Dr. John “Doc” Smith climbed into a Cessna 340 at the Laurel Municipal Airport for a very special occasion Saturday morning.
The occasion was bittersweet. Smith, 88, longtime chairman of the Laurel Airport Authority, was a passenger on the first flight to use the new crosswind runway at the airport. But he was also saying goodbye after 50 years on the airport board, 48 of them as chairman.
Dozens of people looked on as the plane’s engines roared to life and then the Cessna, piloted by Jeffrey Kaas, motored down the runway to begin a flight around the valley. A few minutes later, the plane did a flyover at the airport and then flew another loop in the sky before landing.
For Smith, who earned his private pilot’s license years ago and co-owned a plane, helping to christen the new runway was a fitting ending. In a brief ceremony that honored him, the Laurel native and retired dentist talked about the new runway, which overcame many hurdles to complete.
“This project took an awful long time,” he said. “I kind of forgot what the beginning was by the time I got to the end.”
Laurel Mayor Tom Nelson agreed that the new runway is vital to the airport.
“The airport in itself is vital to the city of Laurel, and the city of Laurel is vital to this airport as well,” Nelson said. “We are going to try to do what we can to facilitate the growth of this airport.”
As Laurel expands, it will bring more business and growth to the airport. Working together in partnership will facilitate growth for both, he said.
Nelson credited much of the success of the airport to Smith.
“Thank him for what he’s done,” the mayor said. “Without him, the airport probably wouldn’t be what it is today.”
At the ribbon cutting, Craig Canfield, senior project engineer with KLJ Engineering in Billings, said the runway will come in handy at an airport where a lot of training takes place. Canfield, who recently earned a private pilot’s license, wished he would have had the option of choosing between the two runways when crosswinds were strong.
Canfield, who worked with Smith on the $4.2 million project, said the project took 10 years for planning, land acquisition and construction.
“This has been a day that Dr. Smith has been looking forward to for a long, long time,” he said.
In an interview with Smith before the ribbon-cutting, Canfield said he had worked with Smith on various projects over the past 30 years, longer than any other client.
“He’s pretty demanding, he definitely knows your telephone number and he’s not afraid to use it,” he said, chuckling. “He knows what he wants, he has a goal and he knows the right people to get the goal accomplished.”
Canfield marveled at Smith’s longevity in the post.
“His leadership and dedication to this airport has been pretty amazing,” he said. “Fifty years — you don’t ever see that.”
Smith served in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s, after he completed his dental schooling. Born in Laurel, he lived in the town his entire life.
A neighbor at the time, Dave Powers, got him interested in flying. Eventually the two men co-owned a plane.
Then Smith got involved in the leadership of the airport. From five planes in a hangar in 1968, the number has grown to 100, and Laurel is one of the busiest small airports in the state.
“At one time I did all the paperwork,” he said. “Eventually we got an accountant.”
Flying was fun, Smith said, seeing the beauty of Montana from the sky.
Smith’s two sons and one daughter came to the airport for the event. Mark Smith remembered coming to the airport in the summer to do odd jobs.
One summer, he helped fill cracks in the asphalt.
“Whenever there was something to be done, we were here,” he said.
Williams, who worked with Smith on the board, said in an interview that construction of the runway took about 1 ½ years. Federal funding paid 90 percent of the cost, and the rest was raised by the Laurel Airport Authority.
The Montana Army National Guard flew in helicopters for the occasion, giving visitors the opportunity to take a ride. If talks between the airport and the Montana Army National Guard are fruitful, Williams said, the helicopters could have a permanent presence in Laurel.
If the plan comes to fruition, a base would be constructed probably on the north side of the airport to stage helicopters for emergency response and firefighting. Discussions have been underway for the past couple of years.
“It would be good for the airport, it would be good for the whole area, the county and the valley,” Williams said. “Because right now there isn’t a facility anywhere close to here.”