OAK HARBOR — A private citizen has entered the running for ownership of the A.J. Eisenberg Airport south of Oak Harbor.
North Whidbey resident Robert DeLaurentis, a Navy veteran and global peace advocate known as the “Zen Pilot,” told the Whidbey News-Times that he submitted a letter of intent to purchase the airport, a precursor to a formal offer. Last month, Island County commissioners instructed county staff to negotiate for the purchase of the airport with the intent of immediately turning over ownership to the Port of Coupeville, which would handle all airport management and operations.
Local pilots who operate out of the Eisenberg Airport have long hoped public ownership could revivify the airport, which has declined steadily for the past two decades. DeLaurentis, however, thinks new private ownership would come with some notable benefits for the airport and the community.
For one thing, a private citizen can work faster than a government entity, DeLaurentis said. One important task that needs to be completed at the airport, he said, is to repave and widen the runway. For a governmental body, completing the studies and acquiring the funding necessary for this construction could take years. DeLaurentis said if his purchase goes through, he will begin work on the runway the day after the deal closes.
The rules and restrictions about how government entities can obtain and spend money can also be tricky to navigate, he added, while he already has money on hand to purchase and fix up the airport and is ready to “rock and roll.”
The airport is in desperate need of a little love, DeLaurentis said. Besides revamping the runway, he said if he purchases the airport, his immediate plans also include replacing the old fuel tanks and restoring the hangars.
Looking farther ahead, he envisions a larger operation that might include an airport restaurant, a flight school, an aviation museum, more rental hangars and a professional shuttle service to the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
“Airports are usually a place where people gather in the community, and I don’t know that that’s happening out there now,” he said.
Mark Varljen, a Whidbey-based general aviation advocate, said that while he’s thrilled and impressed that a private individual would be willing to step up and take on the challenge of fixing up the airport, he still feels public ownership is in the best interest of the community and is most likely to help the airport achieve its full potential.
“A private owner is better than no owner, assuming it remains in public use,” he said, but “the amount of private investment to make it fully functional isn’t realistic to expect.”
A public entity such as the Port of Coupeville would have more access to grants and other funding sources than a private individual, Varljen said. Public ownership could also facilitate the airport becoming connected to the larger national transportation network.
DeLaurentis moved to Whidbey Island from San Diego last year. A pilot of 11 years, DeLaurentis became the first pilot to fly solo around the world in a Piper Malibu Mirage in 2015.
In 2020, he completed another global flight that took him through the North and South Poles and more than 20 countries on a mission to promote world peace. He stopped in countries in South America, Africa, Europe and Asia to talk to citizens about what it means to be a citizen of the world — “Citizen of the World” was also the name of the plane he flew on that expedition.
This story originally appeared in the Whidbey News-Times, a sister publication to The Herald.