David Waggoner: An Eye on the Future of Flight

David Waggoner: An Eye on the Future of Flight

By Deborah Hopen

David Waggoner, Paine Field airport director, checks progress at the construction site of the new Future of Flight Center and Boeing Tour project.

David Waggoner, Paine Field airport director, checks progress at the construction site of the new Future of Flight Center and Boeing Tour project.

In February 2005, the Washington State Department of Transportation Aviation Division named David Waggoner of Snohomish County Airport/Paine Field (KPAE) Airport Director of the Year. Waggoner has served in that capacity since 1992.

Paine Field, located in Everett, Wash., has three runways, 116R/34L (9010 by 150 feet), 11/29 (4504 by 75 feet), and 16L/34R (3000 by 75 feet), serves as base for over 500 aircraft, and handles 550 airport operations each day. General aviation represents about half of the airport’s operations and the remaining ones are associated with transient general aviation, air taxi, commercial, and military flights. Paine Field’s major tenants are Goodrich Technical Services and The Boeing Company, including being home to Boeing 787 Dreamliner design and assembly.

Waggoner is originally from Richland, Wash. He is one of six children—five boys, including twins, and a girl. All the children in his family attended the University of Washington and are highly successful. Waggoner obtained a bachelor’s degree in international business, but he jokes about being the black sheep of his family as he describes the professions of his brothers and sisters—a geophysicist, law professor, CPA, lawyer and a clinical psychologist who teaches reading specialties.

Waggoner, who with his wife P.J. has two daughters (Wendy and Heidi) and two grandchildren (Cassie and Carter), first came to Paine Field when he was a senior at the University of Washington in the Naval ROTC program. At that time, the Navy enrolled people who were scheduled to attend flight school in its Flight Indoctrination Program, which was intended to determine if they were aeronautically adaptable. The Navy paid for private pilot instruction, which cost about $3,000 to $4,000 in those days; that was a lot cheaper than sending prospective aviators directly to Pensacola, Fla., for complete training. Although Waggoner ran out of time before obtaining his private pilot’s license, he did complete about 20 hours of training at Paine Field.

While serving in the Navy for 26 years, Waggoner spent most of his operational duty on aircraft carriers in A-6 squadrons. He also flew C-131s and C-12s, the Navy and Marine Corps version of the King Air A200C. Waggoner had a tour on the “USS Carl Vinson” as the Combat Direction Center officer and the ship’s operation officer.

He received a master’s degree in finance from the naval post-graduate school in Monterey, Calif. He then served two tours as a financial manager at Naval Air Station Bermuda and Naval Air Force of the Pacific in San Diego. His final naval assignment was commander of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Oak Harbor, Wash.

One of his final flights in the Navy was in a C-12, when he flew down to Paine Field to take a Federal Aviation Administration check ride and got an airline transport pilot rating. In his role as commander of the Whidbey Island station, Waggoner thought it would be appropriate to meet with Paine Field’s manager, Don Bakken, to discuss noise issues. During the meeting, Bakken announced his impending retirement and suggested that Waggoner apply for the job.

Waggoner believes that managing a military airport is similar to running a public airport in many ways. The biggest difference is that in civilian life there’s a bit less documentation and more differentiation among airfields.

“The laws of aerodynamics are the same whether you’re flying an A-6 or a Cessna 172,” he said. “The runways are the same and even the FAA rules are fairly consistent. In both cases, you have to deal with budgets, communities, employees, and environmental concerns. One of the key differences is that the military has a constantly rotating workforce and also has a much more regimented and documented way of conducting business. If you were at the Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia and came to Whidbey Island, you’d find that most of the systems would be very similar. At both locations, you would have common resources you could tap into to help you deal with issues.”

Dealing with politics also is a factor in both situations. Military base commanders have boundaries on the things they can say and do, and civilian airport administrators do, too.

“The structure is different, but the considerations are similar,” he explains. “I believe that some people have the perception that managing an airport is a downward function, where you’re taking care of pavement, operations, leasing, environmental concerns, and things like that. When you’re the manager of an airport, however, you’re also responsible for its public face—what the community thinks. This is true in both military and civilian situations.”

Waggoner is a staunch supporter of the Paine Field team, and his management style focuses on empowering employees to put all their knowledge and skills to work.

“You have to convince people that they have responsibilities and can determine direction and establish programs and that you’ll support them,” Waggoner comments. “I’ve found that people generally will work harder on things that they think are good ideas than on things that I think are good ideas. If I provide resources, tell people they’re in charge, let them figure out what needs to be done, and help them along the way, they’ll succeed. It’s also important to provide a safety net; you can’t have people out there looking over their shoulders all the time for fear they’re going to be criticized if something doesn’t work.”

He also is reluctant to accept credit for the successes achieved at the sites he has managed.

“I believe that the things in life for which I have gotten the most credit are the things with which I have had the least to do,” he said. “At Whidbey Island, the Naval Air Station was recognized several times by the Secretary of the Navy for its recycling program. We had a master chief who thought recycling was important, and I gave him the freedom to develop a great program, and he did. I was off to the side and clapping for it, but he deserved the recognition.”

Waggoner believes that Paine Field’s most significant accomplishment is its ability to be fully functional while meeting all the standards and maintaining an exceptionally safe facility. He feels strongly that all of the airport’s visitors and tenants can be extremely confident that everything will work and will be operated according to standards when they are at Paine Field.

Artist’s rendering of Paine Field, including the Future of Flight Center and Boeing Tour project.

Artist’s rendering of Paine Field, including the Future of Flight Center and Boeing Tour project.

Paine Field’s new Future of Flight Aviation Center and Boeing Tour project is scheduled to open this summer. Waggoner describes it as a “labor of love.” It involves a partnership among the county, the airport, The Boeing Company, and The Museum of Flight that’s going to provide winning factors for each party. The new museum is expected to draw an additional 100,000 visitors a year to the County. Boeing will be able to expand its tour capabilities and showcase its technological accomplishments more effectively. The Museum of Flight will have a second location for providing information about aviation that will be readily accessible to the 100,000 visitors who currently come to the Boeing Tour Center. Furthermore, having another site north of Seattle will make it possible for more students to participate in the museum’s educational activities. Currently it’s difficult for school buses to transport students to the museum at Boeing Field (KBFI), provide sufficient time in the educational programs, and return to their districts in time for afternoon runs.

“One of the strengths of Paine Field is that we focus on our customers,” Waggoner said. “We’re a major general aviation airport, and we support general aviation with excellent facilities and many activities. Whenever there’s an opportunity for us to be part of solving a problem or sponsoring or co-sponsoring a program, we want to be involved and to help keep general aviation strong.”