By EARL WATT
• Leader & Times
Those in Liberal are no stranger to the Kansas Department of Transportation, having maintained a constant lobbying effort to pursue four-lane upgrades along US Hwy. 54. But few may realize KDOT also has an aviation division, and that the industry has about a $21 billion impact in Kansas.
Kansas Aviation Director Merrill Eisenhower Atwater has a rich heritage in aviation as well as transportation as a whole. His great grandfather, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, developed the modern transportation system that is still used today, and that vision of moving people and products has helped enhance the quality of life throughout the nation, and Kansas has benefitted as well. The Kansas Aviation Division has the responsibility of maintaining and enhancing those services.
“Kansas has a rich history in aviation,” Atwater said. “We have six people on staff, people that deal with federal grants, state grants. We are in charge of 137 airports in the state of Kansas. We not only help them through the federal and local process, but also with anything from air space to striping on the runway, I know it sounds ridiculous, but that really is a thing.
“We also have Kansas Airport Improvement Program where we give out $5 million a year in grants to airports just like this. This year, we gave out 30 grants at just over $4 million. We have some putback for emergencies.”
Those grants help keep the infrastructure in Kansas a national leader, according to Atwater.
Almost every county in Kansas has an airport, and Atwater’s department works with all of them including the new issues of drones. A program that deals specifically with the new aircraft has been developed to address the challenges.
The biggest challenge is enhancing the massive aviation industry in Kansas and the impact it has on the state.
“Some people hear $21 billion and say, ‘How can that be right?’” Atwater said. “Take a step back and think about what Kansas actually does. Kansas has more general aviation per capita than any other state in the nation, and 73 percent of all general aviation aircraft is built in Kansas. The 787 and the 737 are both built in Kansas, parts of them. There are just under 100,000 aviation manufacturing jobs in Kansas. The average pay is $80,000. Oh, and then there are the airports. My family is from Abilene where there is one employee at the airport, and the airport brings in $2.4 million for a 6,000 person town. So you can imagine what it brings in for the City of Liberal. You have commercial aviation here, traffic control systems, all that stuff going on top of general aviation.”
‘This is a great museum’
As Atwater walked through the Mid-America Air Museum, he took particular note of the B-25 known at the “Iron Laden Maiden.” The plane is the same as those used in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Atwater noted that those planes were also built in Kansas.
“The B-25, old military bases, and in Kansas there are a ton of them — this one, Great Bend, Gardner, the old ammunition plant, and the (B-25) was built in Fairfax, Kansas just across form Kansas City Missouri,” Atwater said. “This plane was one of the first to be launched off an aircraft carrier, along with another plane over there, the Corsair. It was not made in Kansas but happens to be my favorite plane ever made.”
Atwater noted the wide variety of aircraft at the museum, and the rarity of the collection.
“This is the interesting thing,” he said. “You have a Starship to a Cub, that is amazing. The Starship was one of the most radically advanced aircraft ever made, and the Cub is one of the most simple. It’s a great museum.”
FAA grant assurances
Atwater also has a role in working with the FAA and local airports, and Liberal’s recent controversy with the sale of land with monies that were supposed to be transferred to the Airport Land Use Fund but were instead used to finance new softball fields has fallen onto the state’s radar as well.
“You have grant assurances at any airport,” Atwater said. “Any time you have a situation like this in Liberal, and I am familiar with it, grant assurances have to be paid back. The FAA in this situation is not only willing to work with the local airport, they are working through the process to make sure there is no issue.”
Atwater said the value of a land sale varies widely, but whatever the land sells for, that is the market value that is supposed to be transferred.
“You have to have fair, reasonable compensation, whatever the market sells for,” he said. “If you sell it for $1, that’s fine, but if you sell it for $2, it’s the $2. Sometimes it doesn’t sell for very much, sometimes it’s a lot. The FAA is working directly with the local airport to make sure those grant assurances are in place and continue to be in place, and we are here to assist in any way we can. (FAA Airports Division Manager) Jim Johnson is wonderful to work with. I know them. I was on the phone with them (April 7) talking to them about this issue. I said, ‘Let’s work together.’”
The Great Grandson of the transportation president — Eisenhower
Growing up with ties to the presidency, Atwater didn’t fully appreciate what that meant until he was older, and the more he learned about his presidential lineage, the more he appreciated it.
“After he left the presidency, Ike took the title of general back,” Atwater said of his great-grandfather. “Not many people know that. For me, you don’t know what you don’t know. For a long time I didn’t understand what it meant. When I was growing up, we went to all these neat things, and my mom said ‘You better behave.’ Then I started to understand it. It’s neat because you get to meet a lot of people that lived back then, they tell you stories, and you have an automatic bond. He is one of the greatest presidents in history considering the fact of what he accomplished, transportation for example. He developed the highway system, NASA, the FAA. He is the grandfather of the modern transportation system, the way we do everything, from driving to airspace to people going into space — all of that.”
Eisenhower’s highway system transformed the nation by developing interstate highways, greatly cutting down the time it took to cross the country, and KDOT continues to serve that legacy today.
“One of main focuses at KDOT, and it is humbling to be there doing that, is they are asked to keep you safe at 75 miles per hour, going down the highway system, and anticipating what that means,” Atwater said. “When you go back, in 1919 when Ike did his first continental convoy from California to DC, the average speed was 4 miles per hour. It took 62 days to get across the country. Now we have one of the most complex systems we take for granted every day.”
Atwater’s Top 5
As the state’s Aviation Director, Atwater’s enthusiasm for flight is obvious, not only from the economic side but from the historic perspective as well.
“I’ve been on the job for a little more than a year, and the manufacturing and what is happening at Spirit Aerospace will blow your mind,” he said. “If you look at the entire state, we have some of the best museums. This museum is different than the combat museum in Topeka, This has a full B25. That is a a unique thing that is crazy cool. That is one of the planes that won the war, and then you see a Corsair, one of the coolest planes ever made. If you ask me what are the top five in Kansas, our manufacturing, Liberal’s museum is up there, Topeka’s combat air museum, the Cosmosphere, and the runway in Salina, it is 12,000 feet. All of those play a role and keeps aviation alive.”