After years of evangelizing general aviation in person, in print, and online, Florida blogger Jamie Beckett became a public servant so that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
Beckett ran for city commissioner in Winter Haven in 2009. He handily won the Seat 4 position, beating out an incumbent city mayor with 62 percent of the vote. Holding flight instructor, airframe and powerplant, and ATP certificates, Beckett said he got into politics—setting aside a gig as a columnist for a local newspaper—after years of watching the city mismanage Winter Haven’s Gilbert Airport. The final straw: “They invested an enormous amount of money building a new FBO building,” he says. “They didn’t know why they were doing it.” The city was convinced that the $12 million building would attract fuel sales and jet traffic, but they constructed it on the north side of the airport, which had never been developed. All other airport buildings—homes, hangars, and fuel farm—were built on the south side. A fuel truck now has to be driven across an active runway whenever an aircraft needs fuel. The city plans to develop the north side of the airport, but “they never communicated that message to anyone,” Beckett says. “They looked like they spent $12 million to build a building in the middle of nowhere.”
Beckett wrote a column in the newspaper decrying the fact that the project was built without input from the airport community. That prompted two friends to ask him if he would consider running for office. “I didn’t do it as a kneejerk reaction,” he says. “To do it well you have to be fairly outspoken. You make it into the press and your family gets some of the backlash, good or bad.”
When he decided to run, Beckett assembled the aviation community he intended to represent. “I rented the coffee shop [at the airport] and told them I can’t do this by myself.” He urged the pilots to get involved—to call friends and neighbors, contribute to the campaign, and “go vote for real.” The message—“This isn’t me, this is us, and I need your participation”—came through loud and clear.
Beckett works 35 hours a week as a city commissioner—a part-time position. “You have a limited amount of time to make an impact,” he says.
Since becoming a commissioner, Beckett is gratified to see some positive changes affecting the airport. A new city manager has come on board, and, “The staff who had no interest in the airport before is very engaged,” Beckett says.
"If you can bring in 100 jobs, it's 100 jobs—doesn't matter if it's Wal-Mart or Beechcraft."
Previously, the city administration tended to view its four airports—Bartow Municipal, Lakeland Linder Regional, Lake Wales Municipal, and Winter Haven—in the same light. Beckett says he’s worked to educate them that “just because they [all] have ‘airport’ in their name doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. It’s more like a baseball stadium, and you have to market it and recognize its strengths and weaknesses.” The city now knows how to evaluate business proposals that are appropriate for each airport. As a result, he says, Winter Haven is on ICON Aircraft’s list of possible manufacturing locations to build its amphibious light sport aircraft.
“I’m proud of how this staff has seen the light and realizes economic development is economic development,” he says. “If you can bring in 100 jobs, it’s 100 jobs—doesn’t matter if it’s Wal-Mart or Beechcraft.”
In addition to his work as a city commissioner, Beckett develops training curricula for Gleim, writes for General Aviation News and other aviation publications (including Flight Training magazine), and is a prolific and passionate aviation blogger. (He also has written a nonaviation novel, Burritos and Gasoline.) His latest venture, Flightmonkeys.com, developed in partnership with Jim Orfield, gives him yet another online soapbox. But there are plans to add an educational component aimed at young aviation enthusiasts—“the kid who mows your lawn who is interested in aviation,” Beckett says.
Not surprisingly, Beckett is particularly enthusiastic about drawing more young people into aviation, which he calls “the best antidrug program on the planet.”
“It’s a great way to teach responsibility and the importance of decision making,” he says; GA in particular “gives kids a reason to understand algebra.”
Converting the general public into aviation enthusiasts—simply bringing them into the world of aviation—is key to growing the pilot population. “We can show them aviation can be a part of their life, and you don’t need $50,000 to walk in the door,” Beckett says.
Email the author at [email protected]. Photography by Chris Rose.
Like Beckett, you can make a difference in the life of your airport. Start small or aim big—but do something.
Write letters to the editor. "People who make policy read the newspaper. People who vote and fund campaigns read the newspaper."
Attend public meetings. "You don't have to speak. If public meetings are [usually] poorly attended…it gets their attention if 20 people show up. It really does matter. Politicians think in terms of votes. If they see that there's a population out there…and that some of this population are businesspeople, employers, people who have an investment in the community—they start to perk up and take notice of that."
Speak up at public meetings.
Run for office or join a volunteer board, such as an airport advisory committee or code enforcement board. "It matters. You start making connections with people who make decisions. It's not an instantaneous result, but it's a process where you will eventually gain more and more sway."
Whatever you choose to do, Beckett cautions you to "know what you're talking about. Always be aware of your material. Know the difference between fact and opinion. You can do a lot of harm to your argument if you express an opinion as if it's fact." When using facts, make sure they're accurate, he adds: "Nothing deflates your case faster in the public forum than being demonstrably wrong in your facts."
Also, keep your focus on the big picture. "When I argue for the airport, and I do it pretty passionately, I never talk about my best interest because that's not a part of this discussion. If I talk about myself I've completely wiped out my argument," Beckett says.
AOPA's Airport Support Network is another avenue through which you can make a difference. The group of more than 2,000 volunteers serves as AOPA's eyes and ears on the front lines, watching out for developments that can have an impact on their airports. AOPA's goal is to have a volunteer at every public-use airport in the nation. To learn more or to nominate yourself, see the website.