Ready for takeoff

Airport flight-line supervisor bitten hard by the ‘aviation bug.’

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Alec Smith loves airplanes, which is why he’s so well suited for his position as flight-line supervisor at Wisconsin Aviation. His passion for planes began in 1985 when he first saw the British Airways’ Concorde at the EAA International Fly-In in Oshkosh.

“I love touching airplanes and I found a job where I get paid to do that. A lot of people do their jobs for money, but aviation is a fascination. It’s not about the money,” Smith insists. 

“In the aviation industry, we call it ‘the bug.’” And he is unabashedly bitten.

Initially, Smith majored in flight operations at the University of Dubuque before switching to aviation management. “I fell in love with the industry of aviation — not just flying, but what it takes to fly a plane.”

With college debt hanging over his head, he remembers visiting a U.S. Army recruitment office one day. After speaking with an Army representative, his next adventure was set. “I thought, ‘Wow, they’ll give me money, food, housing, show me the world, and then I get to drive a jet? Sign me up!’” He was especially intrigued when he learned that tanks were actually powered by jet engines. 

Smith, 32, served three years as a tanker in Germany and Afghanistan while learning leadership skills, discipline, mental fortitude, and “what it takes to get through things.” Now, at Wisconsin Aviation, he says very little rattles him.

“At the airport, I’ve never had a hard day. I’ve had busy days, but after the military your definition of hard day is different.”

Having a gas

At Wisconsin Aviation, Smith’s team is in charge of fueling and caring for planes ranging from a tiny Cessna 152 to a regional jet and even a 747 chartered by the Badger football team for a bowl game. Leer jets are common but the crew handles all aircraft, primarily charters. He describes their role succinctly. “We like to say we fuel Madison’s commerce. I say it’s real simple: Planes come, planes get stuffed, and planes go away. Period.”

Smith works 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays. On a recent day, about a dozen planes sit idle on the tarmac, awaiting their pilots. Companies or individuals call ahead to let the staff know when they intend to fly, and Wisconsin Aviation staff readies the planes for takeoff including fueling, cleaning, and if requested, stocking with basic food items. More planes are scheduled to arrive throughout the day.

“We handle chartered service, so we’re like the taxicab of airplanes,” Smith says. “We facilitate all forms of flight, but our primary focus is on someone who wants a plane now.”

Prior to arrival, pilots flying into Madison radio their requested services. Will they need fueling for the next flight? Will they need coffee, ice, newspapers, a lavatory system cleaning, or luggage removed and restocked before a plane “goes away”?

On average, Wisconsin Aviation pumps nearly 35,000 gallons of fuel every day, or almost a million gallons each month. It fuels FedEx planes, all of the airlines at the terminal, and occasionally even Air National Guard planes. Smith points to the airport’s air traffic control tower across the airfield. “That tower controls everything coming in and going out, and we fuel everything in between.”

Working around jet fuel and being on tight timelines means it is imperative that proper procedures be followed, he explains. “We don’t want hoses on the ground. We don’t want water in the fuel. So we’re the people ensuring that the fuel is good and clean. My fuelers are taking care of the entire main terminal and getting aircraft turned around in 20 minutes.” 

If they’ve done their jobs right, a pilot only needs to step inside, close the door, and start the engines.

Inside one of the many hangars at the airport, four corporately owned Cessnas sit idle. A larger eight-seater is shared by several companies in a fractional ownership agreement to help defray costs, which is quite common. “Jets are expensive!” Smith notes.

He checks his schedule. The eight-seater, a Cessna Citation V Encore, is scheduled for a flight tomorrow and its fuel tank needs to be topped off in preparation.

With another crewmember watching the wingspan, Smith jumps on a small, wheeled vehicle called a tug, secures the plane’s front tire, and gently maneuvers it out into the sunshine. “We move aircraft in any direction to get it to where it needs to be,” he says.

Once secured on the tarmac, the fuel truck arrives. Before pumping can begin, Smith clamps a bonding wire just under one of the plane’s wings to neutralize any charge and prevent sparking. Then he hoists a thick hose from the tanker and turns on the truck’s spigot.



Fueling a passion

Jet fuel is measured in pounds, not gallons, he explains. “A car might have a 12.5-gallon tank, and you don’t care that it weighs 6 pounds per gallon.” On the contrary, getting a large metal object in the sky requires precise calculations for air and weight.

“Usually, an airline you travel on may not fly with a full tank because it’s designed to move people, or itself, but not both, so we have to make sure the weight is appropriate to get aircraft to where it needs to go safely.

“Our meters measure in gallons, we sell fuel by the gallons, but we load in pounds. A pilot just has to tell me where he’s going and how heavy he’ll be. If 1,500 pounds is needed, the pilot will ask for 100 gallons.”

This particular Cessna holds 806 gallons of fuel, or 403 gallons per wing, and its pressure refueling system allows Smith to pump fuel into both tanks simultaneously, saving time.

When complete, the Citation V is returned to the hangar. “It’s not like backing a boat in the water,” Smith jokes. “This is a multimillion dollar piece of machinery on three wheels. It’s wide, tall, and enormous, and we have to fit it in the smallest space possible and try not to break anything.”

Fueling, of course, takes place year-round, but in winter Smith might also be found on an elevated boom spraying deicer on a plane, or cleaning a plane’s windshield. ”It’s like the old full-service gas station,” he jokes. “We’re the prestigious Gomer from The Andy Griffith Show!”

Celebrating its 35th year in business, Watertown-based Wisconsin Aviation, with operations in Madison and Juneau, has a fleet of more than 50 aircraft and also provides hangar rental, pilot flight training, aircraft sales, service, and management. In the past 10 years it has averaged nearly 19,000 flight hours annually. It employs 14 charter pilots, 16 flight instructors, and 25% of its employees are veterans.

Not surprisingly, Smith’s favorite part of the job is the airplanes. “I get to see all these planes that I know.” His personal favorite is a twin-engine turbo prop high-wing called a Turbo Commander. “Nobody agrees with me but I think it’s just gorgeous,” he smiles.

While dignitaries of all types — business executives, politicians, entertainers — may fly in and out of the Wisconsin Aviation terminal, Smith takes it all in stride. “If they wanted interaction, they would have flown commercial,” he says of the famous travelers. “I almost never talk to passengers. That could ruin their experience. We’re a facilitator, not a hindrance.”

Once in a while though, it would be nice to get a thank you, he admits, or a handshake. “There are people who don’t even look at you, don’t know you’re there, and don’t realize that our staff has been there since 1 a.m.”

Those instances make Smith appreciate his team even more. “Luckily for me, high stress situations are a breeze. Nobody’s tried to shoot me in years and that makes everything easy.”

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