Todd Heming was only 5 years old when actor Jimmy Stewart came back to Indiana in 1959 for the dedication and renaming of the Indiana County Airport to the Indiana County/Jimmy Stewart Airport. But Heming was working on the flight line at the little rural airport when the movie star visited his hometown and the airport named after him on his 75th birthday in 1983.
Heming, in fact, has been working at the airport on a nearly daily basis for more than three decades. Today he’s retiring after 28ﾽ years as the airport manager, the only individual to hold that position.
Heming, 59, got the aviation bug when his father, a pilot, took him for an airplane ride as a young boy. He began working on his own private pilot’s license before he graduated from United High School. He next earned a degree in aeronautical maintenance from the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. About the same time, the war in Vietnam was ending and the demand for aircraft mechanics — especially for helicopter mechanics — dropped.
Instead of soaring into the sky, Heming went underground. He worked more than seven years in the North American Coal Company’s Conemaugh 1 mine before he got back into aviation, taking a job with Allegheny Beechcraft, the fixed base operator at the Indiana County airport.
His early duties included field maintenance and fueling operations, but at the same time he continued his flight training and got a pilot’s instrument rating, earned certifications to fly multi-engine and commercial aircraft and qualified to be a flight instructor.
When county officials made the decision to take over management of the airport rather than have a fixed base operator, Heming landed the job as the airport’s first manager.
The airport then, he said, was a one-man operation, although a part-time helper was added for the summers.
The fixed base operator, Heming said, had concentrated on keeping its business solvent and maintenance at the airport had declined. Some of the lights didn’t work and the grass wasn’t always cut. Heming recalls the airport had to borrow money from the Indiana County Airport Authority treasury to buy a load of aviation fuel.
But since then, Heming, as manager, has presided over some of the most significant changes and expansions and improvements to the airport, including a new terminal building in 1995, construction of a new, 5,500-foot runway that will go into use this spring, preparations for installing a new instrument landing system that may attract commuter and charter airline services to the airport, and the construction of several new hangers.
“If you don’t fly in and out, you don’t realize what it does for the county,” Heming said of the airport’s contribution to the local economy. Years ago, coal operators were among the industry leaders who made regular business use of the airport. “Now it has transferred into the gas industry,” he said.
Indiana University of Pennsylvania visitors and law enforcement officials travel through the airport on a regular basis.
“And medical helicopters — we support a lot of those,” Heming said.
The airport now has about 26,000 takeoffs and landings annually. Thursdays are usually the busiest day for corporate flights at the airport, and evenings and weekends are busiest with recreational flying and flight training.
Much of Heming’s managerial time in recent years has been taken up in helping to secure funding for improvement projects.
“You’re competing with airports across the U.S.” for the aviation dollars available, Heming said. He and members of the airport authority flew many times to Washington and Harrisburg in support of lobbying efforts to fund local airport projects.
“The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) doesn’t want pie-in-the-sky or fields-of-dreams projects,” but viable improvements, Heming said. Before they approve plans or funding, FAA officials want to see specifics about how many and what types of aircraft will use a longer runway, for example, and how often. The benefit/cost analyses and other required documents and studies can take years to pull together, he said.
“Just because you have the money doesn’t mean you can build it,” Heming said, adding that myriad environmental regulations and guidelines must also be satisfied. Airports, he said, are the most regulated entities in the nation. It can take years to accomplish all the “hoops you have to jump through for these agencies,” he said.
“We take a practical approach” to airport development, he said. Heming and airport authority members visited more than 20 airport terminals before deciding on the design for the new terminal at Jimmy Stewart. “We wanted to build something useful. That’s how we look at the whole airport. … It’s built around the safety of the flying public.”
Improvements are also geared to providing what a pilot — and his or her passengers — needs: a long-enough runway, instruments to aid landings in foul weather, refueling capability so that a stop at another airport isn’t necessary just to take on aviation gas, and other amenities like car rentals and hotel accommodations.
Heming said many people want commercial aviation service — commuter and/or charter flights — to be offered again at the Indiana County Airport.
“Everything we’ve done will allow that to happen,” he said.
The last air show at the airport was for Jimmy Stewart’s 75th birthday celebration. Staging an air show now is very challenging, in part because roads near the airport would have to be closed. So the airport’s annual festival, or airport awareness days, has evolved without aerobatic flying but with aircraft flying above the runway. Unlike some air shows where spectators are not allowed close to the aircraft, the Jimmy Stewart festival allows spectators to touch the planes, talk to the flight crews and, in some cases, arrange rides.
And it’s free, and it’s a family atmosphere, Heming said. This year’s airport festival is scheduled for June 15-16.
Heming said his time as airport manager has been enjoyable because it provided so many opportunities. He’s worked with people in agencies ranging from the FBI to the county’s Emergency Management Agency, tourist bureau, sheriff, local state police, the chamber of commerce and fire departments; he used some of his vacation time to fly corporate planes; he accumulated about 3,000 hours of piloting time; as a contract flight instructor for the Reserve Officer Training Corps he helped teach military cadets to fly; he helped build a state road (Geesey Road was relocated to make room for the airport’s new longer runway); and helped make the Jimmy Stewart Airport the first in the state to have a producing Marcellus shale natural gas well.
“We don’t pay anything for heat anymore,” he said.
Ken Hinick, the airport’s assistant manager, will serve as interim manager until Heming’s successor is hired.