Oak Harbor airport designated as ‘international’

Last Friday, the DeLaurentis Airport officially added “International” to its name.

Next time you hop on a plane at DeLaurentis Airport in rainy Oak Harbor, you might open the door and find yourself in sunny Southern Italy.

Last Friday, the DeLaurentis Airport officially added “International” to its name, according to owner Robert DeLaurentis, who bought and began renovating the former A.J. Eisenberg Airport in July 2023 at no cost to the community.

The new designation allows residents to fly out of the country and visitors to fly directly into Whidbey Island — which DeLaurentis expects will stimulate the local economy and lead to the creation of new jobs.

Once a plane from another country arranges to land at the airport, a Customs and Border Protection officer will be called to inspect the passengers. DeLaurentis is also looking for a charter company that would rent out the space and fly civilians to their destination.

“It’s a major step,” said DeLaurentis, who many might know as the Zen or Peace Pilot for his sky adventures in the name of peace and science. “It was kind of a long shot, but we’ve been taking some long shots because we want to make that airport better and make it a special place.”

So far, the airport’s transformation has consisted, among many things, of removing 35-year-old 10,000 gallon fuel tanks, removing 70 cubic yards of trash, painting the buildings, replacing doors, adding insulation and more.

The seasoned aviator has ambitious goals for the 53-acre property, which he said he can only turn into a reality with the help of Island County, the city of Oak Harbor and the community.

“I’ve taken the airport as far as I can by myself,” he said during a board of commissioners meeting last Tuesday. “We are now at the stage where we need the county and the city to get involved and take action if we want more.”

One big obstacle stands in his way: the county’s long permitting process, which he said is slowing down the repair and expansion of the runway.

While most airport runways are 50 feet wide, the runway at DeLaurentis Airport is only half of that. Furthermore, it’s rated “poor” by the state of Washington. Because of these flaws, larger aircraft cannot land safely.

In fact, DeLaurentis said during an interview, planes tend to move side to side — especially with the crosswinds — and need an extra buffer to avoid going off the runway.

Donald Meeham, a volunteer at the airport, said landing can already be particularly scary during a cloudy night, and a skinny runway would only exacerbate such fear.

DeLaurentis and Meeham said the airport’s private ownership is slowing down the process of getting the runway fixed, and believe the county Planning Department should treat it as a private airport with public use, accelerating the permit process.

“Don’t look at us as a private business, look at us as a public entity trying to make our public situation a better place for us to live in,” Meeham said.

Officials at the Port of Coupeville had tried to purchase the airport and turn it into a public facility, but the plans were scuttled after DeLaurentis asserted in a lawsuit that he already had the right to buy it.

DeLaurentis and Meeham believe that fixing the runway as soon as possible can make the difference between life and death.

Just a few weeks ago, DeLaurentis got a call from Life Flight Network, an air ambulance service with a base on Whidbey Island. With bad weather and a malfunctioning helicopter, Life Flight asked to use the DeLaurentis Airport’s runway to fly out a patient in need of immediate care on the mainland.

The service, DeLaurentis said, uses single-engine turboprops that have a wingspan of about 50 feet, which is too large for the airstrip. Although there have been a few isolated cases where Life Flight used it as a last resort, that day’s plans fell through.

DeLaurentis worries that further delaying work on the runway would mean that a 15-minute trip to a hospital on the mainland could turn into a two-hour ambulance odyssey that could cost lives.

So far, he has submitted preliminary plans to the county and needs to submit final plans, which could take the county up to three months to review once received. After some back and forth, repair work will likely begin after the summer.

“My concern is that there is no sense of urgency,” DeLaurentis said.

Island County commissioners responded to DeLaurentis’ comments during the meeting last week.

Commissioner Melanie Bacon thanked him for rehabilitating the airport but said there needs to be more conversations on this topic and some documentation where the county acknowledges the airport is for public use.

Commissioner Janet St. Clair said she was excited at the idea of a runway to better accommodate Life Flight but said the county does not have the capacity to set aside funds for his purposes. While there are federal funds for rural airports, she said it might not apply to privately owned airports.

Completion of the new runway would set in motion other projects, DeLaurentis said during the interview, such as a potential air show and free flight classes to inspire youths.

The air show, he said, could cost about $200,000 and would be a three-year commitment that would happen with community support and help from the San Diego Air and Space Museum — where he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame in 2023.

The flight and ground classes for youths would happen in partnership with local schools and be free to students.

DeLaurentis, who served in the Navy from 1989 to 2006, would also like to house a Navy flight club at the airport.

With the help of the community, DeLaurentis hopes to purchase two vehicles that would drive passengers to Oak Harbor or Coupeville.

Next week, he said, he will meet with the Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce to discuss plans to use the main hangar – which will also be a car and plane museum — as a convention center.

Photo by Luisa Loi