When aviation authorities call Tulsa’s Jones/Riverside a reliever airport, that only hints at what the term suggests.
While officially it means the airport handles the bulk of local general aviation traffic that otherwise might use Tulsa International Airport, you can bet the air traffic controllers at TIA are relieved they don’t have to factor the average 23,000 takeoffs and landings a month into their daily workload.
Home to nearly 500 general aviation aircraft owned by business people, commercial operators, recreational flying enthusiasts and collectors, and used heavily by six resident flight schools, including Spartan School of Aeronautics and Tulsa Community College, Jones/Riverside (RVS) is among the busiest airports in the nation.
Since January 1990, the airport has recorded nearly 5 million takeoffs and landings. That is an average of more than 780 a day.
In 2005, the airport handled 347,000 operations, or an average of more than 28,900 a month. During its FAA Air Traffic Control Tower’s 16-hour operation day, that is an average off a takeoff or landing every minute.
The Jones Riverside Airport Association reports that makes RVS the busiest airport in Oklahoma and the 10th busiest in the nation.
Located in southwest Tulsa, the 700-acre facility is under the jurisdiction of the Tulsa Airport Authority and is governed by a five-member Board of Trustees. It is home to 200 employees, generating more $3.2 million in salaries annually.
With 189 commercial and private hangars and plans for expansion and an on-site golf course, RVS offers one precision and three non-precision approaches. Its three active runways measure 5,100’ x 100’, 4,200’ x 100’ and 2,800’ x 50.’
Two fixed base operators, Christiansen Aviation and Roadhouse Aviation, provide full aviation services with six hangars that can accommodate 70 aircraft.
Across the board, RVS pilots praise the airport and its services as a boon to the community.
The Pilot Politician
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, in his 51st year as a pilot, has flown out of Riverside Airport since the 1950s, “actually before there was a tower.”
“It’s a jewel in the crown, there is no question about that,” he said. “You could not do the same thing at Tulsa International that you can do at Riverside.”
Inhofe cites the variety of aircraft based at the airport and the sense of community among tenants in evaluating its importance to the area.
“First of all, it is in the top 10 busiest airports in America on a per runway foot basis,” he said. “You know it is utilized, you know it works and you know it is of great value to the community.”
He said the airport probably has more collections of different kinds of airplanes than any other airport.
“For instance, you always have a bunch of World War II aircraft that can go and do performances,” he said.
The same thing would be true with experimental and antique aircraft, he said.
“For example, one of my planes is an RV-8, and I don’t know if there is another airport in the country where there are more RV-8s than there are at Riverside,” he said. “What value is that? It means that if you are doing something like the rebuild job that we are doing because of a modest crash that I had, that your parts are all there and there is the expertise and people coming together in a fellowship type of thing and helping each other.”
Inhofe, who is a commercially rated pilot, credits his flying with helping him win his Senate seat in 1994.
“They will tell you that in the hard to reach places (in Oklahoma) like the Panhandle, Boise City and Guymon, that they see more of me than any other state-wide elected official,” he said. “It’s because I fly.”
As a well-known proponent of general aviation, Inhofe is often at the forefront of any battle to protect the rights of private pilots.
“Right now the big issue is the user fees and the increase in gasoline taxes,” he said. “They try this all the time. I would say for the 20 years I have been there, every other year somebody tries to do it. And we have been able to stop it.”
He recently testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on the issue.
“It is unusual for a member of the Senate to testify before a Senate committee, but I did it because I have probably a better understanding of the issues than other people do,” Inhofe said. “When I was first elected, there were several people (in Congress) who fell into the category of active commercial pilots, and now, with the retirement of John Glenn (former astronaut and U.S. Senator from Ohio until 1999) that left me all alone.”
Inhofe also has a rare insight into state of general aviation internationally.
About ten years ago, Inhofe became the only member of Congress to fly an airplane around the world when he flew a twin engine Cessna 414 to recreate Wiley Post’s legendary trip around the globe.
“We had a chance to look at other countries and how their air traffic controllers worked, how they serviced airplanes and what kind of FPOs they had,” he said. “America is so far ahead, but most Americans don’t know that. We are the only country that really has a general aviation population that uses it for every purpose including recreation. You don’t find that in other countries.”
Inhofe said a general aviation airport like Riverside offers potential value to companies looking at moving to the Tulsa area.
“A lot of the companies that are looking to relocate – they look at the education system, they look an crime, they look at everything – but if you have a president or officers of a company who are strong in general aviation, this is a huge plus for Oklahoma, because that is the community that they want to be a part of and they integrate well,” he said.
And although Inhofe has used Riverside for business and political endeavors, he still comes back to the value of the facility for community and family.
“Don’t forget, both of my daughters had their rehearsal dinners out there in the hangars,” he said. “That was kind of a neat thing.”
