Manager says airport ready to take off

By Eric Proulx and Matthew Higgins
Citizen Chronicle Writers

SOUTHBRIDGE — The local airport has recently undergone numerous improvements to make it a more desirable attraction for pilots and local residents alike.

Southbridge Municipal Airport Manager Ronald C. Plouffe said that after experiencing significant damage from the June 1, 2011 tornado, many tenant pilots vacated the Southbridge Municipal Airport, and many people were ready to give up on the it altogether. There were 18 planes with significant damage, numerous hangars were destroyed, and there was a substantial amount dismantling of several other buildings on the property, Plouffe recalled. The town-owned airport was forced to slowly pick up the pieces and rebuild with what resources were available.

Courtesy photo of planes damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado.

It was nearly two full years after the tornado hit that the first significant improvements began. In May 2013, the Town installed a new water line to connect the airport to Town water, and a tee hangar was rebuilt and paid for through insurance claims. It was soon after that Town officials decided to make a change in the administration of the airport. This change came in the form of Plouffe, a self-described longtime aviation enthusiast and experienced manager who said he “was about raised at this airport.”

Plouffe’s love for aviation started at a very young age in the very same town he now serves as airport manager.

“We used to build airplanes in my dad’s cellar,” Plouffe said. “Buy a wreck, take it all apart, rebuild all the pieces in the cellar. We would fly it for a year, sell it, and buy another wreck.”

Plouffe’s brothers decided to go into aviation while he decided to go into business. After his children were in college, Plouffe left his job in a Southbridge manufacturing company to relocate to Florida with his wife. They both found work at Walt Disney World, with Ron as a manager, and his wife as a supervisor in the entertainment department. After 20 years, they decided it was time to retire and come back to where it all started — Southbridge.

Retirement didn’t last long. After two months, Plouffe decided he needed something to pass the time. It was a newspaper advertisement that caught his eye: the Town of Southbridge was looking to hire a part-time recreation director. Plouffe applied and was offered the position. After a short time in this new role, he learned of plans to hire a new part-time airport manager. Realizing the opportunity before him, Plouffe expressed his interest. Citing his management experience and knowledge of aviation, he was hired.

Having transitioned to the full-time airport manager in May 2014, Plouffe said it became his goal to transform the airport back to what it was before the tornado ravaged the property, and make improvements above and beyond that. Realizing he couldn’t do so on his own, Plouffe reached out to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) Aeronautics Division. Since then, MassDOT has been instrumental in helping the airport with the improvements necessary to get it back on track. In June 2014, just one month into the full-time position, he received approval from MassDOT to purchase a 14-foot mower and a pickup truck, complete with a plow. Plouffe said 80 percent of the purchase costs were covered by MassDOT.

The next set of improvements included building a new fuel farm with a self-serve pump in January 2015. In April 2016, the Town put in a new sewer line and drainage, with the $208,000 project being fully-funded by MassDOT, Plouffe said. Roughly 18 months after breaking ground on a new airport administration building, that project was completed in June 2017, along with a new security and access system provided by MassDOT at no cost to Southbridge.

The airport administration building, which is open daily from 8:00am to 5:00pm, now contains various amenities for tenants and visitors alike. There is a comfortable pilot’s lounge, restrooms, a locker room with a shower, and a public meeting room that can be rented for the day for a $50 fee. Other areas of the building include Plouffe’s office, a rental hangar that can house four planes and helicopters, and a new flight school, Norby Aviation, owned and operated by Kevin Norby. The airport administration building is open to tenants 24 hours a day. Situated next door is the Red Baron Diner, which was opened in June 2017 by business partners and long-time friends James Dhembe and Richard Galli. The diner was renovated using a combination of public and private funds.

Improvements continue to be made, Plouffe said, and have helped provide a location for various local events and exercises over the years. The airport has hosted car shows, fundraisers for Cops N Kids, the Southbridge Bicentennial fireworks display, and has even served as a staging area for police vehicles during the funeral of slain Auburn Police Officer Ronald Tarentino, Jr. In an ongoing relationship with the U.S. Army and local first responders, various runway exercises have been held, including but not limited to medical evacuation exercises and refueling exercises with military Black Hawk helicopters. Another unique benefit provided by the Southbridge Municipal Airport are “Angel Flights,” that provide free air transportation for passengers in need of medical treatment far from home. A number of the airport’s tenant pilots volunteer their service for these Angel Flights, helping provide ill individuals the opportunity to receive top-notch medical care with no cost for transportation. Plouffe affirmed these events and exercises have been, and will continue to be, assets to the community. Additionally, in the event of a local catastrophe, the airport can serve as an integral hub for evacuations and the receipt of much-needed supplies.

Asked about plans for the future of the airport, Plouffe said he has a laundry list of improvements he would like to see in the coming years. “There are four important things you need to have a successful general aviation airport,” he explained. “Those four things are a nice facility, a restaurant on site, a flight school, and a mechanic.”

The Southbridge Municipal Airport currently offers three of the four, though Plouffe anticipates having a mechanic on staff by the summer.

Site development plans also include moving and enlarging the fuel farm to include fuel for small jets, a 500-foot extension of the runway, numerous new hangars, and a new sign display that will prominently feature a re-assembled wrecked 1958 airplane.

Plouffe expressed certainty additional hangars will not sit empty for long.

“When we add the next two hangars, they will be rented out very quickly,” he insisted.

The airport manager has also requested funding for a new piece of equipment that will grind the remaining trees on the property to make room for the proposed runway extension. Plouffe said that while this machinery would cost roughly $100,000, he hopes MassDOT will pick up 80 percent of the tab.

Plouffe said he plans for the Southbridge Municipal Airport to continue adding improvements to the facilities and grounds while providing experiences and jobs to the local community. He noted that Norby Aviation will bring pilots of all ages and experience to the airport, and that the Red Baron Diner provides quality meals for both local customers and pilots coming through. The Citizen Chronicle will have more on Norby Aviation and the Red Baron Diner later this week.

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