For many years, aviation needs for Albemarle and Stanly County were provided by the old Albemarle Airport that was located where Tractor Supply and other merchants are currently located. In the early 60’s a number of leading citizens and visionaries saw the need for a new airport to better serve the needs of modern, jet aircraft and on the 21st day of May, 1971, the Stanly County Airport Authority was created by an act of the North Carolina General Assembly. The charter members of the Stanly County Airport Authority were George McManus, Stokes Reeves, Carlton Holt, Pritchard Dennis and Dewey Sides. These five gentlemen set out to create the new Stanly County Airport that came to be located in the Palestine Community near Badin. After several years of searching for and obtaining grants and other funding sources to construct a 3,900 foot paved runway, the Stanly County Airport Authority opened bids on May 7, 1975. Bids ran from a low of $314,237 to a high of $869,429 with E.D. Geymont, Inc. of Vale, North Carolina having the low bid. Even though bids were opened in May of 1975, delays in grant funding pushed the beginning of the project back until October/November 1976. During the approximately 2 years it took to construct the runway, enough federal, state and local funds were obtained to extend the runway to the 4,400 feet that it opened with in early 1979. Also in 1979 the first airport manager was hired (Charles E. Hopkins) and the original terminal building was dedicated.
In 1984 the Stanly County Airport Authority brought David Griffin on board as the new Airport Director following the retirement of Cyril Herlocker. According to David, his only qualification to be an airport manager was that he was a licensed pilot with about 12 years of public health experience! He will forever credit Cyril Herlocker for making his transition smooth and orderly. It also helped that Mr. Herlocker was on retainer as a consultant for several months to aid in a land acquisition project and also to give David valuable advice and help. Being a retired Army Colonel aviator, Cyril recognized another old army veteran enlisted man who needed a lot of advice and guidance and he kept David focused and on tract. One advantage of being a pilot was knowing what type of airport facility was needed to accommodate the ever increasing size and sophistication of corporate aircraft. While a 4,400 foot runway was adequate for most small aircraft, it was not adequate for most jet aircraft and without an Instrument Landing System (ILS) it was only a “fair weather” facility. What was needed, in addition to the ILS was a runway of at least 5,000 feet. All it would take was money, and lots of it. Problem was that the needed money was in short supply and the process for obtaining it contained just a bit of politics and Stanly County politics was not good enough to secure funding in spite of anything we tried.
Sometime in 1987 a chance encounter with a recruiter with the North Carolina Air National Guard led to discussions between the air guard and the airport authority. Those discussions that followed over many following months led to the realization that the air guard and the airport could each benefit handsomely through a cooperative usage agreement. In 1988 a cooperative agreement was signed between the two parties whereby the 145th Tactical Airlift Group out of Charlotte would have a facility to train in its large C-130 aircraft. Stanly County Airport in return got enough money from the air guard through the defense department to install an Instrument Landing System, an Automated Weather Observation System and roughly 50% of the funds needed to lengthen our runway to 5,500 and increase the weight bearing capacity to accommodate the much heavier C-130 aircraft. Because Stanly County was now putting up 50% of the cost of lengthening and strengthening the runway, it became a “no brainer” for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to put up the remainder of the needed funds.
Although the NCANG is technically a tenant on the airport, with their participation in infrastructure, we consider them a partner in our operations. With their participation, we have achieved airport capabilities that can only be found on major air carrier airports. This will serve us extremely well in the future.
Since the creation of the Stanly County Airport Authority in 1971 and the leadership of those first five visionaries, many different boards of commissioners and airport authority members have come and gone. The one thing they all had in common was a belief that this airport is the key to future growth, prosperity and jobs for our community. Even during the most recent economic downturn good jobs were and continue to be available through the North Carolina Air National Guard. Many of these jobs provide valuable training that can be applied in the civilian sector for young people who can qualify and are willing to give a portion of their life in service to their country. Many construction jobs were created when the airport began construction on its new terminal building in 2009.
There are numerous individuals whose tireless efforts greatly contributed to the success and growth of this airport over the past years. Credit for funding of much of the growth, both military and civilian, should go to the late Congressman Bill Hefner and former North Carolina Senator Aaron Plyler who were instrumental in securing funds for land acquisition, runway expansion and other major projects. Former airport authority member Bill Mullinix was always the driving force behind Congressman Hefner and Senator Plyler. He was often aided by the late James Garrison who accompanied us on many trips to Washington to lobby our elected officials for one project after another. Realizing all that Mr. Mullinix has done over the years in service to the airport and the county and also realizing he would never let the airport or county publicly honor him, the airport and county decided to honor him by naming the original terminal building in his honor. Some minor deceit was required to get Bill to the airport on the day of the unveiling! The new terminal was named for Mr. Mullinix upon its completion in December of 2010.
Also instrumental in securing large grants for airport expansion in the early years was former U.S. Senator Loch Faircloth. His help enabled the airport to acquire property that is currently used as a “drop zone” by the Air National Guard and will be used for a future runway expansion. Former U.S. Representative Robin Hayes in recent years secured grants for major projects from obstruction removal to ramp expansion. All of these individuals saw and still see the value of investing in the local airport as it truly is an investment in our future.
The many different boards of county commissioners throughout the years also believed in investing in the airport as evidenced by the huge complex it has become. Tony Dennis, member of the Stanly County Board of Commissioners and long time member of the airport authority worked tirelessly to secure funding for two new hangar buildings that were completed in 2006 and also in securing funding for a major land acquisition project in 2006. In another move involving a tiny bit of deceit, the airport authority and board of commissioners decided to honor Mr. Dennis by naming the new hangar complex after him.
In 2011, the North Carolina Division of Aviation along with North Carolina State University conducted an economic impact study on public use airports. The findings, published in 2012, found that economic impacts of aviation total over $25.9 billion annually in the state. These numbers are up considerably over the results of the last study, published in 2006, which totaled $11.8 billion annually. It’s clear that general and business aviation are helping economies supported by general aviation airports across the state, not just at commercial service airports, and that trend continues to grow. More importantly, that study showed that in Stanly County, the airport had a direct, indirect and induced economic impact that amounted to nearly $110,000,000 annually!
There have been many airport boards over the years and there has been much progress under each one of them. The 2008 airport authority board comprised of Chairman Gary Lowder, Vice Chairman Mike Harwood, Secretary Ronnie Huneycutt, and members Tony Dennis and Stephen Chambers presided over the design and construction of the beautiful new, state of the art terminal building that is the envy of every general aviation airport in the Southeast.
The airport is a living, breathing entity that provides and creates jobs for many and will continue to do so for many, many years to come.