Lakeland Linder International Airport was once a sleepy little airport for 11½ months of the year, with a smattering of small propeller planes circling overhead — except during the annual Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In.
But the addition of Draken International headquarters, a fixed base for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aircraft and Amazon cargo service in the last decade heralded a new age for Lakeland Linder. And it continues to grow, on target to have more than 150,000 flight operations this year. A new 10,000-square-foot hangar being built already has two tenants.
Over the past year the City Commission has approved more than $2.2 million in upgrades, new equipment and repairs. And negotiations continue to bring a commercial passenger airline, airport Director Kris Hallstrand said.
“We have growth all over the airport,” Hallstrand said, in her office overlooking the runway.
While many people applaud the changes, the revenue it generates and the jobs the growth has brought, some longtime residents are shocked and angered over the noise of jet engines rumbling over rooftops as cargo jets make their approaches to the airport’s east-west runway.
Improvements, repairs and purchases
According to data on the Fly Lakeland website, Lakeland Linder International Airport:
- Has $1.5 billion in regional economic impact.
- Hosts 84 businesses and organizations that employ nearly 3,500 people.
- Is home to more than 300 based aircraft, including 42 jets and turbo prop aircraft.
- Sits on 1,742 acres, including solar farms — enough to fit four Disney Magic Kingdoms.
- Is the 95th busiest airport in the United States — up from 98th last year.
- And is home to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, plus the Polk State College, Southeastern University and Travis Technical College aerospace programs.
In the past 10 years, more than $300 million has been invested in infrastructure at the airport, including a new air traffic control tower, a new aircraft rescue and firefighting station, taxiways, ramps, runway rehabilitation and a new instrument landing system.
Category III instrument landing system: The airport is spending $11.6 million to upgrade its instrument landing system to Category III, which will allow aircraft with the appropriate equipment to land in virtually any weather condition. State and federal grants are covering $9.3 million, or 80%, of the cost.
Aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle: The airport is getting a new aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle to replace the its current vehicle — a 2007 Oshkosh Striker 1500 that is nearing the end of its “planned useful life,” in accordance with the Federal Aviation Authority’s replacement schedule.
It will cost $1.06 million, with $914,000 coming from the Federal Aviation Administration and other grants. The city will pay for the rest out of the airport’s surplus budget. There is talk of a second, used truck as a backup in the future.
Security upgrades: The airport is spending $450,000 on security upgrades with $360,000 coming from Florida Department of Transportation grants and the city contributing $90,000. The improvements include:
- The installation of closed-circuit cameras at eight gate locations.
- Gate operator and panel replacement at two locations.
- 4,850 feet of replacement fencing and 13,950 feet of barbed wire along the airport’s perimeter.
- Installation of one sliding gate and four pedestrian gates on the south side of the airport.
- Installation of one swing gate on the east side of the airport.
- Upgraded hardware and the replacement of electronic controllers that are no longer supported by the airport’s computer control access system.
Automated weather observation system: The airport is also replacing its automated weather observation system for $120,000. FDOT is paying $96,000, while the city is kicking in $24,000 from the airport’s unappropriated surplus.
The system measures meteorological conditions and broadcasts weather reports that can be received by aircraft operating up to 10,000 feet above ground level and 25 nautical miles from the traffic control tower.
Hurricane damage: Like many other properties in our area, the airport sustained damage from recent hurricanes. The airport’s 600,000-square-foot thermoplastic polyuolefin roof had to be replaced after it was damaged during Hurricane Ian in 2022. That cost $790,000, with FEMA paying most of the cost.
In addition, several offices were damaged during Ian and Dorian, requiring $78,400 in repair.
Draken, NOAA and Amazon
Lakeland Linder’s three largest tenants are Draken, NOAA and Amazon, all of which have seen growth since arriving.
Draken International was established at Lakeland Linder International Airport in 2013 and in 2015, the company was awarded contracts to provide training for the U.S. military. In March 2018, Draken announced a $6.7 million expansion of its Lakeland headquarters and infrastructure. It operates an aircraft maintenance and overhaul facility at the airport and test-flies the jet aircraft on which it works.
In February of this year, the company renewed its lease for another three years, agreeing to pay nearly $47,000 a month in rent to the airport.
In 2016, NOAA signed a 10-year lease with the city to build a hangar and offices and base its fleet of nine specialized environmental data-gathering aircraft, including the agency’s three “hurricane hunter” planes, in Lakeland. The agency left MacDill Air Force Base and moved to Lakeland Linder in 2017. Just three years later, NOAA signed a 20-year lease with Lakeland and expanded its hangar and office space from 99,000 to 156,000 square feet.
NOAA added aircraft for its hurricane, coastal mapping, emergency response and other mission planes. Its Lakeland-based aircraft fleet is maintained and operated by a team of approximately 110 civilians and NOAA Corps officers.
“This agreement also solidifies our long-term commitment to Lakeland,” Rear Adm. Michael J. Silah, director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps and NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations said in 2020.
That same year Amazon and Lakeland Linder penned a deal for the e-retail giant to fly into Lakeland.
