Matthew Van Valkenburgh began his career in aviation as a line boy in the 1960s, fueling aircraft on a little dirt airfield in Arizona with the hope that somebody might take him up.
The airfield no longer exists, but his passion for flying does.
Van Valkenburgh, 60, was appointed executive director of aviation by the Killeen City Council Tuesday.
As the city’s airport director, he will earn $95,000 a year.
On his first day, April 8, he will take on the responsibility of 43 employees and two major airports: Skylark Field — the city’s general aviation airport — and the Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport — the city’s commercial airport.
Van Valkenburgh comes to Killeen from McAllen, a city of 130,000 people, where he served as assistant director of aviation since 2008.
“We are excited to welcome Mr. Van Valkenburgh to our city team,” Killeen City Manager Glenn Morrison said.
“We look forward to Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s leadership as Killeen strives to continually improve airport services for residents and visitors.”
From a young age, Van Valkenburgh, a Phoenix native, knew that he was going to be a pilot and that he would do anything to accomplish it.
“I’ve always had a passion for aviation, ever since I was a young boy,” he said. “When you have a passion for something, you will find any way in the world to indulge that passion.”
He spent his high school years working on other people’s airplanes, but it wasn’t until college that he was able to earn enough money — working evenings — to pay the cost of his pilot’s license.
He said he still has that youthful enthusiasm for aviation and uses it in his everyday work, administering to the daily challenges of a major airport.
“That’s my passion for airplanes and now airports, always trying to find out how we can do it better, what can we do to stand out,” Van Valkenburgh said.
“Everybody’s part of the solution, everybody’s part of the success.”
‘Back into aviation’
After earning his pilot’s license in 1973 and finishing his master’s degree in aeronautics from Arizona State University, Van Valkenburgh joined the Navy as an officer and traveled the world by sea.
Eventually he found a home in the Naval Air Force, where he clocked several thousand hours in the cockpit of an A-6 Intruder.
He retired after 18 years in the Navy and took his first civilian job since college at the El Paso International Airport in 1995.
“After the Navy, it just seemed like a natural progression to go back into aviation,” he said.
“When the opportunity came about, it just sort of jumped at me.”
Taking on a civilian commercial airport, however, required skills that they don’t teach you in flight school, Van Valkenburgh said.
“The one thing I learned very quickly was that airports aren’t all airplanes,” he said. “Airports are a business and you have to run them like a business.”
One of the most important responsibilities for an airport director is maintaining good relationships with the several airline companies that make up the life-blood of the facility.
“Everybody is a customer and airlines are one of the most important customers because we are relying on them to get us to our girlfriend’s house, to grandma’s house, to all of the places we need to get,” he said.
Perhaps the deepest draw for Van Valkenburgh to his new post in Killeen is his son, a former Fort Hood soldier, and two grandchildren, who live here.
“That makes it very, very fortuitous,” Van Valkenburgh said. “It’s one of those things you look at and say, ‘That’s really nice.’”