By Jeff Price
The stately gentleman of Colorado aviation has retired. Alan Wiechmann, the manager of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport District Office in Denver, has called it a career after 36 years of service to the federal government.
A tall man in stature and character, with a smile that comes easily and a calming voice of reason in an often-tumultuous industry, Wiechmann oversaw the construction of over 20 new runways in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, the opening of Denver International Airport and the turmoil 9/11 brought forth on the national aviation system. The Colorado aviation community will sorely miss him. Applauded by airport managers, consultants and contemporaries, the former Air Force pilot navigated Colorado’s airports through some of its toughest times.
Not bad for a man with a degree in agriculture engineering.
“I used to joke that there’s only two agricultural engineers in all the FAA and they both work (in this office),” said Wiechmann, referring to another longtime FAA airport engineer, Nance Earley, who retired from the Denver ADO a year ago. “Nance and I really couldn’t validate that but it made for a good story.”
At that, Wiechmann held up a sign that reads, “Home of the last agricultural engineer,” which he put on his office door when Earley left. He noted that he might add the word “former” at the beginning.
Iowa farm kid makes good
So how did the son of an Iowa farmer, with a degree from Iowa State University in agriculture, get to the head of the FAA’s airport division in Colorado? Well, it was the spring of 1969…
“It was the Vietnam era; you know it was very motivating to be in college but darn, the four years ended, so you’ve got to do something else,” explains Wiechmann.
He wasn’t quite ready to be in the Army, so he took the aptitude tests for the Air Force.
“I passed the tests to be an officer and a pilot, so then they sent me to take the physical and I passed that,” he said.
Back in those days, he said, they gave you six months to accept the offer to go to officer training school and on to pilot training after that. Not wanting to really be in the military at all, Wiechmann held out until the fall of 1969, when a letter arrived from the United States Army, welcoming him to service.
“I headed off the next day to the Air Force recruiter and got myself sworn into the Air Force Reserve,” he said.
After officer training school at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Wiechmann entered pilot training and began to think about what he wanted to fly. “Throughout pilot training I was like a lot of guys and kept listening to some of this great propaganda about how great it was to fly some of these fighter aircraft,” he said. “About the time the choice of assignments came down, I decided to fly the old C-141 and stay in the United States for awhile.”
Wiechmann would go on to fly the C-141 Starlifter out of McCord AFB in Tacoma, Wash., for the rest of his military career. While he never held a tour in Vietnam, he flew there frequently.
“They had this thing called the ‘Palace Cobra’ list,” Wiechmann explains. “All the people who had not had a tour in Vietnam in the Air Force…were put on this list. It’s many pages long when you first get on it out of pilot training, and it kept moving forward a page at a time. I got to the front page before they cancelled the whole program in 1973, so I never did end up with a tour over there. But I flew in and out every month for years.”
Getting out of the Air Force in 1975, Wiechmann took a job as a civil engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers. The raising of the Chief Joseph Dam was one of his first projects. From there he wandered one day into FAA offices in Seattle and asked about job openings. He was soon hired on as a civil engineer assigned to the Airport’s Division.
Starting out as a project manager in the Airport Development Aid Program, the predecessor to today’s Airport Improvement Program, Wiechmann worked on numerous runway projects at airports across the northwest region including SeaTac and other airports in Washington as well as Idaho and Oregon. After a tour as a certification inspector, he became the manager of the Safety and Standards branch, then the FAA’s lead engineer for the State of Washington.
He moved to Denver in 1998, with his wife Carolyn, and two children, Kara and Joel.
“I told people that I was here for about five years; I thought that was best for me and probably best for the office,” says Wiechmann. However, about two or three years later, hypnotized by the allure of Denver, he changed his mind.
The director of the FAA’s ADO administrates both the AIP and the Passenger Facility Charge program for airports within their jurisdiction. It is the ADO’s job to use funds allocated by Congress in concert with the desires of Congress, the FAA and local airports and communities to improve airports and the aviation system. Wiechmann points out the monies are not just giveaways to a community to do whatever they’d like.
“Certainly we’ve always tried to accommodate certain projects that they think are locally important, but we’ve also been getting the runway safety areas built, and dealing with the runway incursion problem and clear approaches,” he said. “My job as the manager is just to kind of lead people in the direction the agency and Congress has headed us.”
