News-Gazette photographer Stephen Haas was given special access to go behind the scenes at Willard Airport on a cold and blustery Tuesday in late November. Sitting on 1,799 acres just to the west of U.S. 45 in Savoy, the aeronautical gateway to the University of Illinois has been serving the community since 1945 (when it was known as University of Illinois Airport).
Gene Cossey has been executive director at Willard since 2015 and in the airport business for 30 years.
"There's something different every day," he said. "I've been doing this a long time but it's still really cool when I look outside and see an airplane I've never seen before.
"There's no one typical day. Like any job there are times I say 'Boy, that was boring today.' But there are far less of those days than other jobs."
On this day, Haas arrived early and stayed late, catching a glimpse of the many moving parts of Willard. Here is his story:
Passengers on the early morning American Eagle Flight 3577 to O'Hare International Airport watch as a crew de-ices the plane before takeoff. Airline employees arrive to work as early as 3 a.m. as daily departures begin around 6 a.m.
Envoy Air Station Agent Elena Gooch de-ices an American Eagle Embraer ERJ-145LR before it takes off for a flight to Chicago's O'Hare International. The decision to de-ice is ultimately made by the pilot and can last as long as 30-40 minutes depending on the weather. American has one de-icer, and a second is available through Flightstar if needed.
Crash Rescue Specialist John Cumbee drives up and down the 8,102-foot runway 32R during an early morning runway inspection before the day's first departure. Cumbee was checking the condition of the runway, looking for signs of wildlife (like coyotes, deer, birds) and checking all of the runway edge lights are operational.
Snowflakes streak by as Cumbee traverses runway 32R during an early morning runway inspection. Federal rules require twice-a-day inspections— morning and evening — but Cumbee and his crew are 'continuously inspecting,' Cossey said.
American Eagle Flight 3577 to O'Hare heads down the runway after getting clearance from the tower. The regional jets seen at Willard usually seat 50 but aircraft that seat 75 are occasionally used.
Crash Rescue Specialist John Cumbee uses a new iPad-based system to submit a work ticket for a broken runway end light during runway inspections.
Envoy Air Lead Station Agent Tim Russell takes baggage from customers heading to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport at the end of the jet bridge before departure. Passengers have the option to check their luggage at the counter. But if it's too large to fit in the smaller overhead bins of regional jets, the luggage is checked before passengers board.
Envoy Air Station Agents Derrick Ford, left, and Jason Powell prepare to load luggage into the baggage compartment of Flight 3667 to Dallas-Fort Worth. It is one of seven American flights to depart Willard on an average day.
Envoy Air Station Agent Derrick Ford puts suitcases onto a belt loader into the baggage compartment of Flight 3667. Besides Dallas-Fort Worth, Willard also has flights to Chicago and Charlotte, N.C.
Envoy Air Station Agent Jason Powell takes suitcases off a belt loader into the baggage compartment of Flight 3667.
An Envoy Air Station Agent uses an aircraft tug to pull an American Eagle Embraer ERJ-145LR to the gate. Through November, Willard reported 103,000 passengers enplaned in 2018.
A mechanic's feet hang out of the bottom of a Swift Air Boeing 737-400 during a pre-flight inspection.
American Eagle Captain David Gade, left, based out of Chicago, and First Officer Alex Griffith, based out of Miami, go through their preflight check in the cockpit of an Embraer ERJ-145LR. The process takes 10-15 minutes with both pilots participating.
Griffith inspects the outside of the jet on the ramp before takeoff. He's looking for any damage that might have occured during the previous flight as well as making sure all instrumentation is not obstructed.
Griffith's inspection includes the underbelly of the jet.
Captain Gade goes through a preflight check from the cockpit. Although not required to, the morning crew usually spends the night before at a Champaign-Urbana hotel.
Jose Mora, of Arcola, a commercial pilot student at the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College, checks for water in the fuel line while performing a preflight check of a Piper Archer III aircraft. The Institution of Aviation was founded in 1946 and, in 2013, transferred ownership to Parkland in Champaign.
Bill Jones, instructor with the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College, uses a propane heater to warm up the engine of a Piper Archer III aircraft before going out on student flights, which take place throughout the school year.
