Bay City has high-flying vision for the future of the James Clements Airport

At 15 years old, Doug Dodge rode his bike to the James Clements Municipal Airport and begged the manager, Al Hoffman, to throw him out of an airplane so he could skydive.

“And he took a look at me and says, ‘Wouldn’t you rather learn to fly?’ and I said ‘Yeah, but I can’t afford it.’ And he says, ‘You looking for a job?’ And I said ‘Yes!’ and that was the end of that. I started working and learning to fly.”

This year, Dodge wraps up a 32-year career as the airport manager and turns the keys over to Jeff Koons. Koons takes over at a time when the city is investing in upgrades to the Class B General Aviation Airport located on M-13. The airport’s main hangar was built in 1928, but the site was used as an airfield as long ago as 1905. Click here to learn more about the history of the airport.

The James Clements Airport was built on the site of a long-time airfield.Over the years, the airport has played a significant role in local and national history. For Dodge, though, the airport represents personal history.

“I just kind of grew up in love with airplanes,” Dodge says. “The only toys I wanted were airplanes.”

He learned to fly before he could drive. In 1974, Dodge started flying in airshows all over the United States and Canada.

Henry Dora was the first pilot to fly solo from the airport on Aug. 25, 1912.Through the airshows, he’s met famous aviators including Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay B-29 that dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima at the end of World War II; Chuck Yeager who’s Bell X-1 rocket powered plane Glorious Glennis broke the sound barrier in 1947; and Charles McGee, one of the all African-American Tuskegee Airmen pilots from World War II whose red markings gave them the nickname “Red Tails.” He’s also met the highly decorated Jimmy Doolittle, most famous for the Doolittle raid over Japan in 1942.

“And I got to fly with a lot of my heroes and stuff like that,” Dodge says. “I’m very fortunate for meeting so many of them.” For more on Dodge and his airshow performances, click here.

A plaque explains the history of the airport and Administration Building. A hangar and the administration building were dedicated in 1930.Dodge also operates Acro Specialties, his own business at the airport.

“For sidelining airshows, I prototype and build experimental airplane parts,” Dodge says. “Doing what I do, I’ve avoided becoming an aircraft mechanic. I’ve always been more of the experimenter type and specialized in the high-performance aerobatic airplanes primarily. You don’t have to be a mechanic to do that stuff.”

Now retired, Dodge is assisting incoming manager Koons as he learns his new role.

Like Dodge, Koons has always had a fascination with aircraft and flying. Between 1995 and 1999, Koons served in the U.S. Navy. He originally hoped to get in as an aircraft mechanic, but changed course and instead attended U.S. Navy Corpsmen School in Fresno, Calif. to obtain his Airframe and Powerplant Inspection Authorization from the Federal Aviation Authority.

The land was used as an airfield for about 15 years before the airport was built. Koons is also a student pilot and is currently taking lessons at the airport to obtain his pilot’s license. 

New to Bay City, Koons said he has lived all over the country. Now, he continues the tradition of airport managers living on the second floor of the Airport Administration Building. The airport is a 24/7 operation with one employee, so living on-site is necessary.

 “We like the area,” he says. “Everybody’s always talking about the food. So we are anxious to try and get to try a few places lately now that stuff’s starting to open back up. And so far they’ve been right.”

Jeff Koons, the new administrator at the municipal airport, takes over at a time when the city is investing in upgrades.Koons and his family are in the perfect location to sample everything Bay City offers.

“It’s a highway into the city,” Dodge says. “We have people who fly in to do business in the city quite often. There’s nothing in Bay City that’s not more than 15 minutes away.”

Bay City Manager Dana Muscott is optimistic that Koons and the airport are poised to improve the regional economy.

The Bay City Chamber of Commerce decided the community needed an airport in 1926. The first hangar was dedicated in 1930.“I have always looked at James Clements Airport as an economic tool for our city,” Muscott says.

The economic impact of the airport is felt throughout the state, according to a 2018 Michigan Department of Transportation  (MDOT) Office of Aeronautics study. The study estimates the airport’s economic impact at $8 million locally and $10 million statewide. Each visitor to the airport spends on average of $248 in the area. The money goes for everything from food to manufacturing.  About 20,000 people visit the airport each year.

