One tough act

Florida volunteer works to protect Vero Beach airport

February 17, 2011

Vero Beach

Don’t show up at a Vero Beach, Fla. Airport Commission meeting unprepared if you plan to take on Barbara Drndak.

Whatever the issue, she will have done her homework.

That’s a reason why Drndak is in her second year chairing the commission, which advises the Vero Beach City Council on airport management policies, and she has been a commission member for 15 years. Serving as a commissioner is a volunteer’s post, but there’s nothing light-duty about the assignment.

“If I bother to do this, I want to have an active role,” Drndak said in an interview with AOPA. “I want to make it mean something. Why would the city council bother to have an advisory group if they don’t advise?”

It’s also the kind of challenge you take on if you have aviation in your blood.

When Drndak, a Michigan native, talks about her life around aviation, she taps memories of childhood and helping her dad, a 9,500-hour pilot, wash and wax his airplanes, and being rewarded with an airplane ride for her help with the maintenance chore. Family trips in a series of Cessna and Piper twins took them along the rim of the Grand Canyon, and north to Alaska, or south, down the Caribbean chain all the way to Venezuela. The family had three ways to travel: “IFR, VFR and c-a-r.”

When Drndak’s father, who ran an aviation parts overhaul company, spent time working under the cowling, Barbara was there, learning. Later, Drndak herself would run an aviation business—her company was one of only three that could manufacture fuel-control parts which were sold to overhaul stations. When she sold the business in 2000, “there were not too many women manufacturers in the aircraft industry.”

Membership in that elite group wasn’t great for party conversation. There was one exception—the man who would become her husband. He had worked for Grumman Aerospace, and was now out on his own as a solar energy entrepreneur.

“He was one of the few people who could talk to me about aircraft parts,” she quipped.

Drndak’s brother is a pilot. In 1976, Drndak herself soloed (at six hours!) a Piper PA-28 at Oakland County International Airport in Pontiac, Mich.

The Michigan State geography major, who was a competitive skier and gymnastics teacher, may have been slightly ahead of her time. The anti-discrimination provisions of the 1972 Title IX legislation came just after her college days. And when she was a student, “Nobody ever said, ‘You’re good at spatial relations. I think engineering would be good for you.’”

She credits her mother’s encouragement and example with helping her find herself despite the hindrances of that less-than-supportive era. Her mother went to college when fewer than three percent of women did. “She was told she could be a nurse, or a teacher, or a buyer for a store,” Drndak said.

On March 5, 2010, Drndak was nominated to chair the Vero Beach Airport Commission by outgoing Chairman Peter Coxhead, who stated in the meeting record that Drndak “has been a great member of the Commission for many years and brings talent, expertise, understanding, and compassion to every challenge. She is well known, liked, and respected in our community and has been around airports and airplanes all her life.”

Approval was unanimous.

Vero Beach

The airport commission meets as needed to advise the city government on issues including managing leases on 1,700 acres of airport property, obstruction-clearance programs, helping educate new city council members on the airport’s place in municipal government and finance, and holding informational sessions so residents can air their concerns.

It’s not always easy to explain to the public why certain issues are under local jurisdiction, and others—such as aircraft emissions—are subject to federal regulation.

It’s challenging to explain why the airport’s enterprise fund can’t be tapped to patch holes in other public budgets. Drndak tries to be patient—but if you persist with an indefensible position, she may propose this solution: “Show me the law.”

Recently, a law of nature put the airport to the test. About 60 gopher tortoises, an animal listed in Florida as a threatened species, took up residence around (and under) a runway. They had to be moved to another area according to “official means.” She hopes they won’t be competing for runway time again soon.

Drndak has serious respect for Vero Beach’s history. She hopes to pay tribute to it through a funded plan to establish touch-screen computers displaying historical photographs in an area of the renovated airport terminal. Think of names like Eastern Airlines; Piper Aircraft, headquartered in Vero Beach; and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who for decades came to Vero Beach for spring training at a stadium called Dodgertown before relocating off-season operations to Arizona. FlightSafety Academy’s 15-building campus is a major airport presence. And in January 2010 the airport newsletter, the Vero Beach Flyer , reported the FAA’s selection of Vero Beach as a test site for a next-generation precision approach path indicator (PAPI) using light-emitting diode technology.

The airport has social amenities. Mingle in a Business after Hours event, or stroll in a garden and park area to watch the flying. Savor a restaurant meal while taking in a panoramic view of the airport. Features like that help an airport “engage the community,” Drndak said.

Was the commissioner’s post more than she bargained for?

“I have been in Vero Beach for 20 years, and I love my community. I feel that if I can be of service to the community, that is important to me,” Drndak said.

Vero Beach

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.