University of Illinois men's basketball players Ayo Dosunmu, left, and Trent Frazier use their phones as they walk to the team's chartered Swift Air Boeing 737-400 to South Bend (Ind.) International Airport for a game at Notre Dame. Players, coaches and support staff made the short flight for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, which Illinois would lose 76-74 after a last-second three-pointer by Frazier rimmed out.
UI men's basketball players walk up the stairs into the team's chartered Swift Air Boeing 737-400 heading to South Bend (Ind.) International Airport for a game at Notre Dame. The Illini practiced in Champaign in the morning before taking the game-day flight.
Airport Mechanic/Airfield Electrician Greg Bradley replaces a bulb in one of the runway end lights. There are more than 8,000 lights at the airport; this one was replaced as a result of the required twice-a-day inspections.
The pilot of private Beechcraft King Air C90B is seen through the cockpit window as he comes in for a landing. Private planes accounted for 33,419 of the 44,652 landings and takeoffs at Willard in 2017.
One of the Piper Archer III airplanes used for the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College flies above Willard Airport.
A Swift Air Boeing 737-400 carrying the UI men's basketball team and staff to South Bend for a game at Notre Dame takes off. The Illini would return that night after meeting postgame obligations.
One of the Piper Archer III airplanes used for student flights for the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College prepares for a landing on one of the airport's three runways.
A Swift Air Boeing 737-400, at Willard to take the UI women's basketball team to a road game, sits in front of the Federal Aviation Administration's control tower as one of the Piper Archer III airplanes used for student flights for the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College heads down the runway. Built in 1958, the tower houses Federal Aviation Administration employees who serve as air traffic controllers (top floor) and radar operators (lower level).
Supervisory Transportation Security Officer Shatiana Walton helps a passenger through the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint on the second floor of the main terminal.
Transportation Security Officer Fred Kaiser uses an X-ray machine to screen bags at the Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint.
Kelly Barger rings up an order for a customer at the Einstein Bros. Bagels counter inside the terminal. The bagel shop opened in February 2017, giving Willard its first restaurant in a dozen years. In the plans: an expanded menu including alcohol options, which Cossey said might happen in the coming months.
Airport Mechanic Chris DeVore works with a piece of metal trim in the maintenance building, which houses everything from mowers to tools to snow-removal equipment for the six-person staff to use.
One of the Piper Archer III airplanes used for student flights for the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College flies near the Federal Aviation Administration's control tower in Savoy.
A ramp service agent uses marshaling wands to direct American Eagle flight 3537 from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to the gate after landing at Willard Airport.
Flightstar Line Technician Sam Daugherty refuels American Eagle flight 3537 before a return flight to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The fuel capacity for this jet: 1,360 gallons.
Envoy Air Station Agent Tierra Adams unloads suitcases from a baggage cart to the baggage carousel for passengers on flight 3537 from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in the secure area at Willard Airport.
Passengers from Flight 3537 out of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport wait for their items at the baggage carousel on the lower level of the terminal. The luggage is loaded onto the conveyor on the backside of the terminal.
Sunlight shines through a break in the clouds onto the Federal Aviation Administration's ASR-11 Airport Surveillance Radar antenna, used by FAA employees to keep track of aircraft in the area.
One of the Piper Archer III airplanes used for student flights for the Institute of Aviation at Parkland College is seen in the background as an American Eagle Flight 3537 takes off for Dallas-Fort Worth.
A Swift Air Boeing 737-400 carrying the UI women's basketball team and staff to Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport for a game against Clemson takes off. The game was part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The UI women's team, unlike the men, traveled the day before the game, won by Clemson 69-67 in overtime.
A Swift Air Boeing 737-400 carrying the UI women's basketball team and staff to Greenville/Spartanburg International Airport for a game against Clemson takes off.
An airplane is in for a checkup inside the Flightstar service hangar. Designated as a fixed-base operator (FBO) and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), Flightstar services both commercial and private aircraft that use Willard.
An airplane engine is worked on in the Flightstar service hangar.
A Striker, one of the specialized ARFF (Airport Rescue and Firefighting) trucks used for aircraft emergencies, is stationed at the Willard Airport Fire Department facility. With a pricetag of $1 million, the ARFF is required to be on the ready during the airport's hours of operation (about 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.) in case of emergency, such as spraying foam on an aircraft on fire. Recently, it was used to put out a car fire at a nearby parking lot. "Hopefully we'll never have to use it (on a plane)," Cossey said. "That'd be a bad day."