The Aviation Historian
It is easy to see the love Charlie Harris has for aviation.
A look inside one of his three hangars at Riverside Airport, packed with vintage aircraft in pristine condition, reveals the intense devotion he has for sport aviation aircraft.
“I don’t need all these airplanes to be used for sport aviation, but I have been an aviation fan since my first day on earth,” he said. “My dad had an airplane when I was in preschool, and I got a ride in his open cockpit biplane before I ever went to school.”
Harris, president of Transportation Leasing Group, 7215 E. 46th St., grew up learning about the airplanes he saw flying over his home in Pawhuska.
“All the oil companies at that time and ever since have always been big in aviation,” he said. “Tulsa through the ‘20s and ‘30s and ‘40s was really the Oil Capital of the World, and every oil company and drilling company in this city – all had corporate aircraft to get their executives from place to place.”
The presence of Riverside Airport allows Harris to maintain his collection in a community of like-minded aircraft owners.
“There is an awful lot of nostalgia in a place like this,” he said. “Every owner pilot up and down on both the east side and the west side of the airport, they have similar stories about how at some point in their life aviation became a big thing to them.”
“These airplanes are meticulously kept; this hangar is meticulously kept. And that is true of virtually every airplane, every hanger in private ownership,” he said. “There is a world of pride in the private ownership, and if one didn’t have the pride to do it, one wouldn’t invest the resources it takes to do all of this.”
Pointing to an all-metal two-place Swift with a mirror skin, Harris said, “I have airplanes in here that were born and sold new in 1946 and they cost $3,500. Today that airplane is worth $75,000.”
Shifting is attention to a yellow Monocoupe, he notes, “That airplane was born in 1949 and it is the last of its particular type ever built. It sold for $5,400 brand new and it’s worth $150,000 today.
Harris likes to call Riverside Airport the Main Street into Tulsa.
“Riverside Airport is a huge treasure to the city of Tulsa,” he said. “You just can’t believe how much traffic that Riverside will handle for Tulsa. When the (PGA Championship) golf tournament comes to Southern Hills the first week of August, there will be not scores, but literally hundreds of corporate jets and player jets and media jets that will be here on Riverside.”
“It’s a natural,” he said. “Tulsa can’t possibly accurately value the worth of Riverside to the city.”
Harris has devoted much of his time to preserving and promoting sport aviation. He is a director of the national Vintage Aircraft Association, a division of the Experimental Aircraft Association, and a co-founder and Chairman of the Tulsa-based National Biplane Association.
He founded the NBA, which hosts “two of the largest biplane gatherings in the world in Bartlesville each year,” with Mary Jones in 1986-87. Jones died in 2004.
Of his 16 airplanes, he said his favorite “is almost always the airplane you flew last.”
“You can get out of any airplane in this hangar and feel like you have just fallen in love with your first love again,” he said.
Angels with Propellers
Louisiana oilman and farmer Doug Vincent has taken his aviation hobby and flown to the rescue of those who need transportation help for medical reasons.
Chairman emeritus of the Tulsa-based Angel Flight, Inc. unit, Vincent, said he started the group when he bought an airplane in 1991 and, wanting to help people, had heard about charity flying.
“There were no organizations around here to join,” he said, but deciding there should be other pilots willing to do it, “we’ll start one.”
Flying a 1981 Cessna 210 out of Riverside Airport, Vincent “just wanted to be able to take my toy, and instead of just flying in circles, be able to fly and help somebody with it.”
The group now has about 150 volunteer pilots in Oklahoma averaging 200-250 flights a year, he said.
“One of the things that we have done here is we are still completely independent,” he said. “There are other groups by the name Angel Flight. We work with them, but we are autonomous.”
He said the Oklahoma group’s pilots will often meet pilots from other groups in cooperative flights to get people to distant medical facilities.
“Like going to Houston, we may go partway and meet somebody,” he said. “Or going up to the Rochester, Minn., Mayo Clinic – we may go up to Des Moines, something like that, and meet another group and they take the person the rest of the way.”
Vincent said Angel Flight provides services primarily for non-emergency medical reasons.
“We are into just giving somebody a ride just like if somebody asked you, ‘Can you give me a ride to Oklahoma City or St. Francis Hospital?’ We are doing that with our own airplanes for people for whom transportation is a problem, not necessarily financially destitute, but where transportation is a problem,” he said.
Vincent said Angel Flight has operated for 15 years totally as a volunteer service with no overhead and no paid staff.
“The pilot take his own airplane, provides his own insurance and pays for his own gas,” said Al Howerton, a retired QuikTrip executive and Angel Flight volunteer who also flies out of Riverside. “It is totally funded by each pilot.” ?
Angel Flight can be reached at 918-749-8992 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Its Web site is www.angelflight.com.