Water landings are frequent at the riverfront airport.The impact could grow as the city invests in improvements to the heating and cooling systems as well as the roof and lighting at the Administration Building. The city also spent $568,000 to make improvements at the airport. The improvements will extend the life of the runway by 10 to 15 years, says Tim Botzau, who heads up the city’s parks department.

“I have always thought if we could expand our runways we could attract larger company jets, bringing business to our city and surrounding area,” Muscott says. “We have seen an increase in interest to have more private hangers for pilots.”

MDOT estimates the airport’s economic impact at $8 million locally and $10 million statwide.Muscott adds that the city plans on making the airport into more of a destination to spur day trips into Bay City for people to enjoy the waterfront, grab a bite to eat, or visit friends and family. “We have an outstanding appointed board that has a vision to push us to that next level and support Jeff with his vision,” Muscott adds.

Scott Holman — president, owner, and partner of Bay Cast Technologies in Bay City — is the chairmen of the James Clements Advisory Committee. Holman has been a pilot since 2014 and leases a hangar at the airport.

About 20,000 people visit the airport each year, spending an average of $248 each in the region.“I got involved out of necessity,” Holman says, discussing the airport prior to its updates. Holman says he got involved after traveling all over the country and visiting other airports. While the Clements Airport is one of the most gorgeous he’s visited, he thought it needed improvements. Holman approached Muscott about his concerns.

“She was very interested in turning that airport around, and because of the changes in our community, just as a way of getting folks into the community and enjoying our restaurants and hotels and some of the activities we’re trying to promote,” Holman says.

Holman sees Bay City transitioning from a manufacturing community to more of a tourist destination.

 “People come to go antiquing and stay for the weekend events, and the water, and the tourism activities that we have here,” Holman says. He added that pilots like to fly into towns and stay overnight to enjoy a few meals and see the sights. “The airport has to be set up to be very receptive to these folks that are flying in so that it attracts them.”

The Advisory Committee plans to travel to 25 different airports around the country to perform surveys and fact-finding missions to see what is being done right and wrong. Holman hopes to use this information to have a comparative analysis to present to the city for James Clements Airport.

Bay City recently invested in improvements to the runway as well as the Administration Building.“There’s things that are popular right now,” Holman says. “Believe it or not, you can camp at any airport as long as it’s not specifically prohibited.”

Holman hopes to set up a campsite by the sea plane base on the Saginaw River. He’s also thought about turning the third floor of the Administration Building into an AirBNB.

Other than Koons, there are no other staff at the 260-acre airport. The City’s Park Division helps with grounds maintenance, but much falls on Koons. “During the summer, 90% of my time is spent mowing the grass,” Koons says. In the winter, snow removal is his job. Throughout the year, keeping the lights functional is one of his focuses.

Jeff says he has had a lifelong fascination with aviation.While managing the airport, Koons keeps busy by working two other jobs simultaneously. Working remotely as manager for operations for Constant Aviation, Koons is responsible for the multiple techs on duty anywhere from Dallas, California, to Seattle working with business jet aviation.

Koons also owns and operates Southern Sierra Aviation, which focuses on repairing and rebuilding small aircraft in a hangar at the airport. At the time of the interview, Koons was working on a Cessna 182.

Koons hopes the resurfacing of runways and taxiways will aid in bringing in more business. He envisions attractions like barbecues, fly-in breakfasts, and food truck events at the airport. Koons is also surveying pilots about what they would like to have available while visiting the Administration Building.

Koons already has also installed high speed fiber-optic internet to the building for pilots. He also serves Black Rifle Coffee, a veteran owned company that supports veterans, law enforcement, and first responders, at the airport. He hopes to expand the food available on-site.

Holman is pleased with Koon’s work at the airport.

“If you go to the airport right now — you fly in any time of the day ­– you’ll get a radio call from our new airport manager, ‘Hey how are you doing? Do you need anything?’” Holman says.

“It’s not completely unique, but it’s rare. He will go meet them in person there by the gas pumps, and he puts a very good face for the City of Bay City at our airport. It’s also not common to have the manager living at the airport, that’s kind of an old-school set up.”

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