It built a $100 million, 300,000-square-foot air cargo hub. In 2022, it added an additional 10.6 acres into its fold, bringing its rent total at the airport to $500,000 a year.
“Amazon has four aircraft a day coming into the airport, which creates 28 operations in and out of the airport,” Hallstrand said. “So they’re going strong for us.”
New flight path may reduce cargo jet noise
Some say it’s too strong, particularly the noise as Amazon’s now-familiar blue and white cargo jets descend over residential neighborhoods when making low-altitude approaches to the runway.
Lakeland residents began complaining early on, including Eugenia and Rick Garrity. The couple, in their mid-70s, live in their home on South Polk Avenue between Cleveland Heights Boulevard and South Florida Avenue.
According to tax records, it is a 1926 Spanish-style home they bought in 1978 and refurbished over the years, plunging about $400,000 into it. The Polk County Property Appraiser’s website shows they added a pool in 1995, a screen enclosure two years later, a guesthouse in 2000 and a detached garage in 2015. They also added a modern kitchen, replaced the old wiring and put on at least one new roof.
The home is hidden behind lush tropical trees and vegetation. A gurgling fountain on the north side of the home used to be the only sound heard in the front yard as visitors walked up to the front door.
But now, Eugenia Garrity says, Amazon jets roar overhead, less than 300 yards from their roof, multiple times a day. Rick Garrity shared a video of it with City Commissioners.
On Thursday evening, the pair attended a public presentation of new proposed flight paths that officials hope will lessen some of the engine noise. The plan would shift the main flight path north of the Garritys’ home.
The couple looked at about a dozen maps and poster boards on easels lining the baggage claim area, each staffed by an airport official.
Airport Operations Coordinator Cody Orlebeke showed a satellite map of the current configuration of flight lines that he pointed out looked like a spaghetti model of a hurricane map, with flights arriving and departing along dozens of lines.
The new map shows only one line, with planes following the Polk Parkway and then edging southward beginning at Cleveland Heights Boulevard, over neighborhoods and businesses, as they make their way to a direct east-west path to the runway.
“If they do go over the Polk Parkway, it’ll help us,” Rick Garrity said, pointing out that city officials didn’t get public input into the Amazon deal until the last minute.
But Eugenia Garrity unleashed some of her fury on Hallstrand and other airport workers.
“We’ve been paying on this house for … years to get it paid off and I’m pissed,” she said. “You have ruined my home. I never thought I would listen to cargo planes flying right over my house.”
She said a realtor has told her that the jets have cut anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000 off the value of the home.
“What do I do when I show my home and a plane comes over?” she asked. “I got screwed. You people screwed us.”
Hallstrand tried to explain that the airport doesn’t control where planes fly — that is the Federal Aviation Administration’s purview.
“We can’t stop them from going over the house,” Hallstrand said. “I don’t control planes, I don’t control the air above your house. It’s FAA airspace … I’m trying to get you to understand what we’re doing. In order to get to the runway, you have to get to a stabilized approach. We went above and beyond because we heard the community.”
Hallstrand said she is confident the new flight path will work, but if it doesn’t, she said the airport will find another way to advocate for the community.
Garrity said she could not understand how Lakeland Linder officials signed the deal, knowing cargo jets would be flying over populated areas.
“This city didn’t give a damn what they did to this neighborhood,” she said. “The airport should be moved out of this heavily residential area. Build an airport south of here near Bartow.”
Hallstrand told LkldNow that they have been working for several years to mitigate the noise and lessen the impact to the community. Their $ 280,000 study and flight line proposal should be approved in the coming month or two by the FAA.
“Grasslands is going to see a substantial decrease in noise with this, and many residents are going to see a decrease,” Hallstrand said. “The challenges is we can never stop noise in our community when you have aircraft operating in an airport.”
Among the residents affected by the current flight path are Lakeland Mayor Bill Mutz and City Manager Shawn Sherrouse.
Sherrouse said he and guests at his home actually walk outside to watch the flyovers when they hear the planes approaching.
“Where I live now, they come right over the top of my pool cage,” Sherrouse said. “I can see the pilot. It’s not that bad.”
Mutz said his family has lived on the approach pattern for the airport for years and is used to the sound.
“They go straight over our house — I love them,” Mutz said. “I enjoy aircraft anyway, so from my vantage point, it’s just nice to be able to see different planes as they pass.”
Mutz said the planes come in fully under power to stay level with the ground until they reach the approach for the runway.
“So they’re very loud as they go over,” he said. “That gets abated by this new pattern because it also specifies the angle of descent, so they wouldn’t be brought in on a flat plane basis, which some of these planes have been assigned to be able to do. The only exception to that would be severe weather conditions or some kind of maintenance issue. Otherwise, they would follow a much more gradual and quieter descent.”
He said some pilots are already following the new flight path.
“We have had less complaints on the flight path because a lot of it has been followed when it was possible to do so,” Mutz said. “It will make people even more pleased with the ability to handle air traffic, but to do it in the quietest means possible.”
Fly Lakeland said there are multiple factors in the sound of an aircraft:
- Newer jet aircraft are quieter than older ones.
