For new Hagerstown Regional Airport Director Phil Ridenour, the transition from airport fire chief to head honcho has felt seamless.
"Just, one day I was fire chief, the next afternoon I was airport director," he said during an interview at the airport Feb.17, two days after he was appointed by the Washington County Commissioners to replace former director Carolyn Motz, who retired Jan. 1.
Although his previous job description was to oversee aircraft rescue and firefighting, Ridenour said there is little in his new job in which he did not already have a hand, as his role at the airport had expanded to include administering grants, developing policies and writing budgets.
"I'm not saying that was a selling point for anybody to give me the job or award me the job, because I went through the paces just like everybody else did," Ridenour said. "But it actually ended up being a good thing for the airport, because now we don't have to tie everybody up training somebody new from the outside coming in."
The path to HGR
From his childhood days watching test flights of Fairchild A-10s swoop, in pairs, over his Maugansville home, Hagerstown Regional Airport has been a big part of life for Ridenour.
But it was firefighting, not aviation, that put him on the path to one day take the reins at the county-owned airport featuring the second-longest runway in the state.
Ridenour, 50, became a firefighter at Maugansville Goodwill Volunteer Fire Co. in 1976 at the age of 16, following in the footsteps of his grandparents, parents and older brother.
"It's a family thing for us," he said of the fire company. "I love it."
Ridenour became an officer two years after joining the company and went on to serve as chief for 20 years, through 2008. He currently is the fire company's president.
Ridenour graduated from North Hagerstown High School in 1978 and worked full time at Holsinger's Meat Market in Maugansville for several years before he was hired in 1984 as one of the county's first 911 operators.
Having helped acquire vehicles for the Maugansville fire company, Ridenour volunteered to fill out the paperwork for a grant for Hagerstown Regional Airport to buy its first small crash truck.
Since the 1984 closure of Fairchild Industries, which had its own aircraft rescue and firefighting crew, the airport had relied on nearby volunteer fire companies for firefighting support, Ridenour said.
But after the airport got its first crash truck, officials decided it should form its own fire department, and, in 1996, Ridenour was put at its helm.
Developing a fire station
Today, the airport has 13 firefighters including Ridenour, three airport maintenance employees cross-trained as firefighters, and nine part-time firefighters, but that wasn't always the case, Ridenour said.
"When I first came here, it was me," he said with a laugh.
The airport fire department assists with some calls off airport property, but its main function is to be prepared in the event of a crash or other emergency, Ridenour said.
Over the years, the department has helped planes land without nose gear, guided a pilot through an emergency landing in the snow, and responded to a situation in which a plane came in too fast and ran off the edge of the runway, stopping just short of Interstate 81, he said.
"Thankfully, nobody was injured severely," he said.
One major development for the fire department was the acquisition of a second, larger crash truck, a castoff from Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport. Ridenour requested and received the truck and managed to get it modified free of charge by a company that had previously refurbished it, he said.
"As a result of having that large crash truck, it actually allowed the Department of Defense contractors, specifically Sierra Nevada ... to land some of the large military contracts that they did," Ridenour said.
Another milestone for the airport fire department was the opening of an airport fire station last year complete with garage space for the crash trucks, offices, a kitchen, and fold-out beds for firefighters when 24-hour coverage is needed.
Ridenour did not limit himself to the fire station. He quickly got involved in other areas of airport management, beginning with a project to build a new hangar and going on to involve himself with seeking grant funding for a runway extension project, assisting in writing an airport certification manual, and developing snow and ice control plans, an airport security plan, and a wildlife management plan.
"Just little by little, as I opened my mouth and said, 'I can do that,' I got it," Ridenour said with a laugh. "And, you know, I'm not one that likes to toot my own horn, but when I do things I like to make sure I do them right. I try to do them thoroughly, and I guess I got to the point where I got depended on a lot more."
Ridenour said he welcomed the additional work because the fire station alone did not require enough work to keep someone busy 40 hours a week.
Ridenour plans to work with the county public works director to suggest a revised job description for the fire chief, potentially converting that job to a deputy director position, he said.
Although he does not have a college degree, Ridenour said he was selected to participate in management training under a county program and received a letter of recognition in management from Hagerstown Community College about three years ago. He plans to obtain at least an associate degree, he said.
The county's advertisement seeking a new airport director specified that the successful candidate should hold a bachelor's degree in one of several fields, but said that "a combination of education and experience deemed equivalent ... may be acceptable."
Washington County Public Works Director Joseph Kroboth III said the previous board of county commissioners asked that the qualifications in the ad be listed as desirable but not required.
Addressing the ad's request for applicants with 10 years of experience in operations and management of a "part 139" certified airport and five years of professional level experience supervising or management a complex mid-sized airport, Kroboth said the selection committee felt Ridenour met or exceeded those requirements based on his work at HGR.
There were 27 applicants for the position and eight were selected for interviews, Kroboth has said.
Ridneour described the selection as a "very extensive process" including interviews before Kroboth, a selection committee and, in a closed session, the county commissioners.
"As far as I'm concerned, everything was done in as fair and equitable (a manner) as they possibly could do it," Ridenour said.
Ridenour said he plans to continue the airport's focus on safety, security, customer service and growth.
"I think the most difficult part of the job is the continued economic development of the airport, because of the way the economy is right now," Ridenour said.
"I know the county commissioners, one of their main emphases is bringing that unemployment rate down, and they're looking at the airport to help do that. The best I can say is we're certainly going to give it our best shot."
The airport has a site on the northwest quadrant of the airfield ready for further development, and has nearly 200 acres of additional land programmed for potential acquisition, Ridenour said.
He said he also hopes to bring more business to the airport by promoting the variety of services already available from tenants who operate businesses at the airfield.
"You can bring your aircraft here and we're one-stop," he said. "If you want to do modifications of the interior, we've got the interior shop. If you need to do modifications to an engine, and you don't have your own A&P mechanics to do that, we've got them. If you want to do painting to an aircraft, we've got the paint shop here."
Meanwhile, the airport will continue talking to carriers to attempt to bring in another commercial carrier similar to Allegiant Air, which provided direct service to Orlando before ending that service last summer.
Through it all, Ridenour said he won't let himself get stuck behind a desk if the airport is in need of a firefighter or even a snow plow operator.
"I don't plan on stopping that," he said.
Ridenour said he will have his work cut out for him to fill Motz's shoes, but he's not nervous about the challenge.
"Actually, I'm excited about it," he said. "I'm really cranked up and ready to get moving."