Therkelsen said. Kirkish, for instance, is required to prove that his business has insurance and that the airport is indemnified, should an accident occur — something Kirkish has refused to do, he said. Otis, the commissioner, acknowledged that the commission has not gotten proof from Kirkish; Kirkish said he’s not been asked for it.

Noting the extent of the tension between some of the pilots and the commission, Laura Leonard, the pilot who lives adjacent to the airport, said with a sigh, “We’ve become a bit like the fire department.”

But some say a bigger issue seems to underlie the controversy — and that is the nature of Vashon’s small airport and its accessibility to a wider community of pilots.

Leonard, for instance, says she’d like to see the airport operate more as a “flying club.”

“It’s not a useful airport; it’s a hobby thing,” she said.

Kirkish agreed. “I don’t think we need Boeing field over there,” he said.

But Paxhia said he feels that he and the other commissioners have an obligation to the public to make the airport safer and to take advantage of federal funds that can enable them to do so.

“In my mind, the airport could be a lot safer than what it is today,” Paxhia said. “As a commissioner, I feel I have a responsibility to take this federal money and make the airport safer. In good conscience, I don’t see how we can leave the airport alone. The wires, for instance, are dangerous. If someone hit them, it could be fatal.”

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