10 Questions with an Award-Winning Airport Designer

January 3, 2017

Gene Murphy, SEH aviation engineer, received a Lifetime Achievement award from the Wyoming Airport Operators Association (WAOA).

In 10 questions, Gene shares a career’s worth of insight into the aviation industry, including one thing most people don’t think about when they think “airport design.”

1. Talk about your background. Did you always want to be an aviation engineer?
Well, I kind of fell into it. I started out working for the Indiana Department of Highways, where I oversaw a team of technicians and investigated material failures. Then, in 1978 I moved out West and worked for a small firm in Denver. My first project was working on Walker Field Airport in Grand Junction, Colorado. And I’ve been an airport engineer ever since. In those days, the FAA wasn’t as involved in projects as they are today. Back then it was more relaxed.

2. What is it about your profession that you find the most rewarding?
Working with the clients, for sure. They end up becoming like family. I’ve worked with one client, Jackson Hole Airport, since 1979. The personal relationships you build along the way and the satisfaction of doing quality work for them — you can’t beat that. It’s just fun.

3. What is your greatest accomplishment while working in this field?
I would have to say helping to rehab the Jackson Hole Airport in 2004. It’s the top commercial airport in the area and it cannot afford to shut down. We had to do all of the work at night, from when it closed at 10:30, and we had to be finished by 6:00 a.m. the next morning. Each night, we had to remove the existing surface and repave the runways, one at a time. We could only do one lane per night.

4. So how did you end up winning this award? Isn’t this mostly given to airport operators?
I guess it’s because of my longstanding work in the industry. Out of the 10 commercial service airports in Wyoming, I’ve worked at nine of them. I’ve also worked at nearly half of the general aviation airports in the state. I’ve also been on the Airport Operator’s Association Board for 10 years. I talk to a lot of people from the different airports all of the time. They call me up looking for information, and I give it to them. It’s a good relationship.

5. What advice would you give to yourself when you first started in the industry?
Make friends with the people you work with. I’m really a very introverted individual, I don’t typically interact with strangers all that often. But these people I’ve worked with over the years have all become really good friends. So, I would say to open up, and make as many friends as you can.

6. What is one critical piece of information that most people don’t think about when they hear ‘airport design?’
The biggest thing is you have to take into consideration are any disturbances to the airport. They don’t have a lot of extra space, so if you’re going to be taking away a runway for a period of time, scheduling becomes critical. The scheduling becomes more critical than the design itself. You really have to think about your best use of time and space.

7. What is the future of airport design? What one thing is the thing to watch?
Commercial airports are just getting busier and busier, while general aviation airports are slowing down a bit. But, safety is the number one thing to consider when thinking about future design trends. Everything revolves around it.

8. What would you be if you weren’t helping design better airports?
Retired. [laughs]

9. What famous person—past or present—would you most like to have dinner with and where would you go?
Chesty Puller. He was a U.S. Marine Corps Lieutenant General who fought in World War II and the Korean War. He is the most decorated Marine in American history. When I was in the Marines he was someone that was always talked about. I admired how he worked his way all the way up from Private First Class. I really liked his ‘not a quitter’ attitude. We’d most likely eat in the Mess Hall.

10. Describe your favorite pastime. If you weren’t designing airports, paint a picture of what you would be doing instead.
My wife and I love to travel, so we’d probably be out experiencing new places. I also love playing golf, so I’d try to fit that in as much as possible as well.

About the Expert

Gene Murphy, PE, is a senior aviation engineer, industry sage and advocate of airport safety.

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