STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
GRANITE SHOALS — For many years, if a pilot wanted to land just after sunset at the Granite Shoals airport, they had to let Bob Sylvester know so he could flip a switch in his house and turn on the 32 “Christmas” lights.
They weren’t exactly Christmas lights, but at 10 watts, each was equivalent to a holiday bulb.
It did the job of helping pilots find the runway in the dark.
When it came to the upkeep and maintenance of the grass-strip airport, Sylvester, who also served as the city’s engineer, was the man leading the way – and often doing the grunt work.
“There’s always airport maintenance to do — mowing, filling ruts — and he enjoyed taking on those tasks and working with the city street department when heavy equipment was needed,” said Bob’s son, Barry Sylvester. “He enjoyed working with other pilots and aircraft owners over the years as well. He liked having a nice airstrip for his own flying and for the other pilots who would fly in and out from time to time.”
The elder Sylvester passed away March 13, 2014, after 32 years as the city’s “unofficial” airport manager.
On May 23, the Granite Shoals City Council voted to rename the Granite Shoals Municipal Airport, located between Mystic and Green Forest drives, in his honor. It will be called the Granite Shoals/Bob Sylvester Airpark. The city’s parks committee gave the name its thumbs-up on June 1.
“Bob has been involved in this thing for so long,” said Neil Haverlah, the airport advisory committee chairman. “He was a super-nice guy and very generous with his time and effort to keep the airport in shape during his time here.”
The council and committee also approved changing the airpark from a private facility to a public one, which basically means pilots won’t be required to contact the city manager for permission to land.
The airport actually predates the city. The original hope was that the airport, which was built in the early 1960s, would draw visitors to the area. Then — fingers crossed — they would fall in love with the lakeside area and purchase a lot in what was then known as the Sherwood Shores subdivision.
When Granite Shoals officially incorporated in 1966, the airport became property of the city.
The facility features a 2,000-foot grass strip.
While the Sylvesters didn’t move to Granite Shoals until 1982, Bob Sylvester began landing at the airport in the mid-1960s.
Sylvester, who was training as a B-17 navigator in the Army Air Corps as World War II ended, went into the engineering field after he left the military. He eventually started work at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was in Albuquerque where he earned his private pilot’s license in 1961 and soon began making regular jaunts with his family to the Highland Lakes. Barry Sylvester said he remembers flying with his parents as a child to the San Antonio and Marble Falls areas to visit family.
Once the elder Sylvester retired in 1982, the family relocated to Granite Shoals, where Bob Sylvester became the city engineer. He still enjoyed flying, even building a workshop and hangar along their airstrip property. Back then, the airport wasn’t much to look at, Barry Sylvester said, noting neighbors often used it as another street.
Bob Sylvester, who also made sure the city’s water tower was built to code in 1994 as the city engineer and donated his time and services to that project, became a tireless advocate for the airport, often rolling up his own sleeves and getting his hands dirty to make improvements to the airport. The city loaned Sylvester a tractor to level land for the runway.
“He was an engineer who enjoyed planning and executing projects,” his son said. “Once he became a permanent resident, the grass (at the airport) was mowed regularly, ruts were filled, various landscaping projects were done, and the little airport has never looked better … because of Bob Sylvester.”
Haverlah credits the facility’s great shape to Sylvester’s work and effort.
“He maintained the runway for years and years,” Haverlah said.
And that even included adding lights.
Barry Sylvester said he and his dad installed the 32 runway lights after people privately donated the funds for them. City staff loaned the two a trenching machine for the electrical wiring.
“Occasionally, (pilots) would arrive at or slightly after sunset, and the need for runway lights became obvious,” Barry Sylvester said. “At that time, the animal control facility hadn’t been built (on the east end of the runway), and the closest electrical power source was in my dad’s hangar. The lights are turned on by a remote radio switch and are on a 15-minute timer. I doubt the electric bill was ever more than a dollar or two per month, usually less than that.”
As well as being the airport caretaker, Bob Sylvester loved flying. He kept his three airplanes in hangars at the Granite Shoals airport so he was never far from taking off on a flight.
Last June, after the city established the airport advisory committee, its members began looking into changing the airport from a private one to a public facility as well as considering a new name. The nod to Bob Sylvester just seemed like the right choice, Haverlah acknowledged.
The city and airport advisory committee are looking at ways to promote Granite Shoals/Bob Sylvester Airpark. The airport has already become an amenity that’s drawn people to the community.
Haverlah said a Wisconsin pilot landed at the airport, fell in love with Granite Shoals, and purchased a hangar so he could move here.
He hopes for more of those stories.
“We want them to fly in and land and check out the city,” he said. “You build a hangar or a house or a hangar and house and use the airport as a home base.”
Go to graniteshoals.org for more information on the Granite Shoals/Bob Sylvester Airpark.