Air Force Veteran, Air Show Expert Takes Helm at Lakeland’s Airport

Kris Hallstrand, 46, served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan as a C-130 crew chief and then director of the flight line at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, overseeing 30 aircraft and about 90 men and women.

“I love that airplane to death and I prided myself on my time spent in the Air Force, working on that aircraft,” Hallstrand said as she drove the perimeter of Lakeland Linder International Airport on Wednesday morning, two days after being officially named the airport’s new director. City Manager Shawn Sherrouse made the official announcement during Monday morning’s City Commission meeting.

“Kris has served in the interim position now for just over six months and that has given not only myself, but the commission and the community and our stakeholders and customers at the airport, an opportunity to witness the type of professionalism that Kris brings to the position,” Sherrouse told city commissioners on Monday. “And so it certainly justified this permanent promotion and I’m pleased to do so here this morning,” The U.S. Marine veteran also applauded Hallstrand’s military service. “Very important to many — and certainly to me — I also want to recognize 14 years of service in the Air Force, serving as a C-130 crew chief.”

Hallstrand will oversee a projected budget of about $8 million in expenditures and $11 million in revenue this coming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1. She has a staff of 23 people in three departments: administration, operations and maintenance. As the airport director, Hallstrand will receive a 5% pay adjustment, providing the equivalent of an annual salary of $130,878.

“Kris’ promotion is supported by airport staff, Sun ‘n Fun’s board, and all airport clients because of her consistent diligence and overall knowledge of the industry and Lakeland’s operational needs,” said Mayor Bill Mutz. “As our airport continues to grow, it is imperative we utilize the talented skills Kris provides.”

She will work closely with Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In CEO and President Gene Conrad, the previous Lakeland airport director, who transferred to the airshow and scholarship program in March.

“I’m extremely happy that Kris is now the full-time airport director,” Conrad said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I’m glad that announcement was finally made and I’m 1,000% supportive of that decision by the city manager.”

Boxes of photographs and memorabilia are sitting on the floor of her office, which overlooks the airfield, and bouquets of fresh flowers rest on her desk and window sill – one from former Deputy City Manager Nicole Travis and a second from fixed base operators at the airport.

Growing up

Hallstrand’s love of aviation started when she was a child, growing up on a farm in rural northern Wisconsin, where she fished, hunted, logged, and camped. Every year, Prentice, Wis., had a festival called Prentice Progress Days and, as part of that, a local pilot offered rides — $15 for 15 minutes.

“My parents always put my brother and I on those airplanes, so we’d go fly around, look at the farm. So we did that every year,” Hallstrand said. “And then my brother started flying. He got his private pilot’s license and I was flying with him. And I enjoyed the flying and I enjoyed the airplanes, so I joined the U.S. Air Force and started working on C-130 cargo airplanes as a crew chief, which is the person in charge of maintenance on the airplanes.”

After her four years as a fulltime airman, she joined a reserve unit in Milwaukee and then a state guard unit in Minneapolis, deploying about every 15 months all over the world, particularly to the Middle East and the War on Terror. She racked up more than two dozen medals for meritorious service and service in various theaters of operation, but she declined to describe some of the things that happened to her at Bagram or at the various remote forward bases of operations she had to fly into and out of to repair planes.

When not overseas, Hallstrand also worked as the airport director at Price County Airport in Phillips, Wis., and was the superintendent of maintenance and operations at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wis., which hosts the largest airshow in the United States each year.  Lakeland’s Sun ‘n fun Fly-In is the second largest.

It was at Oshkosh that Conrad first met Hallstrand.  She likes to tell the story that the secretary Conrad’s father hired in Oshkosh wound up being Hallstrand’s secretary when she began working at the airport there. Conrad said he became impressed with Hallstrand as he watched her in airshow event briefings.

“I saw Kris and how Kris handled herself amongst … a lot of them are maybe aviation legends, right, because we’re in the big briefings with, whether it was airshow performers, various volunteers, and different folks in different areas for this gigantic event, and Kris just did a phenomenal job,” Conrad said. “And also her understanding of that event and being a part of it for all the years that she was, it made a ton of sense, you know if I could get her to come down … because our event is so similar.”

Moving to Lakeland

But Conrad had to convince Hallstrand, asking her to come work for him over the course of several years. Conrad wasn’t the only one paying attention; Hallstrand was also watching Conrad and the way he treated people with respect. Six years ago, she made the move and became operations manager at Lakeland Linder, eventually moving up to assistant airport director.

