By RICARDO CASTILLO
Airport engineer Russell “Rusty” Henson still has the dream of bringing a small airplane service airport to San Miguel de Allende (SMA), the place where he retired to over 10 years ago. He says he still dreams about the project, but not as vehemently as he used to, particularly after that dream turned into a nightmare of envy and unwarranted greed.
Back in 2009, Henson and a group both Mexican and gringo expat small aircraft fliers decided to form a nonprofit organization called Amigos de la Aviación, or Friends of Aviation, of which Henson is still treasurer. Then-SMA Municipal Mayor Lucy Nuñez awarded the care and development of the airstrip in a 30-year comodato or bailment.
At the time, the airstrip was a dirt road owned by the municipality. It had been founded in 1937 and, over the years, air traffic through it was scant, if at all. It was, is and will always be federal property of the municipal government.
But when the small group of aviators began to draft growth and development plans, some of the town’s businessmen sniffed and smell big money. Henson developed an engineering plan to put the airstrip to good use and, if there were any profits, turn them over to one of the myriad of nongovernment organizations.
At the time, the San Julián airstrip boasted small barns that performed as hangars and landing a plane there was neither easy nor safe. But the property – 1,500 meter long and 40 meter (approximately) wide – was good enough for what the Amigos de la Aviación envisioned it for, a small aircraft service facility for planes of up to a 12-passenger capacity.
Henson, true to his desire to design airports – he worked on the Denver Airport back in the early 1990s – worked out a design draft to polish up the dirt airstrip into a comfy landing facility. The idea was to service the local 14,000-strong expat community for emergencies and offer ambulance service to the United States and back.
Besides, Henson and Amigos began gathering local kids to teach them the joy of flying, offering computer program-based lessons and giving them free rides over SMA. Needless to say, the kids loved both the classes and the rides.
Things went well until the three-year term of Mayor Lucy Nuñez expired and a new mayor, Mauricio Trejo, stepped in on Oct. 1, 2012. Along with Trejo came two project developers, Ricardo Garrido and now-State-Assemblyman Juan José Álvarez Brunel, both of whom “intercepted” the Guanajuato State Tourism Secretariat’s 3.5 million peso funding for the airstrip, as well as 200 tons of asphalt to pave the landing facility.
At this point, Henson got into hot water over the San Julián Aerodrome as Mayor Trejo tried to dissolve the Amigos de la Aviación NGO and award the “airport” concession to a different concessionaire, namely Ricardo Garrido, who, during Trejo’s three years in power, developed the city’s first industrial park. But Garrido also wanted the “airport,” hearsay has it.
In 2013, Deputy Alvarez’s brother and SMA Councilman Álvarez was suddenly “appointed” as the new president of Amigos de la Aviación by then-president Miguel Gastelum, who left town to go live in the United States.
A small internal war developed inside Amigos de la Aviación during 2013. Needless to say, Henson stayed put in his position against Mayor Trejo, the Álvarez brothers and the Mayor’s buddy, Ricardo Garrido. To make a long story short, treasurer Henson was expelled from the governing body for “dereliction of duty,” with Javier Álvarez leading a Dec. 13, 2013, meeting.
During all this time, Henson was warned several times that he’d better step aside and told that Mayor Trejo did not want him around the Amigos de la Aviación association, and Henson was unofficially notified that Trejo “would sit on the airport.”
With the intercepted asphalt in hand, Trejo and Garrido ordered the paving of the airstrip without properly leveling the road, causing the immediate intervention of the nearby Celaya City Airport Commander Martin Olalde (who has the authority over the SMA Aerodrome), finding that the paving had “undulations,” or ripples that made landing of aircraft of any type a perilous maneuver.
Commander Olalde, in representation of the National Civil Aviation Directorate – which oversees airport construction for the Mexican federal government’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation – ordered the SMA Airdrome shut down and declared it unfit for operation.
Mayor Trejo’s term in office ended on October 2016, and incoming mayor Ricardo Villarreal made one of his campaign promises to open up the SMA Aerodrome, but it’s already April 2018 and the airstrip still shuttered.
This said, in 2017 Villarreal announced he would open up the airport and that everything was ready to award it in a business concession. This reporter called the National Civil Aviation Directorate, speaking to a spokesperson who said that, up until last year, the government body had received no request from the SMA municipal government to open up the facility.
Some two weeks ago, Mayor Villarreal decided not to seek reelection (which is now feasible under new Mexican legislation) and announced that he is running for federal deputy. That leaves the road open – or closed for that matter – for Amigos de la Aviación to wait until the next July 1 municipal election to bring in a new mayor.
But even with the coin toss again as to the future destiny of the much-disputed aerodrome, Rusty Henson is now hopeful that perhaps the new mayor will pay heed and comply with the bailment contract and let Amigos de la Aviación operate it as a nonprofit venture.
“The thing is that the aerodrome will never be a profitable operation,” Henson said during a conversation with Pulse News Mexico last week.
But still he holds dear his dream of being an airport operator while in retirement. The SMA Airdrome could fulfill that dream, particularly now that the time for real retirement is here. But NGO Amigos de la Aviación is tangled up in a legal imbroglio with the San Miguel de Allende municipality and until there is a solution, the SMA Aerodrome is a turkey that will not fly.