Fred Underwood is a commissioner of the Texas Transportation Commission, which oversees statewide activities of the Texas Department of Transportation. Underwood was appointed commissioner by Gov. Rick Perry on Jan. 8, 2007.
Underwood is president of the Trinity Company, a cotton bale storage facility. He serves as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee of the Cotton Warehouse Association, where he previously served as president. He is both past vice president and past director of the National Cotton Council.
Underwood also previously served as chairman of the Lubbock International Airport Board and as a board member of the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce. Underwood received a bachelor’s degree in management from Texas Tech University.
He is also an avid aviation enthusiast and began flying in 1990. He is a commercial-rated helicopter pilot and holds a fixed-wing instrument rating.
Wingtips was proud to sit down with Commissioner Underwood and discuss flying, general aviation issues and what makes the aviation community unique.
Wingtips: At what age did you first catch the aviation bug?
Underwood: When I was around 12 or 13, I went flying with my father and uncle. We rented a plane and flew to Pecos. I remembered that it was just a little four-seater airplane, and we came in over some high wires and landed on a dirt road. I just thought, “Wow, we just landed on a dirt road beside a telephone pole.” It was a lot easier than driving all the way from Lubbock to Pecos. My dad was an Army Air Corps pilot instructor during World War II, but he never pushed aviation on me. He was more interested in me learning to drive a fork lift.
Wingtips: How do you use aviation in your personal and professional life?
Underwood: I don’t use it personally, only for business. On my business trips I typically fly to Gainesville, Mineral Wells or other locations throughout Texas. I would like to fly recreationally, but I don’t have the time.
Wingtips: How did you become involved with the Lubbock International Airport Board?
Underwood: Some friends of mine were on the city council, and they knew that I was a pilot and wanted to have business people involved in the airport. And being a pilot made me an even better asset and led to me being appointed to the airport board. I was on the board for seven years and was chairman for a year or two.
Wingtips: How do you view the role of airport advisory boards?
Underwood: I think an airport board can accomplish two things: first, it helps to give guidance to staff, and, second, if you get a good mix of people in your board members, then they can inform the public about how valuable the airport is to their community.
Wingtips: What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing general aviation in Texas?
Underwood: Funding for rural airports, the perception that flying is for the wealthy or elite, and the fact that we have fewer pilots training, which means there is less understanding of how important flying or having an airport in your community is. The old saying was that Sam Walton would never put a Wal-Mart in a town that didn’t have an airport. Maintaining the airport system is important because we have less available funds for aviation when we have so many other needs throughout the state and country.
When a smaller aircraft is flying across the country, it can’t fly coast to coast, and the pilot is looking for a place to refuel, eat and rest for a bit. That’s important to a lot of pilots, so you need nice, clean facilities and a good runway.
If you look at South Texas, Cameron County Commissioner David Garza has stated that he feels like his airport is going to become an economic driver for his area as they develop more of the South Texas coastline. That’s a good example of how a general aviation airport can be an asset to a community.
Wingtips: You touched on this topic a bit with your previous answer, but could you further discuss the importance of general aviation to communities in Texas.
Underwood: General aviation is important for business and recreation. But it’s also important for 24/7 air ambulance service, which is a valuable asset for an area.
For some businesses looking to expand into an area, they may require a specific runway length, hangar space or even a tower. So these are all facilities that you really need at an airport. Sometimes when you’re trying to bring businesses to your community, they will ask, “Do you have an airport?” The next question they ask is “How long is your runway?” because they may be flying in from the East or West Coast in a jet.
In my case, if I were to drive to Gainesville, it would take me over six hours to drive in my truck, and I wouldn’t be home until late that evening. I can fly there in an hour and 15 minutes. It allows me to conduct business earlier in the day and be home in time for dinner with my family.
Wingtips: Discuss the overall change in Texas airports in the 20-plus years that David Fulton and his staff have been with the Aviation Division.
Underwood: Dave and his quality staff stepped in and helped communities in Texas with grants to get funding for airport improvements. This includes runway and terminal building improvements that they otherwise would not have had. They did this so well that the federal government stepped in and started their own program to assist the communities. Dave and his staff have made a big difference in the Texas airport system.
Wingtips: What do you like to do in your spare time?
Underwood: My hobbies are long-distance feral hog hunting and fly fishing. I find both to be very relaxing. There are no phone calls, no pressure, no problems. I can just sit there for hours overlooking a canyon and enjoying the scenery.
Wingtips: You have attended several of the Texas Aviation Conferences. What is it about the aviation community that makes it unique compared to other transportation modes and keeps you coming back?
Underwood: I see it as a strong camaraderie between the men and women in aviation — the respect they show each other whether they fly a jet or a little single engine. The common bond that they have is flying. They share information and support each other with issues that they may encounter.
Wingtips: Is there anything additional that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
Underwood: I appreciate that TxDOT stepped up when there was talk of tower closures. Under guidance from Governor Perry, TxDOT was more than willing to fund the towers out of a budget that was already set to support general aviation in Texas.