All roads -- and runways -- lead to home for new airport manager

Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2000

Rebecca Cronkhite loves to fly. And despite the fact that she spends every day at the Kenai Municipal Airport, she never has time to.

"I've worked every day since I got here," she said.

Cronkhite has been manager of the Kenai airport since late last summer, when she quit her job of 15 years at the Fairbanks airport to move here.

However, when she came to the central peninsula, she was not surrounded by strangers. A 1974 graduate of Kenai Central High School, Cronkhite was raised on a Funny River Road homestead.

Her parents are Jim and Betty Whitcomb of Soldotna.

"I was an only child, and when you grow up on a homestead, everybody works," Cronkhite said.

That work experience -- and her love of the outdoors -- came in handy later in life, when she worked construction and operated heavy equipment on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline.

Just before the state was plunged into the economic recession of the mid-1980s, Cronkhite took a job with the Alaska Department of Transportation as a foreman on the road crew in Wiseman. She was there for four years before moving into Fairbanks to return to college. While in Fairbanks, she took a job as a heavy equipment operator at the airport.

"I took a downgrade in pay to move into the city," she said.

She ran snowplows and front-end loaders for nine years before being promoted to operations coordinator. In that job, she scheduled the day-to-day activities on the field and on what she calls "the land side," or the side of the terminal passengers drive up to.

"That's the best job at airports," Cronkhite said.

After a year she was promoted to operations supervisor, where she spent the last four years before accepting the job of airport manager here.

"It was very difficult to tell my boss I was leaving," she said. "It was a good job, and they treated me very well up there."

Cronkhite found the Kenai job listed in a trade magazine. She said she was skeptical at first because the airport manager that was leaving had been on the job less than a year.

"I didn't want to leave my job for an airport that had problems," she said.

But during a visit to her family, she checked out the airport and made some inquiries and found the facility to be well run. So she applied for the job.

"It was a good job in the right place," she said.

It may be a good job, but it also is very demanding.

"I went snowmobiling in the Caribou Hills yesterday," she said one day in mid-February. "It was the first day off I've had since I came here."

Being airport manager, Cronkhite's days are filled with paperwork, most of it for the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I like the paper work, but it does get to be too much some times," she said with a smile. "But paper work is the way you get money to improve your airport."

Cronkhite also loves the fact that in her job there is always something different to do.

"What I love about airports is there is a challenge every day," she said. "When we had the rain and snowstorms, it was a challenge to even keep our runway viable. And during the avalanches, we had a blizzard and it was a challenge to keep the runway clear for all the DC-6s and Hercs."

But Cronkhite said it was not a challenge to move back home, despite the changes that have taken place in the 20-plus years since she moved away.

"It's not like a small town in Kansas that never changes," she said. "I went to Kenai Central High School and it was called 'Central' because it was the only high school in a 50-mile radius. Now there are four high schools in this area."

Schools are important to Cronkhite, who has an 11-year old son.

"I always said I didn't want to move around when my son was in middle school or high school," she said. "And there is a lot of things for kids to do here."

She also recognizes all the great things there are for everyone else, as well.

"I don't think everybody realizes what a nice, family-oriented, community we live in here," she said. "We've got the great pool in Nikiski, the great ice rink we just built here in Kenai and the great sports center in Soldotna. What more can I ask for than this?"

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