Landing business

Tiny as most of them are, general-aviation airports have a lofty role in North Carolina’s economic development.
By Edward Martin
Twenty-six hundred feet above the heart of North Carolina, the Uwharrie Mountains undulate in blue haze to the south. The engine a few feet in front of Curtis Williams roars mightily, and his voice sounds otherworldly through noise-cancelling headsets. He tilts the Skyhawk on its left wing and nods at a finger-shaped lake: “One of Asheboro’s reservoirs.” He levels out, the air-speed indicator at 105 mph, just shy of the airplane’s 115 mph cruising speed.

Williams, 57, president of Carolina Pine Merchants Inc., is a lumber wholesaler who flies to see customers in the Carolinas and Georgia. Warm thermals softly rock his high-wing Cessna, which seems suspended in a cradle of air. A gap in forest and farmland ahead, barely perceptible at first, seems to grow. “We’ll make a long approach.” He banks and throttles back. His eyes dart, a habit of pilots who know no air-traffic controllers are watching for other planes. The opening becomes a ribbon of pavement with a cluster of metal buildings. Silky smooth, the plane touches down just beyond hash marks at the end of Asheboro Regional Airport’s runway. Near the terminal, a killdeer flutters and drags her wing through the grass, feigning injury to lure intruders away from her nest.

It’s not unusual for animals to outnumber pilots at airports like this. Months earlier, 240 miles west at a mountaintop airfield near Sylva, nothing stirred but a groundhog venturing from its winter den. Another day, some 450 miles due east of there, seagulls shrieked over empty taxiways as a summer storm bore down on Beaufort’s Michael J. Smith Field. Regardless of season, pilots landing in Hurdle Mills, a Person County crossroads north of Durham, heed a standing warning: Beware of cows on the runway.

These and 59 others are North Carolina’s general-aviation airfields, rarely glimpsed by the roughly 51 million passengers who flew in and out of the state’s 11 commercial airports last year. A few are large. Concord Regional, its 7,400-foot runway home field for many of the NASCAR racing teams based near Charlotte, is busier than some commercial airports. At Johnston County Airport in Smithfield, planes land and take off about 60 times a day. Others, like Asheboro Regional, have a dozen or so flights some days and some days none. At Kill Devil Hills, small-plane pilots wrestle tricky ocean winds to land at First Flight Airport, adjacent to the Wright Brothers National Memorial, where aviation began 107 years ago. “These small airports are one of our most important tools for business, economic development and corporate recruitment,” says Richard Walls, aviation director of the N.C. Department of Transportation.

“Clear prop!” Williams intones, an unnecessary formality. His Cessna 172 is the only thing stirring. The engine gurgles, warming up. His safety briefing would make an airline passenger think twice. “If the engine stops and we have enough runway, I’ll just put it back down. If we’ve got enough altitude, I’ll turn back. If not, there’s a nice little cleared field up ahead.” Commercially rated and qualified to fly by instrument, the former paratrooper has flown into two-thirds of North Carolina’s small airports. “I could drive, but it would take twice as long, be twice as aggravating and probably twice as dangerous. Plus, it’s kind of cool, flying into a place to meet a customer.”

“There’re a couple of views of the business flyer,” Walls says. “One is of the high-rolling exec, jetting off for the weekend. That’s overstated. Primarily, the business flyer is a guy with interests across the state or the Southeast who has something like a King Air or Baron — a one- or two-engine plane — and likes to combine business with a love of flying.”

About 15 of the 55 planes based at Asheboro Regional are owned by corporations such as Malt-O-Meal Co., the Minneapolis-based cereal maker with a plant nearby, and St. Louis-based Energizer Holdings Inc., which has two local battery plants. “Should have been here yesterday,” airport manager Karen McCraw says. “Last couple of days, we’ve had a corporate jet parked out here on the ramp.” A former IBMer, she is a pilot, as is her husband. Their company, Cardinal Air LLC, manages Asheboro Regional and Siler City Municipal under contract.

Williams pushes his airplane backward into a hangar by hand. They may be out of sight, but the small airports he and nearly 14,000 private and corporate pilots fly out of are more than faded windsocks and terminals with walls lined with the traditional clipped shirttails of first-time solo pilots. Directly and indirectly, they contribute about $2 billion a year to the state economy, compared with nearly $12 billion generated by those with scheduled airline service.

 

Their names, such as Asheboro Regional, are pedestrian. Unlike Dead Dog Airport in Pittsboro, Happy Bottom in Advance and more than 400 other private strips, public general-aviation airports are usually extensions of counties or towns, funded by state and local governments to attract and keep business and industry. They spin off about 15,000 jobs statewide and have other roles, particularly enabling access to remote regions after hurricanes and disasters. Behind their sleepy facades, deals unwind, fortunes are staked, and international intrigue unfolds.

North of Raleigh in Franklin County farm country near Louisburg lies Triangle North Executive Airport. “We’re pretty much the top level for business airports,” manager Steven Merritt says. “We’ve got a 5,500-foot runway that’s big enough for business jets, and we’ve got IFR — instrument-flight rated — equipment. We’ve got 8-foot fences. Of course, deer can jump just about anything.” It’s also popular with human jumpers — 13,000 skydivers last year — and is used by a local company for helicopter flight training.