- Generally, departures are louder than arrivals because aircraft need more engine power to attain a safe level of flight.
- Aircraft departing for distant destinations are also louder than those traveling to closer destinations because their rate of climb is hampered by their greater fuel load.
- Weather has a strong influence on the choices of runways and flight paths used by aircraft, as aircraft take off and land into the wind for safety and performance reasons.
- The movement of noise through the air can also be influenced by wind, temperature, cloud cover, fog, topography, and man-made barriers such as homes and other buildings.
- Changes in outside air temperature can influence how far noise travels as well as how quickly an aircraft climbs.
Finally, the website states, “there is a wide range of sensitivity to noise, and the perceived extent of noise annoyance for an individual is largely dependent on their personal reaction to it.”
Commercial passenger airline service
The Federal Aviation Administration National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems for 2017–2021 shows Lakeland Linder is “a national reliever facility for Tampa International Airport” and that the airport has an operating certificate allowing passenger airline flights.
A study showed people living within the area Lakeland Linder would serve generated more than 1.6 million passengers in 2021 — an average of 2,215 passengers per day or enough passengers to fill 29 76-seat regional jet departures daily. A majority of local residents currently travel to Tampa or Orlando to catch flights:
- Tampa International Airport — 56.5%
- Orlando International Airport — 34.2%
- St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport — 7.3%
- And Orlando/Sanford International Airport — 2.1%
“While we know not all 1.6 million passengers in our catchment area will choose (Lakeland Linder), there is a large enough demand for air service that (it) presents an attractive secondary market for airlines seeking to access the central Florida region, while also serving our community’s travel needs,” the airport’s website says.
Hallstrand said she has been in continued and active talks with an airline to offer the commercial flights so many in Lakeland say they want. It has been a years-long project to secure.
“Activities are happening in the background to hopefully … spring this to fruition in the future,” Hallstrand said. “You know, our area has enough folks to utilize an airline and it is our goal to provide that service to the community. What’s really nice about situation that we’re in here at Lakeland, we are very healthy airport, our revenues are good. Our costs are less than our revenues. So, you know, we look at this as a service to the community that will go along with everything else we do here on the airport.”
Educating students about aviation
Another important service to the community is aviation education. Hallstrand has entered into a partnership with Sun ‘n Fun’s Aces High program to help educate students about airport-related careers.
“(It)reaches into diverse communities and helps kids get exposed to aviation,” Hallstrand said. “You know, that’s part of my initiative to try to show aviation careers to folks that don’t realize that they exist and hopefully get, you know, more diversity and more opportunity to everybody in our community.”
Hallstrand said the students are rewarded for good attendance and good grades.
“They get to fly in an airplane, they get to go to the Kennedy Space Center, they get to go to JetBlue and we provide Uber and Lyft vouchers for them to get to an airport to be exposed,” Hallstrand said.
When the new 10,000-square-foot hangar was built and leased almost immediately, Mayor Bill Mutz asked if there is extra space for building more hangars or cargo areas. The answer: there’s not.
“We are truly running out of land,” Hallstrand said, acknowledging that a good chunk of airport property is used by Sun ‘n Fun, the Center for Aerospace Excellence and Kathleen High School’s Central Florida Aerospace Academy.
“You know, one of our big goals is to protect the future of Sun ‘n Fun because of the impact that it has, not only just the community and the airport, but on aviation as a whole,” Hallstrand said. “So we’re protecting a pretty large area of property there for just Sun ‘n Fun and events in the Aerospace Center for Excellence. So I think it’s part of our identity. The education programs in Sun ‘n Fun is part of Lakeland’s story and I think we need to protect that for the future.”
History dating back to WWII
Lakeland Linder started its life in 1940 as a second airport to serve the community, following Lodwick Field in what is now Tigertown. Lodwick was built back when bi-planes brought in mail and landed at the facility on the west side of Lake Parker.
“Airport No. 2” was located in the rural countryside, out beyond almost all homes, surrounded by cattle pastures and farmland. It became Drane Field the following year, named in honor of Lakeland pioneer Herbert Drane. But no sooner had the city broken ground on the airport than the U.S. War Department took over the project, paving three runways into a star shape and renaming it in 1942 to Lakeland Army Air Field. U.S. Army Air Force pilots trained here in B-26 Marauders before heading to North Africa during WWII.
In the late 1950s, the city began phasing out Lodwick Air Field and concentrating its efforts on the neglected Drane Field. It was repaired and rededicated as Lakeland Municipal Airport in 1960. In the 1970s, it was renamed again to Lakeland Regional Airport.
Piper Aircraft opened a manufacturing division at Lakeland Regional in 1972, employing up to 2,200 people in a 710,000-square-foot facility at the airport. After the sale of the company and price slashes, Piper went out of business. In 1991 the Lakeland factory was sold and closed.
In the late 1980s, it was dubbed Lakeland Linder Regional Airport for local businessman Paul Scott Linder.
The last name change occurred in November 2017, when Lakeland Linder International Airport opened its first U.S. Customs and Border Protection General Aviation Facility, allowing international aircraft with 20 passengers or fewer to land at the field with an approved overflight permit.
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