Key exec behind Indy airport expansion retires

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When most teenagers learned to drive a car, Robert A. Duncan got his pilot's license at age 16.

Fifty years later, Duncan nudged the door closed this week on his office at the Indianapolis Airport Authority and retired after a career at the center of one of the largest, long-term civic developments in the city's history.

Insiders said he has been the calming influence as the airport worked to expand and gobble up land and homes to grow from a 1,000-acre airfield to a 10,000-acre cargo hub and gleaming terminal that serves 8 million passengers a year.

A pilot and attorney, the 66-year-old Duncan is known for his wry wit and as a computer geek who can eagerly study the vital specs of a Boeing 777.

He's also been the airport's general counsel and occupied many other executive chairs during an era when commercial passenger and cargo service became jet-propelled. The humble Indianapolis Municipal Airport grew out of its barnstorming days and into an economic powerhouse with the space to add a third runway in the next century.

His career spans nearly half of the 80-year history of the airport. And he drafted more than 30 bills introduced in the General Assembly to promote all airports in Indiana.

"I've been lucky to have the opportunity to combine my profession as a lawyer with my avocation for flying," he said.

Duncan is among the last of a small core of people who conceived of an Indianapolis International Airport with runways two miles long and a showpiece terminal in the middle of the field serving millions of passengers a year. What they drew up 35 years ago is reality today.

Airport insiders said Duncan's job was often behind the scenes. As the airport's attorney, Duncan negotiated leases and deals that expanded the facility. He directed the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars — much of it federal grants — to clear the way for the airport to build new hangars and runways, create about 10,000 jobs and help thousands of neighbors move away from noisy airplanes during the airport's contentious growth period in the 1980s and '90s.

Land for the Hendricks County Airport and Indianapolis Regional Airport, formerly the Mount Comfort airport, was acquired on his watch.

In the mid-1970s, the airport's core leadership included airport Executive Director Dan Orcutt, Treasurer Alan Boone, head of operations Bob Spitler, planner Elaine Roberts and Duncan.

"It was a team, but (Duncan) has been the flexible utility fielder," Orcutt said. "In the 1970s, when we had the master plan for the expansion, it was Bob's work in acquisition of the land that allowed everything to happen.

"It was his quiet nature and his ability to get along with the property owners that allowed growth to occur. It is an airport that many communities would kill to have."

Duncan said his deals to buy 1,400-plus properties in areas most affected by noise were made easy.

"We just put out the word in an area that the airport was willing to buy when they were willing to sell. There are only (a handful) left, and I'm proud to say we were able to reach agreement with nearly all the sellers without lawsuits."

During the 1980s, west side school auditoriums were packed with angry airport neighbors upset by low-flying planes over their homes. Orcutt credited Duncan with "listening to the people, seeing all aspects and becoming the calming factor."

It's an accomplishment Duncan is proud of.

"The unique thing about this place is that when I get old and gray and I'm gumming my food, I can turn to my grandchildren and say, 'Hey, I had something to do with that.' "

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