The Denver ADO oversees airports in three states—Colorado, Wyoming and Utah. The office also oversees smaller projects such as compliance with the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, environmental actions and federal agreements.
Jim Elwood, director of aviation at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, sums up the general sentiment of Wiechmann and his term in office, saying, “Everybody’s said this, but we’re going to miss him so very much because of his leadership, his common sense, and his ability to take a project and be a champion and ultimately get it done. I think it’s a testament to the success he’s had. Every year we would see those numbers about how this region stood up compared to the other regions in the FAA regarding funding; the Denver ADO was always at the very top of those lists, every year he was the manager. He saw the right projects to get behind.”
Denver International Airport
A lot of big projects occurred under Wiechmann’s watch, like the third parallel runway, Salt Lake City, and the parallel runway, Colorado Springs (at 13,000 feet long), but the largest of all of the projects was, without a doubt, Denver International Airport.
“The construction of DIA will probably stand as the biggest thing we’ve done in this office and will probably ever do,” Wiechmann declared, although the challenge definitely took its toll. “It was one of the biggest reasons I wanted to come down here because I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After it was done, I still said it that way: only once in my life am I going to do anything so difficult and stressful—because it was!”
Wiechmann said that until the airport opened in 1995, it was more than an average amount of stress for everybody.
“And I don’t think our stress level was anything like the people over at the airport, at the City and County of Denver, who actually pulled it off,” he said. “But ours was enough.”
Wiechmann was still in Seattle during the early stages of DIA, where much of the planning from the FAA’s perspective occurred. When he moved to Denver in 1988, he oversaw the environmental planning as the ADO office took the program from groundbreaking to opening through the grant funding and PFC processes. The major challenge for the ADO and Wiechmann during that time was the constant schedule changes.
“Denver had their problems, but most of the construction got done very timely,” he said. “Then they had the difficulties with the baggage system, but then their schedules related to FAA schedules. We were in the middle of all the coordination of trying to keep everything on track—the flight checks, the ground checks, publications. Those are all other divisions, but every time Denver changed the schedule it affected everybody else.”
The other major challenge was keeping track of all the money and ensuring all construction met standards. Wiechmann said that with $580 million federal dollars involved, he and everyone else knew the project was going to be highly scrutinized.
“I think at one point in time we had 15 or 16 auditors in this office,” he said. “We had more auditors at the end of the job looking at records than we had employees in this office. When the auditors were all done, they basically didn’t find anything—any fault with the City of Denver in the way they used funds and built the airport. Lot of rumors, but when they looked there were no facts. We documented things right.”
He says he still has the records stored safely away; however, he has no desire to see them again.
Wiechmann is never a man to try to steal the spotlight. In fact, in nearly every photo where he’s standing with other project or airport managers to dedicate a new runway opening, or other such project, he can usually be found in the back row, far behind everyone else. When opening day came for DIA, Wiechmann took his traditional place once again in the background.
“It was a big night,” he said. “They had quite a celebration in the terminal. It was a good feeling. I personally just kind of stayed back; I enjoyed watching all the dignitaries and people. They deserve to enjoy it just like all the people that worked awfully hard on it. It was a great feeling of success.”
Raising the bar
While DIA will stand out as the largest project, Wiechmann is extremely proud of many other lower profile projects, such as raising the level of safety at general aviation airports, and getting direct commercial service to many of the mountain airports.
As an airport’s elevation increases, the performance of piston-powered aircraft deteriorates at a faster rate than jet-powered aircraft. At around 5,000 feet, the length needed for a piston aircraft starts to exceed the length needed for a jet aircraft.
“What that does is when we go up in our beautiful mountain locations we attract business jet aircraft to facilities that were never built to accommodate those fast-moving, large aircraft,” Wiechmann explained. “So we’ve taken the approach that we’re continually developing one airport in each of our three states, for our business jet fleet, trying to improve the level of safety.”
While several airports in all three states have received funds to increase their levels of safety, one of the ones closest to home is Greeley-Weld County Airport, which opened a new 10,000-foot runway in August 2000.
The ADO has also taken many strides to develop pavement maintenance programs at the airports within its jurisdiction, which reduces the costs of long-term maintenance.
