The Ottumwa Courier

December 27, 2013

Francis kept them flying

Courier staff writer

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OTTUMWA — When the weather turned bad at the airport, pilots depended upon Tom Francis. And there were some pretty prestigious pilots.

The captains of Air Force One, Marine One and Air Force Two have all used the Ottumwa Regional Airport while Francis was involved.

"That was pretty much a highlight [of my career]," he said on Friday, his last day as airport supervisor.

Public Information Officer Tom Rodgers with the city of Ottumwa, said for 29 years, Francis worked at the Ottumwa Regional Airport, after one year as an Ottumwa firefighter. Many of those 29 years were spent as the boss.

"You have the Secret Service coordinating everything ahead of time; they come in about a week before [the president or vice president] arrives. There's a lot of coordination with them," Francis said. "George Bush was in here at least twice when he was vice president, Cheney was here once, President Obama came through here just a couple years ago."

While pilots and city officials said Francis was good at his job, he found the Secret Service impressive. Even with his unique vantage point, there were times the executive would arrive by car and disappear onto the plane without being seen. Except once, he recalled, when he met the vice president.

"I actually got to shake hands with George Bush," he said.

Yet Francis does more than make sure the airport is maintained.

"Besides the runways and ramps, they have to do all the streets out here," said pilot Steve Black, co-owner of Ottumwa Flying Service.

Rodgers added that Francis was also responsible for maintaining all city-owned property in the airport area. Some of those buildings were put up in the 1940s.

Black said in town, people know that when someone told them to go visit a business "out at the airport," they meant the entire area surrounding the airport, too: a bottling plant, an asphalt company, a manufacturer, the new Job Corps Center, the north campus of Indian Hills all make up "the airport." And those streets, said Black, were what Francis and just two assistants were responsible for, meaning they would plow "many miles of road."

They always have to keep the airport itself in mind, however. Any ice or snow needs to be removed almost immediately.

"For a jet, the FAA allows ... less than a half inch of any foreign material on the runway. The actual runway, they've got to stay on top of that," Black said.

Salt and sand aren't allowed on the runway, either, so other equipment needs to be used. Francis knew what he was doing, said Rodgers, the city spokesman.

"Tom's been a big part of the airport operation for many years, and we're going to miss his expertise," he said.

It's more than just plowing, of course, that makes up the day of the airport supervisor. Black said Francis did a good job finding grant money to support projects at Ottumwa Regional Airport. When Ottumwa Flying Service went to the Ottumwa Regional Airport in 1984, the airport was "a little run down," Black said. That's changed.

Especially in the last 10 years, he added. There have been a lot of improvements, many of which involved Francis.

"That's part of the job," Francis said about the cooperation he's extended visiting business people as well as Iowans. "I've always tried to be helpful."

As for retirement, he said he'll spend the first few days "just getting used to it."

— To follow reporter Mark Newman on Twitter, see @CourierMark