She moved her wife of 24 years, Adele, daughter and son to Lakeland just as her son was starting high school. Hunter Hallstrand was sold when he heard about the Central Florida Aerospace Academy on the airport property, a magnet school run by Kathleen Senior High School for aspiring airplane pilots, mechanics, engineers, and builders, along with the Lakeland Aero Club, a flying club for high school students. He is now in the U.S. Air Force, working as a C-130 crew chief, just like Hallstrand did.

When she is not at work, she loves spending time with her family, boating, walking through Circle B Reserve, having her daughter come home for dinner, and traveling to see friends in Tennessee or her mother in Wisconsin.

Since her arrival in 2016, she and Conrad have worked on multiple projects, including improved runways, improved taxiway lighting systems, and increased hangar space.

Hallstrand said one of the things she is most proud of is luring the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Aircraft Operation Center to Lakeland, building a $5 million structure in just six months to house its fleet, including Hurricane Hunter aircraft. It opened in June 2017.

NOAA leadership had its doubts, though. Then-Capt. Michael Silah told Conrad and Hallstrand he didn’t think they could get it done.

“I looked square in the eyes of Captain Silah and I said, ‘Sir I assure you we’re gonna get this done ,’” Hallstrand recalled. “At that point, I had no clue how we were going to get it done, but that’s how we operate in Lakeland. The answer is yes, it’s just how we get there. And we’re very passionate and dedicated, you know, in everything that we do. If we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it 100%. We’re not going to — for lack of a better term – half-ass it. We’re gonna go at it with all of our passion and fortitude to get it done.”

Of course the city also signed a deal with Amazon, which flies in and out of the airport multiple times a day, delivering packages to Amazon’s gargantuan cargo facility.  Hallstrand is now dealing with the complaints about airplane noise from neighbors, many of whom bought or built their homes thinking the noise would only involve small private propeller planes or small private jets, along with Sun ‘n Fun once a year.

Passenger service

Hallstrand’s biggest task ahead is attracting a commercial passenger airline to fly in and out of Lakeland.  Data shows that 2,400 people within the area’s zip codes daily use Orlando or Tampa international airports. She said she is in talks with an airline, but declined to say which one.

“So there’s definitely an opportunity for an airline to come in here and succeed,” Hallstrand said. “You know, we’re looking for the right partner. We’re not just going out there and saying, ‘Okay, whatever anybody who really wants to come, just come.’ We’re looking for a strong partner that values what our community needs.”

She added that Delta, American and United airlines have all eliminated service at 59 small to medium-sized airports throughout the country recently because of the shortage of pilots, mechanics and flight attendants.

“They’ve dropped service, so how are you going to get them to expand?”Hallstrand asked. “They’re not, they’re contracting.”

As for the physical airport, she said they have built most of the infrastructure they need, with plans for a second parallel runway, which they will pursue when time and finances allow.  She is also looking for investors to build private hangars and possibly another hotel. And, there is space for a company to build a maintenance, repair and overhaul facility. She is also hoping to build a dormitory for the flight schools that operate at the airport.

She said any career in aviation is rewarding.

“My aviation career has been all over the world. I have flown all over the world. I’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve been in a lot of countries in between. All through aviation is how I got there,” Halllstrand said. “We’re offering these kids an opportunity to get into a business that, one, has shortages all over the place, whether it be the pilots, whether it be the stewardess, or whether it be the mechanics, and then in our industry, even airport management and operations, it’s hard to get people … A lot of people don’t realize aviation is such a great career. Everything in aviation you have to work for and that develops your passion. And once you’re in it, and you’ve worked for it, that’s when you get great rewards of, you know, enjoying a career and waking up in the morning with a smile on your face.”

Under her leadership, a restaurant has opened once again at the airport.  Waco (pronounced WAH-co) Kitchen offers a fine dining experience, with a full bar and a farm-to-table menu that includes roasted salmon, apple-brined pork chops with apple jam, a New York strip steak, gourmet burgers, flatbread pizza and salads. There’s also a menu for “future aviators” that includes burgers, pizza, chicken and cavatappi noodles mixed with a house white cheese sauce.

Hallstrand said credit for any accomplishments lies not just with her or Conrad, but also with their staff.

“This airport is a large, complex beast and the only reason why this airport is successful is because of the team that we have here at the airport,” Hallstrand said. “Our employees are passionate and dedicated to doing what’s best for the airport and the city of Lakeland, and for our customers here. And we can’t do what we do at this airport without the staff. Everyone pitches in, everybody takes a piece and that’s how we get everything done. It’s with the team.”

Hallstrand’s official first day as airport director was Sunday, Sept. 18.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

Lakeland skylineSupport Independent Community News. We rely on people like you to invest in the community by supporting this non-profit service. Donate