A collection of private jets landing at Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (SDF) / photos by Roger KoberJust after the field of 18 horses, 3-year-old thoroughbreds, finished rumbling across the dirt track under the twin spires of Churchill Downs to end the 149th Kentucky Derby, the rumble of people hoofing to fly home started early. That's what leaders at FBOs in the Louisville area told GlobalAir.com, also based in Louisville, as they worked to wrap up from this year's rush and start planning for next year.Many who flew into the Bluegrass State for the pageantry of the race, America's oldest continuously held sporting event, as well as the glitzy galas held throughout Louisville on Derby Eve, made early departures to beat the Sunday morning storms.And what storms they were. A pair of EF-1 tornadoes touched down just across the Ohio River from the city, in New Albany, Indiana. Neighborhoods throughout the area suffered wind damage and were pelted with small hail.
Just seven miles east by road (less than that if you're flying) from where the tornadoes spun, sits Clark Regional Airport (JVY) and Aircraft Specialists, Inc. (ASI), one of two FBOs on the field along with Honaker Aviation.
While the metro's commercial airport, Louisville Muhammad Ali International (SDF) and GA airport, Bowman Field (LOU), are closer to Churchill Downs, Clark Regional is only a few miles from downtown and the area's most stylish hotels and restaurants.
That has made the airport, with its 7,000-foot runway, an increasingly popular option for Derby visitors.
Caroline Jones, office and marketing manager of ASI and the company's charter offering PrivateFlite Aviation (PVA), said they hosted a "ton of Sovereigns" as well as Falcon jets and Gulfstream jets, among the 160-or-so aircraft the aircraft received Wednesday through Sunday of Derby Week.
As quickly as the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports could end, many of those planes were wheels up.
"They saw the weather coming in and decided they had to go a little early," Jones said, noting that the sky was black when she arrived around 8:30 Sunday morning.
"We had to hold down the doors to stay shut because the wind was insane," she said of the severe weather. The storm tried to steal a tent that had been set up for Derby guests, but the staff was able to keep it from flying away.
As for the planes, many of them stayed grounded at all three area airports during Sunday's thunderous torrent.Aircraft at Louisville Executive Aviation at Bowman Field (LOU) for Kentucky Derby 149 / photo by Haley Davoren
At Bowman Field's Louisville Executive Aviation, President Mark Geary said his FBO had a steady flow of Thursday drop-offs and Sunday pick-ups, as charters from NetJets, PlaneSense and Wheels Up taxied through with Derby guests.
He believes Derby 149 brought another record-breaking year.
"Close to 200 airplanes, if not a little bit more," he said on Sunday, as his staff was still doing final counting. "As Churchill Downs adds more seating, that's good for the FBOs."
LAST YEAR'S DERBY RECORD: FBOs say jet traffic at Kentucky Derby was better than everThe growth of the Derby crowd has allowed area FBOs, including Louisville Executive, to keep its repeat customers while adding new ones. Just as last year, SDF was too full to accept inbound private traffic by the time riders up was called at Churchill for the jockeys to climb aboard their racehorses.The Louisville Regional Airport Authority said that the day after Derby would set a single-day record for passenger traffic.
Throughout the week, they offered guests complementary food such as hamburgers and hot hogs, as well as Mexican fare as Kentucky Oaks Day and Derby Eve also doubled as Cinco de Mayo.
"It allows us to get to know our customers really well," he said.
During the post-Derby storms, Geary and his staff made mimosas for the guests as fueling and shuttle operations were suspended for around an hour.
"It actually gave us a chance to space things out a little better," he said, later noting the speedy work of the ATC tower to line up jets and get them headed home. "They don't have to wait long in their planes before they take off."
Back at Clark Regional for Jones and her staff at ASI, she said they were just as energized as the Derby visitors upon arrival.
"Everyone is so excited when they get off the planes," she said, some already in their suits and Derby dresses and hats.
On Sunday, they offered some catering and a Hangover Hanger, complete with IV drips for guests to recharge. They hope to add to it next year, regardless of what the weather brings.
"Sunday is controlled chaos is what I like to call it," she said. "We try to keep everyone happy and their spirits good."