The Gentleman Says Goodnight -- Don Bakken Retires As The Principal Proponent Of Growth Around Paine Field

For more than a quarter of a century, Don Bakken has been a key figure in the growth of Paine Field.

His roles have varied: first as a member of the Snohomish County Airport Commission, then as operations director on the staff and, for the past dozen years, as airport manager. Bakken plans to retire in February when he turns 66. All that time, Bakken has been, in the eyes of many, a model employee, carrying out and explaining to the public policy defined by others.

"No one running any department was more devoted to what he was doing," said former County Councilman Brian Corcoran.

The airport is in the heart of Snohomish County's employment. It is one of the major hubs in the state for small, private general aviation. At the same time, it has been the core of a tug of war between two viewpoints: those who want major expansion of airport operations and those who don't.

Bakken talks in his gravelly voice of that 20-year battle: "The airport is a controversial agency. It imposes adverse impacts on the surrounding community. There is a fear of the future, what it will do to lifestyles and property values."

The battle recently heated up with the recommendation by a regional air commission to bring commercial airline flights to Paine Field to help handle the overflow from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Bakken, despite a lifelong love affair with aviation, is analytical about airport development in light of the recommendation.

"Airports are an endangered species in the sense that it will be impossible to site a new airport," he says. "To accommodate regional capacity, existing airports have to be used."

That by no means should be interpreted as support for a proposal to extend commercial airline flights to Paine Field.

"Every time we do another study, a new group questions what the study means," he said. "Trying to balance the needs and concerns makes the plan a challenging project. Obviously, the manager does not make those decisions. Elected officials make policy; it is the staff's job to follow the policy to the best of their ability."


Former County Executive Willis Tucker complains of critics who accused Bakken of trying to turn Paine Field into a Snohomish County version of Sea-Tac.

"We were wrongly accused of trying to develop a regional airport," said Tucker. "Bakken is a real honorable and honest man. I resented the way he was treated by those (critics) people."

"A gentle and gentlemanly person" is the way Everett artist Bernie Webber, the last chairman of the Airport Commission, described Bakken.

Born and raised in the Alderwood Manor area of South Snohomish County, Bakken began taking flying lessons at 14 in Eastern Washington because private flights were not permitted in Western Washington during World War II. By the time he was 17 and entered the military near the end of the war,, it had more pilots than it needed. But Bakken did manage to fly as a spotter pilot.

After the service, Bakken began studying aeronautical engineering, but a steel fabricating company he and a partner started in Lynnwood while going to college grew so fast he ended up with an industrial-management degree and spent 23 years in the steel-fabricating business.

Interest in the aviation industry remained, however. In 1966 he joined the Airport Commission at a time the Air Force was phasing out its operation and The Boeing Co. was preparing to build a plant adjacent to Paine Field. By February 1969, Boeing flight-tested its first 747 and the Air Force had turned over all its buildings to the county.

Bakken was asked to join the staff as superintendent of operations in 1972. When airport manager George Petrie retired eight years later, Tucker said Bakken was the obvious choice.

During that period the role of Paine Field as a general aviation airfield as well as a policy of discouraging commercial airline flights was negotiated and adopted by the county.

Immediately after that, a master plan for development at the field was completed. Then came a noise study that triggered voluntary controls, development of a parallel runway for general aviation that private pilots at first opposed, the major buildup of employment at Boeing and the start of airplane maintenance and repair by Tramco on the airport site.


In some ways, Bakken's work set the stage for the Boeing expansion that will bring the air firm's work force to more than 30,000 over the next few years. Three years ago, Bakken recommended the sale of 68 acres to Boeing that the company needed in its expansion plans.

"The airport makes possible the Boeing facility here," Bakken said. "It uses the airport runway, which accommodates wide-body aircraft."

To Frank Figg, a Boeing representative, Bakken always expressed a can-do attitude. "I've thoroughly enjoyed working with Don," he said. "He is a very good manager of the airport and represented the county well. His goal was always `let's see how we can do this.' "

A few accomplishments under Bakken's management: $30 million in capital improvement of runways, taxiways, aprons, rehabilitation of buildings and utilities; Tramco built a 255,000-square-foot hangar in 1989, and will build another 660,000-square-foot hangar, office, shop and warehouse.


To accommodate the Tramco construction, 35 small tenants in World War II structures were ousted, but Bakken's staff helped most relocate. Bakken looked at the airport as a big incubator for nourishing small businesses by offering low rent. And in difficult economic times, those businesses provided a bright spot for county employment.

A charter member of the Lynnwood Rotary Club, Bakken is at least partly responsible for its sponsorshop of the largest air show in the state, the Washington State International Air Show.

When Everett clubs were dropping it, Bakken persuaded the Rotary to take it on. The Air Show attracts 100,000 in its twodays and has allowed the club to donate more than $1 million in grants and scholarships and to charities in the 24 years it has been the sponsor.

Serving on the Airport Commission was one of Bakken's most enjoyable experiences. This year, County Executive Bob Drewel decided to drop the commission and assign its advisory status to the Paine Field Community Council.


Bakken won't criticize that move. Instead, he applauds the quality of people who served on the commission, their dedication and knowledge. "I considered them supporters, advisors and close personal friends," he says.

Bakken does say he understands the change, that it was an appropriate time and that delays sometimes occurred because of the commission. But, says Bakken, the commission served as a buffer for special interests who now will go directly to elected officials.

`'I can't say too much for Don," adds Webber, a private pilot who has frequented the airport since he was a youngster. `" would say the airport certainly grew under him and in a nice way. He is an unselfish man. He worked his tail off and gave everyone else the credit for it."