Denver’s aviation future
While Wiechmann doesn’t claim any special clairvoyance, many in the Colorado airport community have looked to him for advice and respect his foresight, including Travis Vallin, director of Colorado’s Aeronautics Division.
“Alan has a good vision; a lot of people just go and sit down with him and see what he foresees in the airline industry, what he foresees with federal legislation,” says Vallin. “His vision has always been held in high regard from airport managers, to people within the FAA, to consultants.”
And, said Vallin, Wiechmann presents his visions in a way others can understand.
“Representative Matt Smith told me the other day, while we were discussing some fairly complex fuel tax legislation, that he’s never been around somebody that can come in and explain a federal program so that everyone could understand it and put it into perspective like Alan Wiechmann,” Vallin said. “I think that speaks volumes for why he’s right and why he’s been successful.”
Vallin also praised Wiechmann’s ability to look at problems and generate creative solutions inside the guidelines of the stringent AIP program.
“Alan knew so much about the program and what you could and couldn’t do that he was in many ways kind of an out-of-the-box thinker,” he said. “He was willing to do something a lot of folks in the FAA would not do, and that’s to push a provision that really wasn’t that popular, but was the right fit for the right airport.”
When asked if there is anything about Wiechmann that people don’t like, Vallin quips, “He doesn’t tell very good jokes. But we’re going to miss those.”
When it comes to the Colorado Aeronautics Board and the Aeronautics Division, Wiechmann is equally complimentary.
“Colorado is the last state to have an aeronautics division,” he said, adding that within a seven-state area, that division is now as good as any of the other states.
“They have just been exceptional to work with, in terms of trying to use our funds and their funds together to get things accomplished,” he said. “We basically take their recommendations to a large extent for GA and small commercial service airports and we implement it. It’s a great relationship.”
As for commercial service in the metro area, Wiechmann’s thoughts leaned more to the north, but he also notes that it is a tough nut to crack.
“The airlines are business oriented,” Wiechmann explains, saying that they go where they perceive there is opportunity. Citing the population growth in the northwest Denver area, Wiechmann believes that in time there may be a significant airline presence—but at which airport?
“Colorado Springs has a population in El Paso County of one half million people now, and there’s a large airline business there,” he said. “I just believe that someday on the north end we’ll see the same thing. I don’t know whether it would be Fort Collins or Greeley or Cheyenne; those are probably the three likely ones.”
In a recent study of business aircraft traffic conducted by the Colorado Department of Transportation, Division of Aeronautics, the amount of traffic in the metro area is expected to increase approximately 25 percent over the next 15 to 20 years, with an increase of approximately 15 percent in based business aircraft.
Wiechmann concurs with the report, “If you just extrapolate out and use the figures that have occurred in the past and project them to the future, I think that the State’s report is probably very accurate.”
Wiechmann adds that Colorado’s rapid rate of growth, and the fact that many of Colorado’s general aviation airports can handle the larger jet traffic, supports the projections. For the future of Colorado aviation, he foresees the continual support and growth of direct commercial service to the mountain airports. As far as obstacles to aviation in general, Wiechmann notes that they vary from community to community and are based in large part on what the community wants, or doesn’t want.
One of the most controversial challenges relating to commercial service that Wiechmann’s office handled was the federal lawsuit against Centennial Airport when they rebuffed commercial service. However, the role of the ADO in these cases, he said, is quite limited.
“It’s a longstanding disagreement,” says Wiechmann. “When a complaint is filed, the local office has the role of trying to get the parties to find a solution without there having to be a ruling. But once it gets to a point where the sides are basically forcing that there be a decision made, we are out of it. The office in Washington D.C. that looks at those things is very autonomous. They look at the record and they make their findings.”
“Running for dollars with Alan Wiechmann”
At well over six feet tall, with the lean physique of a marathon runner (which he is), Wiechmann has had a longstanding tradition of jogging at the annual airport conferences.
Soon, airport managers and others joined him. The rumor was that if you joined Wiechmann for his morning run, you could somehow persuade him to send more federal discretionary or entitlement dollars to their airport. This was flatly refuted by nearly everyone who was interviewed for this article, yet the saying, “Running for dollars with Alan Wiechmann,” has remained.
