Lee Sommer has high hopes for airport’s next chapter
By Auzinea Bacon
Sometimes Lee Sommer wishes he were 20 years younger so he could have more time to work as the College Park Airport’s manager.
“It makes me feel proud that I’m one of maybe a handful or a dozen airport managers that have gone through here,” he said.
Sommer’s time in the U.S. Air Force, in 1975, sparked his interest in aviation. He didn’t jump right in after his service, though, instead launching a startup information technology security company, which he ran with his business partner for 20 years before deciding to retire in 2014.
When a position opened up at the College Park Airport, Sommer’s interest was rekindled. The airport manager’s position had been vacant for a year when Sommer stepped into the job; he’s now been there for 8 years, and still can’t get enough of being at the airport. Sommer brings his 4-year-old border collie, Aero, to work most days, and Areo is usually even more excited to get to the airport than Sommer is. He’s the airport’s canine ambassador and often flies with Sommer in the airport manager’s plane.
“It’s kind of unique when you go out at night or dusk and walk the grounds of people who have been at the very cutting edge of technology,” he said.
The College Park Airport, which is managed by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commision, is the oldest continuously operating airport in the world. Sommer noted, though, that many people in the area don’t know a lot about the facility. In the early 1900s, people would travel from D.C. just to watch planes fly in and out of the airport, he said.
The little airport has a big history, it’s true — but there’s a lot to the airport’s present and to its possible future, as well. The airport may gain direct flights to Manhattan not too far down the road — or down the runway. Tailwind Air, which flies out of Manhattan’s Skyport Marina, has recently been negotiating with officials in hopes of establishing service to College Park. Plans are currently on hold due to TSA concerns about the restricted air routes in and around the District, but Sommer hopes that Tailwind will get the go-ahead.
He is excited at the prospect of attracting more visitors that direct flights from Manhattan could bring. “They would spend some time here at the museum, or they would spend time in College Park,” he noted.
The additional workload that a new flight service will bring doesn’t faze Sommer. “There’s stress, but there’s understanding that the stress is being modified by the fact that people working here are safe, secure and know what’s going on,” he said. Sommer added that his biggest issue with his job is actually a great problem to have: His coworkers are basically his family.
Sommer is excited to expand resources and opportunities at the airport, whether or not Tailwind gets the green light to fly in. He sees the College Park Aviation Museum as integral to the airport’s success. The museum’s exhibits explore aviation history and, in particular, this airport’s early role in key chapters of that history. And because of the museum’s proximity to the airport’s runway, visitors can sometimes watch pilots take off and land as they explore exhibits.
Sommer noted that the museum is expanding its interactive exhibits and play areas for kids, and added that the airport may soon have charging stations for electric planes. Not that he needs the latest in aviation technology to find fascination at work. Sommer thinks that watching planes fly is just as fascinating — and even as extraordinary — as watching a self-driving Tesla.
Sommer is excited about the future of aviation and sees technology as a key element to growth in the field. He is also grateful to be one of about a dozen managers who has worked, over time, at the world’s oldest continually operating airport.
“We all have passions for the job and with that passion, you want to excel to make the place better,” Sommer enthusiastically noted.