Robert DeLaurentis, commonly known as the “Zen Pilot,” can be labeled as ambitious, with a demonstrated history of success. A recent inductee into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, the retired Naval lieutenant commander has circumnavigated the globe (from the South Pole to the North Pole, as well as the “‘conventional way”’), holds several aviation records, and has written two books.
After many years chasing aerial adventures, his most recent project will help keep him grounded. In July, he purchased A.J. Eisenberg Airport (KOKH) in Oak Harbor, Washington, which can now be found on sectionals as DeLaurentis Airport.
“It’s really an interesting project,” said DeLaurentis. “Having led a [circumnavigation] project and having been to 53 countries and territories on my own, I have paid attention to what works and what doesn’t work. I think there are really two separate groups: pilots and the airports. I think that it’s an excellent time to blend the two together because there is always room for improvement. One of the things that I think is really cool about owning an airport is that I get to be a little bit grounded. I’ve always been in the air moving from place to place very fast, and it’s kind of like the restless soul gets to calm down a little bit and reconnect with the earth.”
Providing background on the project’s inspiration, DeLaurentis said that he moved to the Pacific Northwest from San Diego a few years back and quickly learned that nearby hangar availability was a real concern.
“I went to this airport initially because it’s the closest one to my home,” he said. “I took one look at it and thought ‘No way! This place is just totally run out.’ No money had been put into it for probably 20 or 30 years, and it was just too big of a project. Then, I went looking for hangar space, and there was a two-year waiting list for just a small space out at Anacortes [Regional Airport (74S)]. I ended up finding a private hangar for my Cessna 182 on floats, which was $950 a month. The [hangar for] my tiny [CubCrafters] Carbon Cub was $800 a month, and for my Commander, [in which I flew] my pole-to-pole flight, they initially wanted $5,000 a month—which I eventually got for $3,000.
“The prices were so high because there were no hangars available. In addition to the existing structures, this airport has an extra 30 acres that I can develop. So, I can put in row after row of hangars and meet the need for pilots.”
DeLaurentis also shared his compelling vision for what he wants the airport to look like.
“I would say that we will have a runway that’s 35 to 50 feet wide, and we will also lengthen it from 3,250 feet long to 3,850 feet long,” he said. “We will have jet-A and avgas, and we are going to have lots of rows of hangars, so that pilots have a place that they can be proud of that provides reasonable hangar fees. It will be a place where the community comes together, as I think all airports are, and a place of pride not just for my foundation but for the community too.”
In a short time frame, there has been considerable progress made at the airport toward these goals. DeLaurentis does not intend to seek or accept state or local money for airport improvements, instead relying on his own personal funds and levying landing and parking fees.
“I’ll have about 70 percent of my renovation done by the end of the year, which is less than six months,” he said. “We’re moving at light speed. Right now, what you have probably seen online is that we’ve redone two rows of hangars. They have new roofs, new electrical, new siding, new doors, new paint, and they were all brought up to code with fire extinguishers, etc.. Our FBO is now done. We have a [U.S.] Customs and Border [Protection] office that I’ve submitted documentation for. Then we have an office for our flying club. Now I’m starting to turn my attention to the main hangar, where my planes and our museum will be.
“One of the outstanding items is the runway. We have already had a geo test for the soil underneath the runway, then we get an engineer working to tell us how wide it can be, [and] how thick it has to be to land the twin turboprops and light jets that I want to bring in.”
DeLaurentis hopes that by improving the runway he will attract more traffic, including companies that offer scenic flight, charter, and medevac services.
“My first commitment, though, wasn’t to the pilots,” he said. “It was to the community because it’s an island that’s connected by bridge with questionable ferry service (due to maintenance, demand, or tides) with a critical infrastructure need. I wanted to do something for the community. One of the things that I did, to get their support, was [inform] Life Flight [that it] could bring in fixed-wing planes. With our 25-foot-wide runway that’s rated ‘poor’ by the state of Washington, you’d have to be crazy to bring one of those in right now. I said to the county commissioners that if they wanted [the medevac organization] in, then I need a permit for the runway, and I need a permit for the fuel tanks.
“This is a place where I don’t think a lot of people have focused much energy [until now], so it’s a great opportunity to have an impact. I’ve introduced some different rules to the airport. The pilots have to work on their planes, because if they don’t have a working plane, they don’t get a hangar. We had three junk cars and three junk planes, which sent a message that we were a junkyard and that nobody loved this place. Those are all gone now, which is a story in itself. Now you drive by and it looks nice.”