Air Freight News

Liberal Mid-America Airport on the way up

Feb 08, 2024

Kansas, the Sunflower State, is well known for being right-bang in the middle of mainland America. Thus the Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport is very aptly named indeed. Located two miles west of Liberal in Seward County, Kansas, the airport is known, amongst other things, for hosting the Mid-America Air Museum.

We recently spoke with Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport Manager Brian Fornwalt, and he told us all about his workweek, the many and varied workings of the 2,000-acre airport, with its annual budget of just under $300,000, and so much more.

The Liberal Mid-America Regional Airport is a full-service, general-aviation airport that serves a five-state region that consists of southwest Kansas, the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle area and southeast Colorado and northeast New Mexico as well.

Fornwalt maintains a busy schedule.

“I work five days a week,” he reveals, clarifying that it’s “usually five days a week, but sometimes it could mean coming in on the weekends also, depending on what happens. Usually, the hours are from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday, and then 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Fridays. I also get called out in the middle of the night sometimes, depending on what happens.”

He continues that as with most such regional airports, the facility began its life as a base for the United States Army Air Corps (the precursor of the modern U.S. Air Force) during World War II. From 1943 to ’45, Liberal Army Airfield, as it was then known, was the center of training for countless young pilots who learned to fly B-24 “Liberator” bombers, famed in all the theatres of World War II but especially renowned for their work in the Pacific against the Japanese Empire, due to their long-range capabilities.

Fornwalt adds that the airport features two concrete runways. The longer one is 7,105 in length and 100 feet in width, capable of serving such jumbo jets as a Boeing 737, and its shorter counterpart is 5,000 feet by 75 feet. Lyddon Aero is the airport’s FBO or fixed-base operator, and it also offers flying lessons.

“They do a great job for us,” says Fornwalt. “They stay competitive on their prices.”

The Kansas State University at Salina Aerospace and Technology Campus, some 250 miles away, also offers an aviation training program, as Fornwalt points out.

He continues that SkyWest Airlines, the largest regional airline in America, serves Liberal Mid-America Regional. It offers flights to Denver and Dodge City, Kansas. SkyWest is contracted by American, Delta, United and Alaska airlines.

Considering its size, the airport sees a lot of traffic, as Fornwalt points out. Last year, the airport saw some 42,000 aircraft operations.

“That’s an average of 117 a day,” he adds. “We stay pretty busy.”

Speaking of staying busy, the on-site Mid-America Air Museum is a popular tourist destination. It is the biggest aircraft museum in all of Kansas. It has on display more than 100 aircraft, both within the museum’s primary building and on the adjacent tarmac, a gift store and several displays of photographs and memorabilia that relate to the history of aviation in the Sunflower State.

The museum is situated within a hangar that once belonged to Beech Aircraft, where Beech produced Beech Musketeer, Beechcraft Baron and Beechcraft Duchess light airplanes. That was back in the 1960’s and ’70’s. It was thanks to donations by the late Col. Tom A. Thomas, Jr. that came from his own private collection that the museum got off the ground, so to speak. Thomas donated more than 50 different aircraft to the City of Liberal. This generous gift––in today’s dollars and when adjusted for inflation––works out to a whopping total of more than $3 million.

Today, the museum also features some 80,000 square feet of educational exhibits. The museum’s collection spans more than 90 years of aircraft design and development, and there’s something within its confines sure to interest all visitors.

Infrastructural improvements

Fornwalt says the airport saw an apron rehabilitation in the spring. This is the area of an airport wherein aircraft are parked, unloaded or loaded, refueled, boarded or maintained. The airport is home to some 44 based aircraft.

Right around the corner is a lighting project. This will entail having the main runway switched to LED (or light-emitting diode) lights.

“We’re going to get a vault building for our electrical components, like for the regulators and all that,” Fornwalt informs. “The new beacon will go to LED for the beacon parallel taxiway for our crosswind runway. We’re working on a terminal project with a new parking lot, so there’s three big ones coming up.”

That terminal project comes with a $20 million price tag. Ninety-percent of the funding will come from the Federal Aviation Administration. The local match is helping the FAA by picking up the remaining 10 percent. The project will mean a lot of new parking spaces, as the building is slated to go from 6,000 square feet to one more than triple the size: 19,000 square feet. Fornwalt says the new terminal is scheduled to open in 2025, with the new carpark to follow in ’26. Some reimbursements may be eventually involved as well, as he reveals.

He adds that the airport’s perimeter fence (the result of not quite $1.5 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2019), six miles around, does a fine job keeping out deer and other critters that could pose potential runway hazards. The fence features a buried skirt. It goes beneath the ground at an angle by about five feet, thus keeping out burrowing animals as well.

Such fences are very important to regional airports. Fornwalt recalls an occasion several years back when three coyotes ran across the runway before disappearing into the adjoining woods.

Breaking down the business stats, Fornwalt explicates that it works out to 94 percent general aviation, three percent airline service, three percent air taxi service and less than one percent military.

“We get a lot of touch-and-go military aircraft,” he says. “It has increased military-wise, due to the fact that we have an agreement with Vance Air Force Base (located in Enid, Okla.) for them to come and do touch-and-go’s up here with the PC-12’s.”

That would be the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12: a pressurized, single-engine, turbo-prop aircraft manufactured by Pilatus Aircraft for the past 32 years. The PC-12 is a lightish, general-purpose cargo aircraft.

As for the touch-and-go and maneuver, this is a very common practice for pilots learning to fly fixed-wing aircraft. It entails landing on a runway and taking off again without coming to a full stop. Pilots typically then circle the airport, and after this circuit, they land again, repeating the complete maneuver many times to reinforce the knowledge of a proper landing.

The importance of growth for the future

Fornwalt says growth is coming.

“We’re trying to grow,” he says. “We’d like to have more people flying in and out, and we’re trying to get more business out here at the airport, whether it be just regular business or aircraft business. It can even be like where they land and unload cargo. It doesn’t have to be an actual place where they build planes. It would be like a delivery for a UPS or FedEx, something like that. That’s what we’re wanting to go for: to attract more business to the airport.”

For a moment, Fornwalt looks into his metaphorical crystal ball to make a prognostication or two about the future. Five years hence, as he points out, the airport will then be in a much better position. The new terminal parking lot will be completed. Possibly another hub could be added. Fornwalt would like to see one to Houston and to increase the passenger load as well.

“I need to talk to SkyWest about that,” he adds, “and then adding more T-hangars and just increasing our general aviation also.”

Fornwalt extols SkyWest as amongst a host of good partners with whom the Liberal Mid-America Airport enjoys a good and positive relationship.

“We are working on keeping SkyWest here,” as he points out. “We’re trying to go out for a re-bid with the Department of Transportation to try to keep SkyWest here, because we really do like them, but we do have to go out for that rebid. We haven’t really heard of anybody else that wants to re-bid. We do have one other that wants to talk to us, but yes, we like SkyWest. They’ve done a lot of good for our community. Our numbers have really increased, so, we hope to keep them around.”

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