This airport and those like it are preferred by real-estate speculators, site consultants, investors and developers who operate out of the public eye. Scouts for Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz Inc., a national convenience-store chain expanding in North Carolina, landed here to search for sites of 10 more stores the company plans to build in the state. But secrecy sometimes involves more than business contracts and deeds.

Woods on three sides border Johnston County Airport, off U.S. 70 some 30 miles east of Raleigh, where 115 planes are based. Some people speak in whispers about a hangar known as Big Blue. Others won’t speak about it at all. Airport manager Ray Blackmon politely steers conversation away from Aero Contractors Ltd., whose cryptic business card reads: “discreet air- lifts.” The company won’t comment either. N.C. Department of the Secretary of State records shows it was incorporated in 1979 in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam.

Similar records in Delaware show Jim Rhyne, a former CIA pilot, formed Aero Contractors. Federal Aviation Administration tracking data of tail numbers on some of an estimated two dozen planes linked to the company, painted white without identifying marks, have them leaving here and, after stops near Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, continuing to Guantanamo, Cuba; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Baghdad, Iraq. Aero Contractors, sources say, transports CIA teams and, for what’s known as “extraordinary rendition,” suspected terrorists to countries where torture is permitted. Forty years ago, the occupant of Big Blue had another name: Air America, the CIA’s secret air force in Southeast Asia.

Small Tar Heel airports also find themselves in the cross hairs of other controversies. Complaints have prompted the 400,000-member Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, based in Frederick, Md., and National Business Aviation Association, based in Washington, to adopt programs urging pilots to hold down noise around small airports. Private pilots and businesses own about 8,000 planes in North Carolina. “We have a huge interest in where we can take off and land,” says Chris Dancy, an AOPA spokesman. Twenty-seven small airports nationwide have closed since 2008. At least one of North Carolina’s is struggling to stay alive.

From the top of Airport Road, with its 10 mph hairpin turns, the mountain college town of Cullowhee looks like a toy village in the valley 2,000 feet below. The approach by air is not for the queasy, either. From a few miles out, the airport looks like the deck of an aircraft carrier. Crosswinds sweeping Berry Ridge buffet a small plane, which yaws like a crab as the pilot struggles to line up on the 3,000-foot runway, barely wider than a two-lane road, with sharp drop-offs at both ends. On a foggy, turbulent day in December 2005, two people were killed when a single-engine Cirrus flew into the side of nearby Savannah Ridge. This is Jackson County Airport, the only airfield in the state to fall off a mountain.

“Placement was controversial from the beginning, and the method of construction was controversial,” says former County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who also managed the airport until his resignation in January. “Basically, we took two mountain peaks, lopped off the tops and pushed them together in the middle to come up with a flat area.” Like many general-aviation airports, Jackson County’s is third-generation. It began in the barnstorming days of the ’30s as a dirt landing strip near Sylva, the county seat. In the 1960s, it moved to a grass strip in the valley soon hemmed in by development, homes and power lines. It was forced to find a new home a decade later, and Berry Ridge was chosen. “The chairman of the county commission,” Westmoreland says, “was a pilot.”

Environmentalists cringed. Nature didn’t favor the site either. It was completed in 1978; a landslide carried away one end of the runway a year later. In 1990, a fierce storm destroyed the terminal, and in 2004 rain from hurricanes Ivan and Frances washed more of the mountaintop away. Lawsuits followed. “Because of its altitude, several times a year we have to send somebody up there to fix something lightning struck. It’s subject to crosswinds, too. Particularly in the wintertime, it’s brutal up there.”

In the spring, not as much. Its construction-trailer terminal sits empty. In the sky above, a small plane circles, then disappears. It’s as if the pilot had second thoughts.

 

The John Deere stops again, and the farmer hired to keep Triangle North tidy crawls down. Merritt, the airport manager, watches from the shade of a painted park bench under the terminal’s overhang. “We do two things here,” he says. “We pump gas and we mow grass — at least when the mower’s working.” It’s an oversimplified but not inaccurate business model for most small airports.

“Probably fewer than 10 of the 74 airports in North Carolina break even financially,” he says. In 2010, Triangle North came close, falling about $10,000 short of its approximately $700,000 operating budget. Many airport managers say they’re boxed in by limited revenue sources. They staff and maintain their airports, usually from state and local money, and pay back what they can. Asheboro leases its to Cardinal for a nominal $1 a year. Cardinal earns its money from fuel sales.

“We only have two hangars available,” Merritt says. “All others are rented, and you can’t rent ’em twice, so the only variable we have is to pump gas.” Aviation fuel at small airfields typically is priced at least $1 less per gallon than at large ones to attract pilots. In Asheboro, aviation gas last summer was $5.46 a gallon; jet fuel, $4.99. At Triangle North, Merritt figures his margin is 28%, a profit of more than $1 a gallon. “I had a guy call yesterday asking the price. He wanted 300 gallons. He said, ‘I’ll be there in an hour.’ Ours was $5.19, and it was $6.85 at Raleigh-Durham, so he saved more than a dollar a gallon, and we made a dollar a gallon.”