It all started over 20 years ago in Yellowstone when Wiechmann, who was still with the FAA’s Seattle regional office, asked Ron Dent, then Yellowstone’s airport manager but now the director of aviation at Durango/La Plata Airport, if he could join him for his run.
“I’m thinking, ‘Here’s this guy. He’s coming up from Seattle, and we’re at 7,000. He’s going to die!” said Dent. “I was used to running two to three miles a day—not a lot. He runs out from town, which is about three miles, then we do this five-mile loop, and he just about killed me at his pace. When we finished, he said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to do that again.’ So he went around it again, and then ran back to town. In my five miles of running, he did about 16 and barely cracked a sweat, at which point he informed me that he was a marathon runner, in training.”
Wiechmann says that like everyone else, he was shocked by the events of 9/11.
“But from the work standpoint, after it happened, it became apparent that the biggest thing that we could do as an airport industry was work on the public’s confidence,” says Wiechmann. “We didn’t have any unique solutions to things. We’re not the security people; we’re airport folks. We’re pavement people, but we did provide funds wherever we could and obviously they did improve the security. But there was also a tremendous need to improve confidence, so we provided funds where needed.”
Although it has been rumored that AIP funding could be significantly affected by the new security requirements, Wiechmann sees a balance between a drop in capacity and the need for expansion projects, already occurring.
“I haven’t seen that much money used out of AIP for security,” he said. “There’s a natural balance that made the funding work out quite well last year. There certainly isn’t quite the near-term need for capacity that there was. I think a lot of airports have delayed things that might have been capacity oriented in lieu of funding security measures.”
Wiechmann expects that a new manager for the ADO will be appointed in the next couple of months. In the interim, Craig Sparks of the
Denver ADO office will man the helm. Sparks plans on continuing the work Wiechmann put in motion.
“I’ll just keep doing things like he was doing it; there will be no change at all,” he said. However, he added that he would miss Wiechmann’s composure around the office. “It only takes one mayor or one congressman to call, and a lot of FAA people get really worked up. Alan doesn’t do that.”
Wiechmann has some advice for the new manager.
“In some ways, it’s just like running a successful business,” he said. “You have to believe that the customers you’re serving are important. You have to balance all these customers because you’re actually working for them. I work for the president of the United States; we’re part of the executive branch, and you balance what the administration thinks should be accomplished and what Congress thinks should be accomplished. They provide the funds. And then you balance it with the users and the airport owners and you’ve got to pay attention to all of them. Then of course, there’s your own staff; there is probably nothing more important than paying attention to your own people.”
Despite major successes like DIA and 24 new runways, Wiechmann counts his staff among his fondest memories.
While Wiechmann’s last day as the ADO manager was March 3, he hasn’t slowed down his usual fast pace. He already has a couple of irons in the fire for his post-retirement days. One of those is being a sales engineer on dust collector systems. With his enjoyment of statistics and figures, he believes he will be right at home talking about the technical side of dust mitigation and collection.
“I’m going to go back to doing something mostly for the enjoyment of it,” he said.
Wiechmann says he is also part of a small entrepreneurial business called the DUCTI Company, which has a line of “super duct tape” wallets and purses that are available for sale (www.ducti.com).
“They’re out in about 250 stores now,” he said. “I have some creative friends. It’s not me that has the ideas. I’m the bookkeeper; I’m the CFO.”
He also hasn’t ruled out any future aviation opportunities, but says that if any do come up, he will only do it part-time. And, with his daughter at Colorado State University and son now a senior in high school, Wiechmann has no plans to relocate.
Even though he will be staying in the area, his everyday presence in the airport industry will definitely be missed.
“He’s a wonderful man,” says Dent. “You look at government people and you hear all the bad things about government; Alan exemplified everything that’s good. He exemplified what government service was all about and I think the emphasis was on service.”
Dent added that Wiechmann and Earley are two of the “finest people” he’s ever met.
“I think if all government were like that, we would be in much better condition,” he said.
As for Wiechmann, he says that he’s appreciated all the people with which he has been able to associate, adding that those involved in aviation make it one of the most high-class industries in the country.
“I backed into aviation,” he said. “It wasn’t my intent, but I got in and I loved it.”