Aviation pioneer Wilbur Wright once said that “to fly as fast as thought, to anywhere that is, you must begin by knowing that you have already arrived.” After a long stretch of turbulence, the Eastport Municipal Airport seems to have found its bearings behind an ambitious new airport manager with lofty plans.
“Everyone’s saying, ‘oh, you’re really growing the airport,’ ” said Peter Lehmann, the new airport manager. “I haven’t grown anything. The only thing I did was pull the slack out of what existed when I got here and put it in motion. But it was already ready to go.”
On a sunny morning in early January, Lehmann sat at his makeshift desk inside the renovated cabin that serves as the airport terminal, poring over fuel receipts with his trusty 13-year-old pup Savanna at his side.
It’s a typical scene at this sleepy airport owned by the city of Eastport. Situated on 256 acres at the farthest eastern tip of the United States, the humble 1940’s-era airport, originally a Navy air strip, now boasts a $5.8 million, resurfaced 4,000-foot runway that stretches across the western edge of Moose Island in Cobscook Bay.
Until recently, a lack of local government support and funding kept the airport from expanding its services.
While it’s capable of serving regional airlines, flights have been limited to private planes.
Lehmann is working with volunteers and the city’s airport advisory committee to change that.
They have a plan well underway to improve the airport and expand services.
Their ultimate goal is to bring in commercial air passenger service, which would make it easier for people to visit Eastport, and for people in the region to get where they need to go.
Although the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) security requirements needed to allow bigger passenger airlines would be logistically and cost prohibitive for Eastport, the airport could attract a regional passenger service, according to Lehmann and Billy Boone, the city council president and airport liaison.
There are even talks to link Portland to Eastport with a regional carrier.
“We can handle really large aircraft because of this runway, it’s brand new, essentially,” Lehmann said. “So to me, the airport is well below its potential.”
A vital lifeline in an isolated place
For some in the area, the airport is already a vital lifeline.
Bernadette Eyerman, an 11-year-old diagnosed with a brain tumor last August, needs ongoing, specialized treatment at the Boston Children’s Hospital, a six-hour trip by car. But thanks to the proximity of the airport and the not-for-profit PALS volunteer pilot service, Bernadette is picked up at the Eastport airport and flown directly to Boston.
Her mother, Gabriela Montoya-Eyerman, said the airport has been a true lifeline for her daughter, who is too disabled to travel by car, even for the 2 ½-hour trip to Bangor for a commercial flight.
“Having the airport is really amazing because Washington County is so isolated,” Montoya-Eyerman said. “There are only 32,000 people in the county but we need to have medical care, too.”
Until their daughter needed transportation for medical care, Montoya-Eyerman and her husband, Jesse Eyerman, didn’t know the airport existed, even though they live less than 30 minutes away.
Boone said many Eastport residents don’t realize the valuable asset they have.
He said some are even rankled that the city subsidizes the airport. The 2023 airport budget was $37,665, not including the $20,000 part-time, airport manager salary, which is covered with left-over federal COVID pandemic relief funds.
Previous councilors have been reluctant to support the airport, even when the money was “free,” said Steve Trieber, the former airport manager. In 2019, councilors initially voted down a “no-match” $5.8 million federal grant to resurface the runway. The council finally accepted the award after a public outcry.
“So many people from the community turned out for that second vote that the council would have been mauled if even one of those councilors had not accepted,” Trieber said. “You get a few people on the council (opposed) and that’s all it takes.”
But the makeup of the council and city leadership has changed, and Jeanne Peacock, a council member, said the majority now support the airport. She pointed to the decision to hire Lehmann and pay him a salary, the first time the position has been funded.
Although optimistic and encouraged by the growth of the city and the airport, Boone said rough skies remain.
“A lot of taxpayers just don’t see the value of the airport. They’re very adamant about telling me, do not fund it,” Boone said. “But with a few more of those PALS stories, I think the value of having a city-owned airport will really hit home.”
Since news got around about the Bernadette Eyerman story, at least six people have contacted PALS and are being transported for medical care, according to the girl’s mother.
