In January I had the distinct honor of interviewing Mr. Christopher Willenborg for High Density Style. I met Chris in 2010 while he was the State Aeronautics Director for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT). What Chris has accomplished for the aviation industry made him the first person I wanted to interview for High Density Style.
- Favorite $100 hamburger location: Block Island
- If you could have just one aircraft, what would you choose?: Gulfstream Jet
- Favorite aviation quote: “A mile of road only takes you a mile, but a mile of runway takes you anywhere.”
- Chris’s recommended aviation resources: AAAE periodicals, NBAA e-briefs, AOPA e-briefs, NASAO Briefs, and Aviation International News
It all started…
When Christopher Willenborg was in the third grade he went on a class trip to New York’s JFK airport. He and his classmates saw the supersonic Concorde take off and had lunch in a hangar on a United Airlines aircraft. At that point he was interested in aviation and when he graduated from high school, Chris headed south to Embry Riddle Aeronautics University (ERAU) in Daytona. During his sophomore year he joined the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) student chapter. With the chapter he first visited Orlando International Airport getting to experience behind the scenes and airport operations. “It was like a little city,” he recalls. That was a defining moment for Chris, and he made the decision to focus on airport management.
Chris graduated ERAU in 1992, while the U.S. was still in a recession with high unemployment. Fresh with a ERAU Aviation Business Administration degree, he took a part-time assistant airport manager job at Montauk Airport on the eastern tip of Long Island and a full-time job at a golf course pro-shop. We shared a laugh as he told me, “So I was making $13 an hour at the pro-shop and $7 an hour in my airport management field of study.”
One of his first experiences as assistant was being told by the Montauk airport manager that if there was an accident on the airfield, “Do not call 911 first; call me first.” Chris recalls thinking, Here I am with a college degree in aviation management that includes emergency management training, you’d think I could be trusted to do the right thing and call 911 first. Fortunately, he inquired and learned the reason for the airport manager’s odd request was that during an incident several years prior, the volunteer firefighters were a bit overzealous and unnecessarily drove down the runway, putting ruts in the pavement, and through a fence.
Ironically, in his first couple days, Chris had an aircraft land and the nose gear collapsed, swerving the aircraft off the runway into the adjacent grass. He went out, assessed the scene, and determined everyone was OK. He recognized 911 wasn’t necessary, so he called the airport manager “first.” The manager’s response was not what he expected. A bit upset, he replied, “You caught me in my skivvies, and now I have to get dressed and come in!”
Massachusetts Internship at Fitchburg & Orange Airports
Chris stayed at Montauk, a privately owned, seasonal airport, until it closed for the winter. At the time, his girlfriend was from Fitchburg, MA. She was a private pilot who had trained at the local airport and knew the airport manager. With her connections, Chris applied for the Massachusetts Airport Manager Association’s (affectionately known by its acronym, MAMA) internship program, and was selected. He worked both at Fitchburg and Orange Airports. However, it was an unpaid program, so Chris stayed at his girlfriend’s mother’s house. Despite his lack of income, he managed to make a good impression, because several years later she became his mother-in-law and has remained so ever since.
Chris spent the next three months fueling planes and learning how to clear snow on the runways and taxiways. He remembers the old snow plow truck they gave him with brakes that “didn’t work too well,” so he learned to slow down by dropping the plow and taking a bigger cut in the snow.
Six months after getting his degree and cutting his teeth at Montauk, Orange, and Fitchburg airports, Chris was hired by Morristown Municipal Airport in New Jersey as an entry level Operations Coordinator. He stayed at Morristown for a little over seven years where he worked his way up from Operations Coordinator to Ops Coordinator II. He then got bumped up to become the Airport Improvement Plan (AIP) program grants administration coordinator. Next Chris was promoted to Maintenance Manager where he says he gained a great understanding of how to keep an airfield safe from a maintenance perspective. The last position he held at Morristown was as the Airport Operations Manager, overseeing the operations department to include airfield self-inspection, emergency response, and the fuel farm which was owned and operated by the airport.
Westfield Barnes Airport Manager
At this point it was 1999, and a very busy year. His relationship with his girlfriend became an engagement, and they both decided to try and move closer to her family back in Massachusetts. Chris applied for a position at Westfield Barnes Municipal Airport, married and went on his honeymoon. The honeymoon nearly cost him the job. Back in 1999, cell phones weren’t as prevalent and while celebrating his nuptials the City of Westfield called and left two voicemails for him to come in for an interview. The 2nd message said that it was their last call. Upon returning from his honeymoon and hearing the messages, Chris scrambled. He negotiated more time off from his work at Morristown in order to go to the interview, and fortunately, Chris’s charm prevailed. He spent the next nine and half years running the airport. After being hired, Chris remembers the Chairman of the Airport Commission Stan Derezinski telling him the airport is “a diamond in the rough and we need you to polish it.”
And polish it he did. His experience at Morristown paid off. At Westfield Barnes, Chris had a staff of six, and in his words, “a great airport commission, support from the mayor, and city council.” His first goal was to improve the infrastructure at the airport so he took the airport through an airport master planning process and ultimately was able to replace the 1939 terminal building (an experience Chris took with him later in his career).
