Airport manager retires

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo Kelly O'Connor has retired as manager of the Hay River/Merlyn Carter Airport.

Paul Bickford/NNSL photo
Kelly O’Connor has retired as manager of the Hay River/Merlyn Carter Airport.

After almost 14 years, the airport in Hay River is no longer being managed by Kelly O’Connor.

On Aug. 30, he officially retired but the new manager of the Hay River/Merlyn Carter Airport had already assumed her new duties on Aug. 15.

O’Connor said he became airport manager in November 2002.

“So it’s 13 years and 10 months I’ve been airport manager here,” he said.

That places him second on the list of longest-serving managers at the airport since it opened in 1944. Only Hughie Semple – who was airport manager for 21 years from 1956 to 1977 – served longer in the position.

“It’s a pretty good stretch,” said O’Connor of his time at the airport.

The now former manager said he very much enjoyed working there.

“Every day is a little bit different,” he said. “It’s a great bunch of people to work with. I have an excellent crew.”

In all, eight people work to keep the airport operating, not including the employees of the various aviation companies.

O’Connor said it was also good to work with the people of the Department of Transportation.

There were many challenges over the years in running an airport, including bad weather, he said. “But the planes still come and go.”

In fact, he cannot remember one instance in his 13-plus years as manager when a plane couldn’t land because the runway, the lighting or anything else wasn’t in proper condition, although there were many times they couldn’t land because of bad weather.

“We spend a lot of money on equipment and manpower and sand and chemicals and all that kind of stuff,” he said.

One of his most memorable experiences at the airport was during the spring breakup of the Hay River in 2003, the first spring he was at the airport.

About 500 feet – which is about 150 metres – of the north end of the main runway ended up covered by water and ice.

“It was only up for a few hours and then the water found a way out and all the ice was left sitting on the runway,” O’Connor said.

The ice then had to be pushed off the runway with a frontend loader to allow planes to land.

O’Connor started working at Yellowknife Airport in 1990 at various jobs, before working his way up and moving to Hay River for his job as an airport manager.

“So I got 26 years airport time in the NWT,” he said.

When he first starting working with airports, they were under Transport Canada. In 1995, they were transferred to the GNWT.

Now that he is retiring, O’Connor has no plans to leave Hay River, noting his daughter and grandson live in the town.

“I like the community,” he said. “It’s home to me now.”

Mayor Brad Mapes expressed appreciation for O’Connor’s contribution to Hay River.

“As an airport manager, he did very well for our community,” the mayor said, noting he kept people abreast of what was happening at the airport.

“It’s great to see him wanting to stay in our community,” Mapes added.

O’Connor has been replaced as airport manager by Elizabeth (Betty) Harder of Hay River.

For the past two years, she has been training to become the manager under the Aboriginal Management Development Program.

In all, she has been working at the airport for five years, beginning as a clerk.

“I took that on for a couple of years and I just needed a challenge and Kelly was getting ready to retire,” she said. “So this program came up and we got the go-ahead.”

Harder said she hopes to continue managing the airport just how O’Connor left it. “Everything running smoothly.”

O’Connor, 61, said the government has realized there is a big problem with succession planning.

“A lot of my generation is retiring and we’ve got to bring people up. And so they have this Aboriginal Management Development Program, and that’s what Betty was on,” he said, adding she has completed many courses and mentored with him.

“I have to say she’s done really well,” he said.

“I knew that I was coming to the end of my career and I’m quite proud of the fact that we have her,” he added. “The airport is ready to turn over to somebody who’s ready to jump in and move it forward.”

–Paul Bickford