by Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D.
Nebraska’s Diana Smith knows every nook and cranny of BIE-Beatrice Municipal Airport, after her 50+ year tenure which recently ended with her retirement as Airport Manager. Here is her unique story.
How did you first get inspired to work in the aviation industry?
At the age of 21, returning to my home town of Beatrice looking for employment, I was offered the job as the airport Secretary for Don Fitzwater. Little did I know that I would spend my entire working career at the Beatrice Municipal Airport. Over the years, Don gave me more responsibility. I was promoted to Administrative Assistant. When Don Fitzwater retired, I was promoted to Airport Manager in January 2000. During my almost 51 years at the Beatrice Airport, I always tried to stay involved with aviation. Not only do I love the aviation community but the people that I met felt like family! I have been involved in many Aviation organizations, which have become part of my life. My passion for the aviation community led me to become a founding member of the Nebraska Aviation Council started in 1992. Our purpose was to bring all aspects of aviation together in one annual forum, giving the opportunity to meet with people in all areas of aviation. After my retirement I also plan to stay involved as a Nebraska Aeronautics Commissioner. I have served on the Nebraska Aeronautics Commission since 2013. Another group in my aviation family is the Flying Conestogas, which is our local aviation club. Members are pilots and aviation enthusiasts. In 1991, the club awarded me Lifetime membership. Since 2010, I have volunteered as the Flying Conestogas treasurer. These members support our airport in so many ways, volunteering for airshows, fly-ins, EAA Young Eagle flights, during the solar eclipse and so many other special aviation events.
What’s your first memory of aviation?
My first memory of aviation besides traveling by airlines from Washington DC back home to Beatrice, NE was when I started working at the Beatrice Airport. I was so excited to have the opportunity to have the job at the airport and be involved in the aviation community. During all these years, my love for aviation grew.
Who has inspired you the most (any mentors you want to mention?) I would think Don???
I always felt that Don Fitzwater had faith in me to become his successor. Upon Don’s retirement after working with him all of those years, it made for an easy transition. Don always had the confidence in me to make the right decisions. He always shared his wealth of knowledge and experience, providing me with the tools and confidence necessary to make the right decisions for the airport, in his absence. He also felt strongly that any woman could do anything that a man could do! In some cases, even better!! Being a female has never really been an issue for me since I always felt that I was accepted and respected.
Advice for other women inside our industry or thinking about aviation and aerospace?
Over the years, I see many more women in aviation doing jobs that were originally being done by men. Times have changed! More women are Airport Managers, pilots, instructors, aviation engineers and consultant, etc. My passion for the Beatrice Airport has made it difficult to retire since my love for the airport and aviation is in my heart. It has made it clear to me that general aviation airports are a huge necessity to their community. Striving to make sure that our City of Beatrice and the surrounding area knows and understands the importance of our airport to the community.
Additional Background? (During your early years with fewer women in aviation, how did you navigate?)
I never felt out of place being a female. Shortly after I started working for the Beatrice Airport in 1971, I was attending a conference and visiting with a female airport manager. She said to me that I could someday be an airport manager. Of course, after laughing, I wondered if that could actually be possible! About 29 years later it did happen and I have never regretted it and have always felt blessed.
One of my fondest memories was being a Certified Weather Observer. All employees at the Airport were required to be a Certified Weather Observer, which were tested by the National Weather Service prior to being certified to enter weather on the teletype. Every hour – 12 hours a day we reported the weather i.e. temperature, cloud bases, dew point and altimeter.
This information was disseminated on the teletype. In 1991 an AWOS – Automated Weather Observation system, was installed providing 24/7 weather updates.
I have seen and managed many airport improvements during the years, including our new Administration building built in 2003, runway extensions, parallel taxiway, land acquisitions, two new concrete runways, hangars, maintenance shop, etc. The Beatrice Airport was awarded Nebraska Airport of the year in 1992 and 2016.
One of my most humbling experiences was being inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame, January 24, 2019 at our Nebraska Aviation Council annual Aviation Symposium held in Kearney, NE.
Diana Smith’s term on the Nebraska Aeronautics Commission runs through 2024. She is a long-time volunteer with the Nebraska Aviation Council which will host their 31st Annual Aviation Symposium on January 25-28, 2023. Diana will again be assisting with registration and programs.