Paine Field’s manager plans to retire after historic, notable tenure

EVERETT — The longtime manager of Snohomish County’s Paine Field, Dave Waggoner, plans to retire later this summer, capping a 23-year stewardship that has seen historic firsts and huge growth at and around the airport.

The soft-spoken Waggoner, 69, deflects the credit. “I have strong department heads and a great staff,” he said.

Once a military base, Paine Field became home to Boeing’s wide-body jetliner factory in the late 1960s. Today it is a major economic driver, with hundreds of aerospace manufacturing jobs on airport property. Waggoner runs the airfield with a staff of 50 and an operating budget of about $19 million.

Waggoner came in 1992 after retiring from the U.S. Navy. Since then, airport revenue has quadrupled, the number of planes based there has grown by 50 percent, adjacent wetland habitat has been restored, runways have been overhauled, three aerospace museums have opened and several large aerospace suppliers have located manufacturing operations on airport land.

And that’s just a short list of what Waggoner has overseen on his watch.

“We’ve had some difficult projects and some interesting ones,” he said.

Moving the main runway more than 400 feet south — that was a difficult project. It was necessary because the north end was too close to Highway 526.

“We were pelting cars with gravel,” he said.

But shifting the 9,000-foot runway meant having to fill in and level two steep draws at the south end to create enough flat, open buffer space in case an airplane overshoots the runway. The three-year project involved some tricky engineering. It was finished in the late-1990s. A few months later, a small private plane did go off the runway.

“If that had happened a year earlier, they would have ended up in a ball and maybe all died,” he said.

Waggoner knows what he’s talking about. During his career as a naval aviator, he saw plenty of close calls and even had to crash-land his A-6 Intruder once.

Flying into Naval Air Station Oceana near Virginia Beach, Virginia, his jet fighter’s rear landing gear wouldn’t lower. So Waggoner landed using the plane’s front landing gear and the empty fuel tank attached to the belly of the plane.

It was almost as smooth a landing as any he ever made, Waggoner said. “The drop tank had to be replaced and part of a wing flap was damaged, but that’s it.”

A black and white photo of Waggoner’s crash-landed A-6 is hanging in his office at Paine Field.

He said he will likely stay on as airport manager through August.

Snohomish County owns the airport, and the manager works for the county executive.

The county has not listed Waggoner’s position as vacant, but spokeswoman Rebecca Hover released an “ideal candidate” profile that is a testament to the job’s importance: “As the airport generates approximately $30 billion to $40 billion into the state’s economy annually, we are looking for a candidate who understands the huge role the airport plays in economic development,” the description says in part.

Waggoner’s successor will have “big shoes to fill,” said Peter Camp, the county’s hearing examiner.

From 2006 until last March, Camp oversaw several departments, including the airport, for the county executive’s office.

“I learned a lot from him” about how an airport operates, he said.

Waggoner always tried to listen to and work with everyone from Boeing executives to residents opposed to passenger service at Paine Field, Camp said.

Of course, as airport manager, Waggoner said, he never took sides in the heated debate over passenger service.

“My job was to execute policy decisions and provide information for people,” he said.

Waggoner led the airport in building the Future of Flight Aviation Center &Boeing Tour. It is now breaking even and has about 250,000 visitors a year, he said.

He supported the founding of the two other museums at Paine Field — the Historic Flight Foundation and the Flying Heritage Collection.

“We have become a destination for aviation enthusiasts,” Waggoner said.

Private aviation has grown under his tenure from about 300 airplanes based at Paine in 1992 to about 650 today. Earlier this year, he cracked down on nonaviation uses at airport hangars, which violates Federal Aviation Administration policy.

“The world is not building many new runways,” so that land has to be maintained for aviation uses, he said.

In many ways, Waggoner sees his role as being a steward of a regional resource.

In recent years, he collaborated with Everett and state officials for strengthening Washington’s bid to land the assembly line for Boeing’s new 777X jetliner.

As part of that work, the airport has done the legwork to open up a large swath of woodland on the west side for industrial development.

The airport has also done prep work for repairing and reopening Runway 11-29, which is a parking lot for several Boeing 787 Dreamliners that are overweight and unsold.

Waggoner has worked closely with Boeing. The airport is adjacent to the aerospace company’s Everett plant, where it assembles wide-body jetliners.

A couple of years ago, the county and Boeing collaborated on building the Dreamlifter Operations Center, which can handle the super-sized Boeing 747s used to fly in Dreamliner sections. The county built the $35 million facility for Boeing, which agreed to lease it until the bonds are paid off.

His most memorable day since coming on at Paine Field?

“Probably the first flight of the 787,” he said. “There was so much excitement in the air.”

The 777’s first flight is a close second, Waggoner said. “That was a game-changer, too.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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