Since graduating from Minico High School and leaving the family farm in Rupert life has given John DeThomas a challenging and successful ride.
He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Naval Academy, earned a master’s from the Naval Postgraduate School, provided aviation support in the Vietnam War, served as a military test pilot, became chief of flight operations for two aviation firms and served as director of flight training for a national university.
But he’s discovered there is something he is not very good at.
“I’ve flunked retirement three times,” admitted the new Division of Aeronautics administrator.
He retired from the Navy. And from Lockheed Aeronautical Systems of California. And from Embry-Riddle University. And somewhere over the horizon, after he helps aviation in Idaho address some immediate challenges, there might be a fourth retirement.
But first, there’s a significant funding dilemma for state’s Aeronautics Division, and other major challenges that include: reauthorization of the Federal Aviation bill, developing a plan to help rural Idaho airports secure grant funding, enhancing the division’s service to aviators, and assuring safe and efficient operation of the state’s three aircraft.
DeThomas, 63, takes the controls at at an interesting time. One of the most pressing challenges is funding aviation programs in Idaho, he explains. Most of the division’s funding is derived from the state aviation fuel tax of 4.5 cents per gallon; it has not been raised since 1991.
At the same time, demands on the division have increased and costs have escalated. The Transportation Board, with support from the state Aeronautics Advisory Board, proposed a fuel tax increase that wasn’t included in the governor’s FY2008 budget. DeThomas anticipates reactivating the request for legislative consideration next session.
Increases are needed to improve the state’s system of airports and to ensure safe operation from those airports.
The division also is trying to bring into state management two airports now under federal jurisdiction – the Reed Ranch airport which had been privately owned and later sold to the U.S. Forest Service, and the Cascade Reservoir Airport, owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Both are in the McCall/Cascade area.
Aeronautics also faces a challenge of helping local, non-state airports obtain grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP). The process to secure federal AIP grant funding is complex and somewhat burdensome for small airport operators.
DeThomas expects the Division of Aeronautics to play an increasing role in helping airport operators navigate the grant process.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge ahead, however, is reauthorization of the federal aviation bill – the equivalent of the surface transportation bill. The current bill expires in September and a replacement promises to bring significant change. New legislation has been submitted to Congress and is being considered now, DeThomas said.
That legislation would increase fees and licenses for general aviation and increase the federal aviation gasoline tax by about 50 cents per gallon.
Reauthorization also would change the allocation of the AIP grants. Some Idaho airports likely will receive more funds under the new program; others might receive less. Under the proposed legislation, general aviation airports would be organized into a new tier system, determined by the number of aircraft based at the airport.
The proposed bill also would increase grant-match formula. Local airports may be required to provide a 10-percent match – double the match now required.
DeThomas doesn’t know how the impending federal bill would affect Idaho’s airports and aviators, but he wants the Division of Aeronautics to be in a position to help operators and aviators adapt to the bill that emerges.
“We want to be ready to assist Idaho airports with the new procedures if and when it (the legislation) is approved,” he said.
One thing will not change, however – the importance of aviation in geographically diverse Idaho. It is an “economic engine” for transportation, the new administrator insists. Aviation plays key roles in the state’s economy, recreation and tourism, agriculture, commercial air travel, cargo shipments, fire suppression and aviation-related manufacturing.
“I love Idaho and this looked like a job where I could contribute to the state,” he said of the lure to abandon his third retirement. “I like working with people. And I think I’ve gotten fairly good management skills through the years and know aviation…
“I wanted to get back in the harness; I wanted to get back to Idaho; and I wanted to get back into aviation.”
Oddly enough, DeThomas wasn’t enticed by the skies when he left Rupert after high school. His primary motivation in heading east was to leave the family’s small dairy herd behind. “I liked farming, but I hated milking cows,” he said.
DeThomas sought an appointment to West Point, but the positions for Idaho were already filled. Instead, Sen. Henry Dworshak offered to get him a seat at the Naval Academy. He gladly accepted and embarked on his first-ever airplane ride – a transcontinental flight to Annapolis, Md.
“Aviation was not a long-sought goal,” he admits. “Graduation from the Naval Academy offered a number of choices, and I wanted to travel. So, without a lot of forethought, I ended up in flying.”
The last half of his 20-year Naval career was spent as a test pilot and in acquisition program management for purchases of aircraft systems.
Upon retirement, he accepted a position as defense system manager and Chief Test Pilot with Lockheed where he worked for a decade. His second retirement – from Lockheed – was followed almost immediately by a three-year tenure with Raytheon Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kan., as Director of Flight Operations.
His most recent retirement was from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University where he was Director of Flight Training at its western campus in Prescott, Ariz., from 1999 to 2002. DeThomas returned to Idaho to assist his aging parents on the Rupert farm and later moved to the Sun Valley area.
He and Jane, who have been together for the past 32 years, plan to move to Boise. They have a son, David, a Navy pilot based at Patuxent River, Md. They also have two grandchildren.