Monday, June 16, 2014

Peter Scherrer: Westchester County Airport (KHPN), White Plains, New York

Peter Scherrer doesn't treat his 9-to-5 job like a 9-to-5 job.

"I usually get into work at 6:30 or 7:30," says the 59-year-old airport operations administrator at Westchester County Airport. "It's a time when I can get paperwork done and answer emails before the day really starts."

The day never really ends at the airport, which sees 46 planes depart and 46 planes arrive each day. And Scherrer has a hand in pretty much every aspect of the operation.

"People run airports, and I'm fortunate to work with 1,300 good people at the airport who make me look good," he says. "I always tell people, 'Paperwork can get done later, even if I have to come in on the weekend to do it. People are what makes the airport run.' "
Scherrer is one of the busiest people at the county airport. He oversees everything from negotiating leases and contracts to safety and security, customer service, interacting with airlines and tenants, maintenance, construction, aircraft rescue and firefighting and emergency response.

The emergency response aspect of the job got a workout on on June 13, when Richard Rockefeller's single-engine Piper Meridian crashed shortly after takeoff from Westchester, costing the Maine doctor, a member of the Rockefeller dynasty, his life at 65. The plane came to rest not far from the airport, in a Purchase neighborhood. No one on the ground was injured.

Scherrer's responsibilities technically end at the perimeter of the 700-acre airport property, but he was called to the June 13 scene by the Harrison Police.

Related: Crashes and incidents at the Westchester County Airport

"Responders know their community and what to do and the more people who show up at the scene, they just get in the way," Scherrer says. "But if requested, we'll go to the site."

Scherrer ended up handling media requests and answering questions about the incident.

Airport teams don't need to be at the scene of a crash to be useful. The point person at an air crash can contact Scherrer's team to get answers to questions ranging from the kind of airplane to the type of fuel it was carrying.

Scherrer's team trains regularly to prepare for something they hope doesn't happen: a crash at the airport.

"We do a lot of meetings, once a month, which are important," he says. "We do training exercises with the local community. The most important thing about emergency response is that you can recognize someone's face and know what their job is, so there's instant interaction and you save a little time when you respond to an emergency. Everybody knows what they have to do because you have a relationship. That's always been most important to me, that you know everybody by their first name." 

Scherrer tells his team that emergency responses demand precision. 

"I say 'Your role sometimes is very short. Sometimes, it's very long. But know your role so you don't get beyond what you're supposed to do. Make sure you do that little role perfectly.'"

Sherrer, a Hawthorne native, knows his way around a cockpit. He was on the flight team at Western Michigan University, and went to the national competitions three straight years competing against top schools such as the Air Force Academy.

But he never wanted to fly for a living. He wanted the kind of job he has right now.

He and his wife, Debbie, live in Yorktown Heights and have six grown children, ages 26 to 36, and two grandchildren.

"A lot of people think it's a sleepy little airport, but we're a busy little airport, the second largest corporate airport in the country, probably the world," he says.

See a disaster drill

Watch the team at Westchester County Airport perform a disaster drill, with the help of dozens of volunteers playing injured passengers, at

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