At an age when most Americans are relaxing in retirement, Hale and Kay Bennett decided to open an airport.
“It isn’t just kids who do things like that,” said Hale, who turns 93 on Sunday, about the visionary project.
The couple met while serving on the Carson-Tahoe Hospital (now Carson Tahoe Regional Medical Center) board of directors. Kay was a nursing supervisor at the hospital and member of the Carson City Board of Supervisors. She was appointed to represent the city on the hospital board. Hale, retired director of the State Division of Data Processing, was the chairman of the board. They celebrated their 25th anniversary Aug. 1.
Together, they worked toward improving the community.
In 1989, they had heard about an economic development project in Fallon and decided to drive east on Highway 50 to take a look.
Kay said that on the way out Hale turned off Highway 50 and down a rough old road. A new pilot at the time, Kay gradually realized they were on an old runway.
“Hale informed me that he had landed a B-29 on this strip,” Kay said.
That was right after World War II, during which Hale was a bomber pilot with the 553rd Squadron. He flew 68 combat missions over Europe, including two on D-Day. After the war, he helped train pilots.
In 1945, he was bound for Stead Airport in a B-29 with a crew he was training, but an accident had closed that airport. He was diverted to the Lahontan Airstrip, as it was then known.
Fast forward 44 years, and “There was nothing here except a runway that had almost evaporated,” Hale said.
They both recognized the potential buried under the weeds and the Silver Springs Airport project took root.
“What we both saw right away was the open approach,” Kay said. “So much level land here. We could see a tremendous asset.”
“We were pilots,” Hale said. “We both love to fly. One way or another we were going to fly when we retired. I had acquired a nice airplane. We enjoy flying to new places and thought this was a good place for an airport.”
The timing was right. The people who controlled the property wanted to get rid of it. The Bennetts took over the lease, transferred the land back to Lyon County and negotiated a new 50-year lease that includes development of the land surrounding the runways and taxi ways. In return, the Bennetts operate, maintain and insure the airport.
The Silver Springs Airport became the focus of their life. The Bennetts’ comfortable home sits next to the reconstructed landing strip. One section of the house serves as the “Pilots Lounge” and airport office.
Kay, now 77, admitted that starting an airport was a daunting task, but together they brought political strength, creativity and knowledge to the project.
“Yes, it’s tremendously challenging” she said. Doing it “was more about the challenge and the legacy; being able to develop a significant asset.”
To date, $6.5 million in capital improvements in the area are due to the private/public partnership needed to develop the airport, she said.
Their efforts attracted an unexpected audience.
About a year ago, a Boeing jet landed at the Silver Springs Airport. Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of the Boeing Company, got out.
“We talked to him quite a bit because he wanted to talk to us,” Hal said. “Kay and I did something that isn’t done regularly. ... He talked to us about starting a business and running an airport.”
And then Muilenburg discovered more to the story that directly touched his company. In 1940, Hale Bennett worked as an expediter for the B-29 bomber manufacturing at the Boeing plant in Seattle. He helped them progress from paper to finished bomber.
Muilenburg’s eyes got big when he heard that, Hale said.
After a lengthy conversation, Muilenburg left. Two weeks later, he flew in again and presented the Bennetts with a framed photograph of a B-29 with an engraved plaque dedicating it to Hale.
“He probably wasn’t here 20 minutes before he flew off again,” Hale said.
With a lot more work to do, the Bennetts continue to labor at their dream.
Hale has genetics working in his favor. His father lived to be 101 and his mother 103.
In 2005, he was diagnosed with cancer — multiple myeloma —but is now in remission.
“I have an absolutely great doctor,” he said. “He kills the cancer cells as soon as they get there.”
The health scare has slowed him a bit. Nowadays Kay takes care of most of job of managing the airport.
“He’s still very much engaged in the day-to-day activities and what’s going on. With complex issues, he’s a sounding board,” she said. “He certainly enabled me to carry this on.”
It will take a couple more years before the airport is self-sustaining, she said.
“It’s gradually happening.
“It’s extremely important for a couple reasons. As the USA Parkway is competed, it will have a huge impact on Silver Springs, Stagecoach, Highway 50 corridor. We feel we’ll emerge as an important corporate center. Business and industry will locate here.”
For, the Bennetts watching the airport progress step by step is worth the sacrifice.
“It’s a very interesting project,” Kay said. “We meet some of the most interesting people here. We never know who will walk in our door.”