Region Focus

First Quarter 2012

Sky Miles

Small airports support flexible flying

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The Gulfstream Stops Here — Occasionally

An orange windsock flies parallel to the ground. Richard Short tows his single-engine Cessna from a small hangar. He checks the oil. A good pilot, he says, won't rely on the plane's electronic gauge. He ticks off other chores before he settles into the pilot's seat. Short is a forester. He locates trees, mostly harvest-ready pines. He usually scouts from the ground, but his two-seater, which he co-owns, lets him explore aerially when he needs to. It's an advantage.

He clamps on his headphones. "I don't see anybody around, do you?” he asks. In clear weather, pilots fly small planes like this one using visual flight rules. That means constantly looking around, on the ground as well as the air. Though the apron is deserted, he makes the routine call, "Clear Prop!" A few minutes and about 1,300 air-feet later, the southern Virginia landscape sprawls below.

Short keeps his plane at the Emporia-Greensville Regional Airport, along U.S. Highway 58, one of more than 5,000 general aviation airports; 4,247 are publicly owned. After World War II, many military airfields were turned over to local governments. Emporia-Greensville was an auxiliary field for the Navy. In case of coastal enemy attack, forces could move inland. Today, only one runway remains; It's 5,000 feet long, which means jets can land.

Like many airports in rural America, Emporia-Greensville sees transient and hometown traffic every day — just not very much. But these airports are business airports, says part-time airport manager Rick Franklin. On this particular day, a few small planes have been in and out. The team from Williams Aerial and Mapping Inc., out of Indiana, had flown in for lunch and back out again for their afternoon's work in Southampton County. In the spring and fall growing seasons, aerial applicators come in to spray row crops. Last year, a helicopter was based at the airport from late summer until fall to handle forestry spraying.

A jet had flown in the day before to meet with a local trucking company. The jet refueled. It took 400 gallons, at $4.89 cents per gallon. "Our lifeblood is our business aircraft," Franklin says. "Our lifeblood is in fuel sales."

But with few airplanes based on site and only occasional fuel sales, few revenue opportunities exist. The city and county share the airport's funding; its annual operating budget is $207,000. There's an up-to-date terminal with a pilot lounge and a small conference room, of which the Virginia Department of Aviation in 1999 funded 77 percent. And its runway will soon get a new surface, a $3 million project, partly paid for through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport and Airway Trust Fund. That money comes from ticket and fuel taxes.

The radio in the terminal crackles and a student in the air notifies Franklin of his presence. The airport lies an hour south of Richmond and west of busier airports in the Hampton Roads region on the coast. Amateur and student pilots like it because it's rural and quiet and hidden. Military groups also like it, and come to practice parachuting or other training exercises.

And you just never know who's going to show up. Then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's husband, Bill, flew in on a Gulfstream when he campaigned for her in 2008 and couldn't land anywhere else in the area. President Barack Obama's security team set up at the airport last October when he visited Emporia. And then there are the hometown boys, the NASCAR-driving Sadler Brothers, Hermie and Elliott, whose jet flies in to visit or pick up friends and family.

It's getting late, though, and now there's only a recreational flyer fueling his four-seater for the 45-minute trip to Manteo, N.C. The Williams Aerial plane is parked for the night. Short tows the plane back into its hangar, toes the blocks against the front wheel, and clangs the hangar doors shut. Once the four-seater roars into the air, the only sound breaking the silence is the wind whipping the flag outside the terminal.

- Betty Joyce Nash

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