Published Dec. 15, 2003|Updated Sept. 2, 2005

New position: Manager, Albert Whitted Airport, St. Petersburg

Previous position: Operations manager, St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport, Clearwater

At first, Richard Lesniak thought he wanted to fly for a living. Then he realized he wanted to manage the places where other people fly.

After nearly eight years as operations manager at St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport, Lesniak became manager this month of Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg. He moves from a larger commercial airport, with more than 290,000 takeoffs and landings in 2002, to a smaller, private airport that had 100,000 takeoffs and landings last year.

It's a homecoming of sorts: Lesniak got his first job in aviation with Bay Air at Albert Whitted Airport in 1990, working as a flight line technician, fueling planes, towing planes and prepping them for charter flights.

"Albert Whitted was kind of my launching pad into aviation," he says. "At the time, I thought maybe I wanted to be a pilot _ what better way than to get experience. I wanted to get some practical experience."

As manager of Albert Whitted, Lesniak is responsible for overseeing day-to-day operations as well as future growth of the facility. Day-to-day responsibilities include maintaining safety standards for the airfield, negotiating and maintaining leases, making sure tenants comply with rules and regulations, seeing that the airport runs efficiently and overseeing maintenance problems, he said.

The airport's future will be studied by a committee established after the November vote that assured Albert Whitted's continued presence on the city's waterfront, Lesniak said. He said about 300 people work at Albert Whitted, where an estimated 224 aircraft are based.

Lesniak earned an associate's degree from St. Petersburg Junior College in 1990. While in school, he worked as a copy clerk for the St. Petersburg Times. He then went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Orlando, graduating in 1994 with a bachelor's degree in aviation business administration. He also has nearly completed a master's degree in the same field from Embry-Riddle. "I'm still working on the dreaded thesis paper," he said.

Lesniak, 33, has had a lifelong interest in aviation. He grew up in the Detroit area and as a boy looked forward to trips to the city's metropolitan airport.

"I got into this industry with the idea that I wanted to be a pilot," he said, "but being a broke college student, I had to spend my time and money wisely. I started school, and by the time I got to Embry-Riddle, something clicked. I realized that what attracted me to aviation wasn't necessarily to fly itself but the excitement of being at and around an airport."

While attending Embry-Riddle, Lesniak had an internship with a defense contractor in Lexington Park, Md. He returned to Florida to become operations manager at St. Petersburg/Clearwater International in 1995.

"I like flying," he said. "Flying is great. But the real excitement for me is the operation of an airport. It's like a city within itself. It's unique. It's dynamic. I don't think there's anything like it. It's always in a state of flux."

Lesniak said he likes working with the "passionate, dedicated people in this industry. They really have a deep passion for flying."

Lesniak said he also enjoys being part of the renaissance of downtown St. Petersburg. "I can remember 10 years ago when it was kind of a dead place. What it has turned into today is incredible," he said.

Lesniak and his wife, Christina, live in St. Petersburg. In his spare time, Lesniak plays drums. "It's a great way to get the frustrations out," he said.

_ FRED W. WRIGHT JR., Times correspondent