Columbus Municipal Airport has earned statewide bragging rights.

Airport director Brian Payne announced Tuesday morning that the airport has reached new heights — for yet another reason. It has been selected as Airport of the Year, a competition open to all public-use airports across the state, by the Aviation Association of Indiana.

Payne said 2016 marked the third year in a row the airport had self-nominated for the award, which rates airports on categories such as economic development, aviation education, aesthetics and environmental improvements.

Payne, who has served at two airports that previously won the award — in Michigan City in 2007 and again in French Lick four years later — credited the ongoing local educational outreach efforts and his staff with making the Columbus airport successful.

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“Of course, we’ve always thought that we’re the best,” Payne said. “It’s a first-rate airport.”

Payne said among the criteria he believes put the Columbus airport at the top in the state involved an educational component through its Education Pathways Initiative. That effort, he said, allows individuals starting in prekindergarten up to the college level to learn about aviation. The effort was started by the airport’s administrative staff nearly a year ago.

Payne, who became airport director in September 2012, said having the airport recognized as the top facility in the state was a goal to showcase the Columbus community.

Airport staff work every day to find ways to make the airport better, he said.

An award and a donation

The state award comes with a plaque, road signs and a $1,000 grant to be allocated to a charity of the airport’s choice.

Airport officials decided to donate the money to Aviation Nation, a local after-school program that allows area high school students to learn how to build an airplane. More than $31,000 has been raised toward the effort to establish the program with a goal of $80,000, Payne said.

The airport, which earns its revenue through renting farmland, fuel sales and land-owned leases at the Columbus AirPark, has also played an important role in economic development efforts in the area. Payne said as a whole, the airport has a $650 million economic impact each year on the Columbus community.

More than 65 businesses make their home in the Columbus AirPark, the acreage which surrounds the airport on the city’s northside. The AirPark is also the home of the Columbus Learning Center, where students attend IUPUC, Ivy Tech Community College Columbus, Harrison College, Trine University and Purdue Polytechnic Institute.

Steven Coffman, Ivy Tech Community College School of Technology regional dean, said the airport has been instrumental in leading to the college’s plans to offer technical certificates in aviation management aviation flight, which are awaiting approval from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

Without the airport’s cooperation, Ivy Tech could not offer its students a chance to learn about aviation, Coffman said.

‘A dream come true’

Joe Cunningham, Cunningham Pattern and Engineering chief executive officer, served with the airport board when the airport was established in the early 1970s.

At that time, the airport consisted of an airfield with two runways and a handful of wooden buildings that needed to be torn down, Cunningham said. “It was in pretty bad shape,” he said.

Since then, through multiple upgrades over the years, progress has been made, he said, leading to the statewide award.

“It’s a dream come true for the city,” Cunningham said of the award. “No city can grow without a good airport.”

More than two dozen people attended a celebration for the award Tuesday afternoon at the airport terminal, including Columbus resident John Kussman, who has been a pilot for 26 years.

He said he is proud of the airport and the services it provides.

“I think the airport has been tremendous,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that take pride in what the airport represents.”

Rodney Harmon, who works as a docent at the Atterbury-Bakalar Air Museum, also said he believes the recognition from the award will benefit the city. “It’ll definitely draw more attention,” he said.

Dick Gaynor, president of the Columbus Board of Aviation Commissioners, said the airport will attempt to leverage this award to further statewide recognition in the future. “This type of recognition could lead to more aircraft being here,” Gaynor said.

That is something Payne also hopes will happen at the airport, which is now the fourth busiest in the state behind Indianapolis, Lafayette and Terre Haute.

Next in improvements

The airport completed an $800,000 renovation of its terminal building in 2015 and plans to construct six units of hangars next year as the next improvement.

Payne said there is now a waiting list for hangar space, something he said is a good thing.

Cummins has an airport hangar of its own on-site, while many others are privately owned.

“There’s airports around us that have hangars open … and it shows that this airport is doing something right,” Payne said.

Other Columbus airport assets, such as a self-fueling station, allow pilots to fly in, get fuel and fly out as-needed. That has been a benefit to the airport since it was installed two years ago, Payne said.

As of September, the airport has sold 20 percent more fuel year-to-date than it did all of last year, he added.

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop had a compliment for Payne and the airport staff at the city’s board of works meeting Tuesday morning.

The airport is a great facility by itself, but the award speaks to the fact that it is well-run, the mayor said. “And we appreciate that as well,” he said.

Payne sees many good things for the airport as it heads toward the future.

“I see so much potential of this airport, and I think we’ve only scratched the surface,” Payne said. “Columbus should be proud of what we have as an airport.”

Highlights for award nomination

Airport education: In its nomination, the airport cited its Educational Pathways Initiative which began in December 2015. The program allows students from prekindergarten to college to learn about aviation. The airport has teamed up with Ivy Tech Community College Columbus to create the Student Program for Aviation Resources and Knowledge (SPARK) coloring book showcasing different aviation jobs.

Environmental improvements: The airport has invested in environmental-friendly lighting systems for its tarmac, parking lot, exterior terminal and hangar lighting upgrades.

Aesthetics: Twenty airfield signs were replaced in 2015, allowing pilots to maneuver around runways and taxiways with fewer difficulties. In addition, officials completed an $800,000 renovation of its terminal building last year.

Economic development: There are more than 65 businesses located in the Columbus AirPark. The airport also completed a multi-million dollar student housing complex, The Annex, which allows students attending any of the five institutions at the Columbus Learning Center and AirPark to live “on campus.” It is also open to interns working for local companies.

Before it was Columbus Municipal Airport

June, 1942: U.S. Corps of Engineers Office in Louisville, Kentucky, surveys the property as a site for an Army Air Base.

August, 1942: Construction on the Army Air Base begins.

February, 1943: Atterbury Air Force Base, originally known as Atterbury Air Field, opens and troops arrive.

September, 1943: Part of a medium bombardment group with B-26 planes arrives

January 1944: More of the medium bombardment group arrives. In addition to serving as a training base for medium bombers and for gliders in its early years, it was also used as a landing field for hospital planes bringing soldier patients to Wakeman Hospital Center at the Army’s Camp Atterbury.

1946 to 1949: With the end of World War II, Atterbury Air Base was deactivated. For three years, from 1946 until 1949, the base was closed. But following the establishment of the Air Force as a separate branch of the service in 1948, the 2466th Air Force Reserve Combat Training Center of Stout Field, Indianapolis, was given the task of re-opening the installation.

June, 1949: Base rehab is completed and the Indianapolis unit moves in along with the 81st Troop Carrier Squadron from Evansville. The first of the Air Force Reserve Wings, the 434th Troop Carrier Wing, begins training.

November, 1954: The base was renamed Bakalar Air Force Base in a formal dedication ceremony in honor of First Lieutenant John Edmond Bakalar. A native of Hammond, Indiana, Lt. Bakalar was killed in action September 1st, 1944, over France.

April, 1969: During the Vietnam War, the 930th Tactical Airlift Group, 434th Tactical Airlift Wing, was called to active duty and re-designated as the 71st Special Operations Squadron. They were released in April 1969 and returned to Bakalar AFB.

December, 1971: The airport and its surrounding land were declared surplus and turned over to the city on Dec. 3, 1971, when the U.S. Air Force officially deactivated Bakalar Air Force Base.