Plans to link with regional carriers underway
Lehmann and Boone are convinced Eastport’s airport can offer even more.
A plan two years ago to link regional service from Cape Air with a partner airport in Bar Harbor unraveled due to conflicting federal grant award restrictions. Cape Air does not fly into Portland but a similar airline, Southern Air, does. Eastport officials say conversations with the airline are underway and they will again seek federal funding to back the service.
They say the plan is slowly falling into place.
According to a December 2022 advisory committee report to the city council, Southern Air has expressed “keen interest in entering the Maine market and the Portland to Eastport route is very attractive (to them).”
The report adds that Portland airport officials are “all in” on the plan to link Southern Air service between Eastport and Portland.
Lehmann and Boone acknowledge getting passenger service in Eastport is likely several years away, but say there is plenty that can be done to ramp up the airport.
Lehmann puts in far more than the 15 hours per week outlined in his contract, working to attract new private and commercial traffic. His goal is to make the airport fully self-supporting.
As the first step, beginning in March, Lehmann will register the Eastport Municipal Airport as an officially designated, “attended” airport with the FAA. That means Eastport’s attended hours will be posted on sites such as AirNav.com, letting pilots know when personnel will be on site.
Although officially attended hours will be limited to half-days for now, Lehmann said predictability will make Eastport a more desirable stop for pilots who are diverted or need to refuel.
Last year, the airport’s recently upgraded fuel farm brought in $72,775 in sales, up from $47,336 the previous year. More pilots landing also means a higher number of recorded operations, which determines some of the airport’s federal funding.
A “pilot-friendly” plan
Once the designation is official, Lehmann thinks pilot visits and fuel sales will substantially increase.
He said another incentive would be providing a courtesy car for pilots to use for grabbing a bite to eat in town during layovers, or perhaps to even stay overnight — good business for the airport and the city.
“When I fly, if I get diverted, I don’t even consider airports that are unattended because what happens if I blow a tire on a landing or if I’m just tired?” Lehmann said. “I want someone there to throw me a set of (car) keys. It’s kind of a warm and fuzzy thing.”
A few postings in the comment section of the AirNav website provides evidence that extra touches count.
“It is worth the trip to visit the Most Eastern City in the USA. Not only for the interesting town, but the friendly folks at the airport. Steve, also a pilot, not only takes care of you and goes out of his way to help; he also makes sure everything is up and running. The airport has just received a lot of improvements, new surface on the runway and new airport beacon, among other things. You won’t be disappointed,” posted pilot Stephen Bobko-Hillenaar.
To put his pilot-friendly plan into action, Lehmann tapped into the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) federal surplus program.
Last week he drove to Florida to pick up a 2018 Chevy Impala from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that, if approved by the city council, will become an airport courtesy car for pilots. He also recently traveled to Connecticut to scoop up a one-ton dump truck outfitted with a plow, and drove to Michigan to haul back a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife trailer that serves as his private office alongside the “terminal.” All of the equipment was free.
But Lehmann said he’s aiming higher than merely scoring deals on government surplus and ramping up fuel sales. While continuing to pursue passenger service, he’s also working to attract even more private pilots and other air business.
The airport is in the running for a grant to build an FAA-compliant terminal that would better serve private pilots and meet Americans with Disability Act requirements, another necessary step toward making passenger service a reality.
State and federal funds are also in the offing to build a new apron and a separate taxiway parallel to the runway. Lehmann said that will make takeoffs and landings safer and more efficient.
He said the taxiway also would be another enticement to bring in cargo air services, such as Wiggins Airways, another potential revenue source. Wiggins contracts with FedEx and UPS, and has operations throughout the Northeast. Lehmann said Eastport is one of the few places in Maine that Wiggins isn’t serving.
The ambitious plans will fit into the FAA revised Master Plan for Eastport’s airport. According to Lehmann, the plan could funnel millions of dollars to the city for airport improvements and expansion.
Lehmann said although much remains to be done and there are seldom funding guarantees, things are definitely looking up.
“I’ve been called obnoxiously optimistic,” Lehmann said. “But that’s okay. It’s a slipper I feel I should wear to the ball.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Peter Lehmann’s name.