The airport is a certificated Class IV part 139 airport allowing it to receive commercially operated air charters. It was (and still is) a joint use facility in which Chris worked with the Air and Army National Guard on a daily basis. Chris said that one of his strongest memories was right after 9/11 when the 104th A-10 fighter wing was deployed that winter. Being the airfield snow boss, Chris observed approximately 13 C-17s and several additional airlift aircraft come in and all the fighters departing. It was a difficult, emotional time observing the military families at the airport during the deployment. “It was very, very, moving, and hard. It made me appreciative of our soldiers putting their lives on the line for our freedoms.”
Conversely, one of his best memories was when the fighter wing returned and 18 A-10s (“warthogs”) did a flyover of the airfield. “Seeing all the families back with so much joy this time and having the opportunity to just say thank you to the soldiers was an incredibly great experience.”
In addition to thanking our soldiers and their families, Chris found a way to thank MAMA for his internship experience, by being its president for three years. He served while trying to reach his goal of making the airport self-sustaining. When Chris came on board, the airport was running about a $120,000 annual deficit with the City. The year Chris left, it was down to $20,000, and the next year the airport broke even.
State Aeronautics Director
After working nine and half years at Westfield, the Massachusetts (state) Aeronautics Commission Director position came open and Chris was hired. Two months later, he thought he may have made the biggest mistake of his career. Governor Deval Patrick and the state legislature decided on transportation reform and dissolved the 70 year old commission, while creating one MA DOT with four operating divisions, Highway, Aeronautics, Rail & Transit, and RMV. The board that had just hired him was gone. He wasn’t sure if the state was going to keep him under this new structure, but fortunately, the state wisely did.
Chris said he quickly learned that under this new structure, educating senior MA DOT leaders, including the Secretary of Transportation, about the important role of aviation in the Commonwealth was critical to their success.
“I had to be able to tell the story in a certain way.”
Here is how he he did it. He recognized the statewide airport system plan hadn’t been revised since 1989. “A lot had changed in aviation in the last 20 years.”
First he and his team completed a comprehensive inventory based study that was a snapshot of the state wide system of airports. Second they studied how they could enhance and improve it. Third they created a matrix and performance measures that could be tracked. One of the big takeaways from this study was that the Commonwealth had about a $22 million gap in funding to keep the system moving forward, even with existing federal, state, and local funding channels.
Chris knew he had to close that gap. To gain support, he commissioned a statewide airport economic impact study which showed the hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of economic impact created by MA airports. The study paid off. When Chris testified (“told the story”) before the state legislature, he was able to clearly define the gap and the benefits for the state to further invest. The legislature agreed and gave Chris the additional money which allowed him to further leverage more Federal and local funds.
They used the funds to be more proactive by investing in statewide preventative maintenance programs. Specifically, statewide crack sealing projects and pavement improvements that extended useful life. They also did a statewide airport markings program. By bidding statewide crack seal and marking programs, they were able to leverage economies of scale and get more competitive bids for the projects. He also started a project to replace older terminal buildings. At the time of this article, Beverly, Fitchburg, and Mansfield airports new terminal buildings were under construction.
Chris also realized under the new MA DOT structure, he now had access to the other divisions. He asked the Highway Department to make new, uniform, airport road signs and place them on multiple roads leading to all 39 airports. A subtle, yet incredibly effective improvement with added marketing value.
Not only was Chris getting things done for the state of Massachusetts, in 2014 he was also the president of National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO). Chris proudly explains that Massachusetts was one of the first 16 charter member states to NASAO, established in 1931. Here is a link to NASAO with Chris and the current FAA Administrator Michael Huerta in 2015, signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the FAA and NASAO on runway safety.
“One of the great things about airport management and even being a State Aeronautics Director is that every day is different… I loved coming to work; I knew every day was going to be a little bit different.” While there were challenges and frustrations, overall, working with airport managers, various legislative leaders, and the FAA, he and his team were fortunate to move projects forward and to continue to improve the system in the Commonwealth.
Chris Willenborg for President of the United States
I personally met Chris about a year after he started as the MA Director of Aeronautics. Over the years I have had the opportunity to talk with many people in industry and have always received positive feedback about him and his work. On June 17, 2015, MAMA hosted a MA DOT farewell luncheon for Chris. The master of ceremonies was Chris’s replacement at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, Brian Barnes. During the ceremony, Brian suggested Chris Willenborg should run for President of the United States. There was a brief pause, and Brian added what was the genuine sentiment in the room, “I’d vote for him.” Chris is without a doubt, an aviation leader.
Current role – MASS Task Force
After six and a half years, and primarily due to a four hour daily roundtrip commute, Chris began looking for opportunities closer to home. It didn’t take long for Massachusetts Governor Baker to name him the Executive Director for Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force.
In this role, the task force works toward protecting and strengthening the six military bases from both a Base Realignment and Closure “BRAC” and the ongoing force reduction cuts due to sequestration. The goal is to make all the bases more efficient, to lower costs, and to strengthen partnerships and collaborations with academic, industry, military, legislative (federal, state, local leaders), and non-profit organizations. In Chris’s words, to “tap into this unbelievable innovation ecosystem that is available here in the Commonwealth.”
When I asked Chris to name one thing that’s really exciting him about work right now, his answer was simple, to the point, and signature Chris Willenborg: “To work with our great men and women in the military.”