Awakening an airport: Matt Metcalfe

October 11, 2012

If you happen to drop in at the Guntersville, Ala., Municipal Airport and run into the airport manager, give him a thumbs-up for the way the place has come to life over the past three years.

Then congratulate airport manager and student pilot Matt Metcalfe on winning the Jeppesen Flight Training Scholarship, which he was to accept during AOPA Aviation Summit in Palm Springs, Calif. The AOPA Flight Training Scholarship program awards $5,000 to a student pilot pursuing an FAA sport, recreational, or private pilot certificate. Scholarship recipients were chosen on merit, ability to set goals, and a demonstrated commitment to flight training.

The program, launched in 2011 as part of AOPA’s Flight Training Student Retention Initiative, also is helping some worthy ambassadors for general aviation step onto the scene.

Metcalfe got his first airplane ride at age 7 from his uncle, who piloted a Piper single, and points with pride to several generations of family ties to the Guntersville area, and to aviation.

A father of three children who works on his pilot certificate while also going to school to become an airframe and powerplant mechanic, he returned to the Guntersville area from Florida in 2009, taking over as airport manager after selling the airport advisory board on his energy and passion for aviation.

That was just what the doctor ordered for Guntersville, which had languished.

“It’s been uphill battle to reawaken this airport, but it’s been worth every minute of it,” he said in an interview.

How do you restore an airport that has gone through a difficult phase?

Painstakingly—and by hand.

From restoring runway lights and repainting pavement markings to installing a new fuel tank making the place more user friendly for seaplanes on adjacent Lake Guntersville, there’s an endless list of chores for Metcalfe and airport supporters to accomplish.

A growing corps of student pilots has been drawn back to the field, with some donated instructional time from CFI Tom Taylor—he’s Metcalfe’s instructor and father-in-law—adding incentive.

As if that weren’t enough to perk up a dormant aerodrome, Metcalfe talks enthusiastically about plans now in the works to create a living aviation history museum on the field, with antique and classic aircraft from a private collection on display as an inspiration to tomorrow’s aviators. He envisions a time when the youngsters can put in some time working on and around the Stearmans, Waco, Travel Air, and other aircraft, and have their volunteer time applied toward flying lessons.

If that’s the future for Guntersville, let there be no doubt that this is already becoming a fun place.

Check out the photos of the lovely old Howards that dropped by recently en route to Greenville, S.C. You will find the pictures on the airport’s Facebook page.

If you were in the area one day in early October, you could have had a chance to enjoy the annual Guntersville Seaplane Splash-in on the long body of water that nearly surrounds the airport.

Somehow Metcalfe finds time to devote to his own flight training (although one major and costly distraction has been repairing damage to his home from a devastating April 2011 tornado). He recently crossed the 30-hour mark in flight time, following a plan that has him taking the knowledge test later in October, with a target date of mid-November for a flight test.

Recently he was both reflecting on and relishing a learning experience accomplished solo during a practice session aloft.

On prior flights, he explained, the feel of flight control effectiveness decaying as an aircraft decelerated had been an uncomfortable sensation for him—a problem making it difficult for Metcalfe to make good landings. Acting on his instructor’s advice, he took his Cessna 152 trainer up for an extended session of slow flight, during which he explored the aircraft’s responses, but without the pressure of having to land.

The session bore immediate fruit.

“My nerves stopped shaking,” he said. At the conclusion of the flight, “I made one of the sweetest landings I’ve ever made.”

If that sounds like a student pilot with focus and drive, Metcalfe makes it clear that his priorities also include getting others flying, and getting the word out that there’s an airport in northern Alabama that has the welcome mat out.

“Our airport is finally turning into a fun place to be again,” he said.

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.