The FAA helps pay to build general-aviation airports, but then they’re on their own, says Scott Seritt, the agency’s Atlanta-based airports manager for the Southeast. “They’re struggling. Pilots aren’t flying as much, local governments are constrained on their budgets, and airports are expensive to build.” North Carolina’s newest, the $13.5 million Halifax-Northampton Regional Airport, opened in 2009 replacing one built in 1946 that cost too much to update. Merritt estimates his airport, which cost about $8 million when it was built 20 years ago in its isolated setting, would top $20 million now.

Since the ’60s, the FAA has had a rule that airports should not be within 30 miles of each other. “The system is basically built out,” says Merritt, a former member of the state DOT aviation staff. “The idea was to build a network so nobody would be more than a 30-minute drive or so from a suitable airport.” But having a staked claim on location is no guarantee of an airport’s future.

Plopped among Rockingham County tobacco farms north of Reidsville, Shiloh Airport recently gained national attention when a developer wanted to build a 1,700-acre landfill less than two miles away. Landfills attract birds, noted one expert on the topic: Chesley Sullenberger — hailed as a hero after landing his airliner on the Hudson River in New York after it struck geese, disabling its engines — wrote a letter imploring local planners to block the landfill. Other, man-made threats can come out of the clear blue.

Below, houses along east Charlotte’s cul-de-sacs line streets like dominoes. At the end of Wilgrove Air Park’s 2,800-foot runway — 12 miles across the city from Charlotte-Douglas International Airport — a tan Cessna 172 climbs, banking to the north, away from downtown’s skyline. A faint red light seems to glow brighter in the otherwise empty sky in the distance, several hundred feet above the small plane. “That’s the WSOC tower,” the pilot warns the novice at the controls. The 1,000-foot television tower is an example of the deadly obstacles pilots face flying at low altitudes near small airports. Barely visible several miles away, it looms larger until, faintly, its guy wires, like strands of a spider’s web angling downward, appear. Thick steel cables, they can slice through a plane like a cleaver.

“We’re pushing for zoning around airports to keep them from putting cell towers and things of that nature too close,” says Walls, the state aviation director. “Some counties and municipalities do a good job. Some don’t. What happens if you put a cell tower out there, and 10 years later you want to extend the runway? Land use is a critical issue.” So too are the economics of small airports and the airplanes that use them.

They’re pricing some pilots out of the sky, though not video producer Steve Kahn, who bases his 30-year-old turbocharged, four-seat single-engine Mooney at Charlotte-Monroe Executive Airport in Union County. One of his Edit on Hudson Inc.’s recent assignments was in Greenville, 220 miles east, more than four hours by car. “We had a shoot at a T-shirt factory, and the client said, ‘You can drive up there with us,’” Kahn, 66, says. “I said, ‘I think not.’ We flew, and when we got there, the airport provided a courtesy car for us. We were at the factory, set up and ready to shoot before the client arrived.”

Dan Hubbard is vice president for communications of the National Business Aviation Association, which lobbies for business aviation. He says the political climate and the public view of business airplanes as tax-dodge toys for the rich are daunting to both airplane owners and small airports that depend on support from the nonflying public. “Our companies like to cite efficiency benefits. I can attend three meetings in three locations in a day, whereas with an airline, it might take three days to attend one meeting.” The 2008-09 recession has amplified the role of small airports. “Since then, airlines have pulled back service in about 200 markets. In a place like North Carolina, a business plane and a small airport may be the only options for getting where you want to go.”

But economic swings that hit a business can hurt a small airport. Asheboro-based Klaussner Home Furnishings Inc., one of the nation’s largest furniture makers, sold its Cessna Citation jet early this year after a downturn in sales. That cost Asheboro Regional hangar rent and fuel sales. “We really hated losing them,” McCraw says, “but we’ve still got a couple of twin-engine planes based here, including those of a modular-home manufacturer that flies out to meet with suppliers.”

McCraw figures it’s about $120 an hour to fly her small Mooney, plus several thousand dollars a year for maintenance. Hangar space starts at about $100 a month. Williams says insurance, hangar rent and other fixed costs run about $600 a month for his plane. Those still flying are resigned to the costs, though.

Beyond the economic winds that batter both, Kahn is concerned about the future of small airports and the pilots who use them. Safety is an issue. “If we start seeing more and more accidents, we’re going to see more and more community groups saying, ‘Close that airport, it’s unsafe.’ We as pilots control a good part of our destiny.” General aviation has about 13 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled, the FAA’s Seritt says. That’s nearly nine times the death rate of driving an automobile. AOPA figures show the chance of dying in a general-aviation accident is about five times higher than in an airline crash.

One reason is because airlines don’t operate at airports like this: On a mountaintop in Jackson County, billowy clouds hang low overhead. It is quiet enough to hear crabgrass straining through cracks in the weathered runway. Four small, tethered planes bake on the tarmac, including a Cessna like the one Curtis Williams flies. Its name is lettered on its tail: The Mighty Sparrow.