Not Just Winging It; Dialogue Between Town And Pilots Beginning To Take Off

Published 12:17 pm Tuesday, April 28, 2015

FARMVILLE — Earlier this year, local pilots landed airport development suggestions on town council’s runway in hopes of making the facility more beneficial to the entire community.

Both sides of the conversation left that meeting believing the sharing of words was productive and would help forge a unity of practical commitment toward what all agree is an asset to the town and the wider area surrounding Farmville.

That optimism proved to be justified.

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This month, town council took action toward one of the pilots’ key recommendation, agreeing to advertise for a fixed base operator.

Should that service return to the airport, the facility would be operated on a daily basis by that third party.

In a letter to town council, which led to the meeting, pilot Ron White urged Town officials to view the airport as “an extension of Main Street, an entry way for business and development.”

With airports closing around the country during the past several decades, those that remain are considered, while vulnerable to the same fate, ripe to increase their contributions to the communities they call home.

The question, White pointed out in his letter to Town officials, should not be how many residents use the airport, but “how many benefit from the airport.”

The pilot noted his concern that the airport had been included in discussions by a town council committee regarding operating expenses of Town-owned recreational facilities.

White’s letter contained several specific recommendations that he and fellow Friends of the Farmville Airport members believe can reduce or eliminate the airport’s operating deficit.

He and fellow pilots Morgan Dunnavant and James Wills subsequently discussed those ideas with Town Manager Gerald Spates, Mayor David E. Whitus and town council’s Asset and Resources Committee in March.

“It was a great first meeting,” Mayor Whitus told The Herald.

Wills agreed and was pleased that Town officials came to that meeting with open ears.

The pilots’ want to see the Town: create an airport advisory board, develop minimum standards of operation for the airport as recommended by the FAA and the Virginia Department of Aviation, publish a request for proposal for providing Fixed Base Services, and make the improvements outlined in the Town’s airport master plan.

Advisory Board

The pilots suggest a board comprised of individuals from Hampden-Sydney College, Longwood University, Buckingham, Cumberland and Prince Edward Counties and the Town of Farmville. The group would offer town council suggestions on airport operations and promote participation from their respective constituencies.

Minimum Standards

The minimum standards, per federal and state recommendations, would allow any business or individual conducting operations at the airport to know what is expected and required of them by the Town.

Fixed Base Service

A private operator, pilots believe, would increase the scope of services at the airport, while “freeing the Town from day-to-day operation” responsibilities, White points out. “A properly constructed lease would encourage private investment in the airport while providing revenue sharing with the Town.”

Noting that Heart of Virginia Aviation fuel sales were approximately twice that of current sales, “we believe that a private/public partnership is best for growth,” he writes.

Master Plan

Making the improvements outlined in the Town’s own master plan would allow use of the airport by larger civilian and corporate aircraft, “thereby increasing revenue and potential investment,” White points out.

Wills told The Herald that in the past year, members of the Friends group have been “individually and collectively, educating themselves” on national studies regarding the dramatic decline in airports in the US and their recommendations “to ensure that airports across America thrive.

Their research took them to “prosperous airports,” Wills said, to learn “about means and methods” that might be used by the Farmville Regional Airport “to ensure its own prosperity over the coming years.”

Of the March meeting with Mayor Whitus, Spates and committee members Tommy Pairet and Dan Dwyer, Wills said the hour-long gathering offered the chance to share the results of their research from the past year “and to discuss possible ways forward for the airport.”

The pilots picked up on the favorable vibe coming from Town officials.

“They were quite receptive and plan to discuss our findings with the full council,” Wills said in an email.

Which proved to be true during town council’s April meeting and the unanimous approval to support Pairet and the recommendation from his committee to advertise for a fixed base operator.

The pilots also committed themselves to additional fact-finding for the Town.

“We will make ourselves available to council for further research and to do the ‘leg-work’ on any avenues they believe will be beneficial to the airport and the town,” Wills stated.

Town Plans

The Town has acquired over 34 acres necessary to extend the runway from the current 4,400 feet to 5,000 feet—a magic number for runways and pilots.

The addition of those 600 feet would allow the airport to accommodate larger private and corporate jets that are now flying past Farmville.

But the Town relies heavily on federal and state funding, as evidenced by the fact the $200,000 purchase price for the 34 acres saw the Town kick in just $4,000, the FAA supplying $180,000 and the state adding $16,000.

The Town of Farmville has historically relied on federal and state fund for 98 percent of the cost of airport projects.

The runway extension is one of four major projects the Town hopes to see completed at the airport. Continued land acquisition, constructing a new road and runway apron, and an AWOS, or Automated Weather Observing System, equipment upgrade rounding out the quartet.

Spates has said that a total of 34 aircraft are based at the airport, according to a 2013 report—30 single-engine planes, one multi-engine piston aircraft, one multi-engine turbo-prop, one jet and one helicopter.

Wills, acting as a spokesperson for the Friends group, has described the airport runway extension plans “very far-sighted.”

Certain aircraft are prohibited by the pilot’s operating manual and by their company policies, in the case of corporate jets, from landing on runways shorter than 5,000 feet.

“That’s pretty much the typical cut-off point,” Wills told The Herald earlier this year.

Among the popular corporate jets the 600-foot runway addition will accommodate are the Dassault Falcon 20, Mitsubishi Diamond, the Bombardier Challenger, and the Gulfstream III.

“Most of these aircraft have used the runway in the past at one time or another but are operationally limited (now),” Wills noted.

An August 2011 study by the Commonwealth of Virginia estimated that the airport is directly or indirectly responsible for 44 jobs, $1.16 million in payroll and $3.6 million in economic activity.

“General aviation airports make important contributions to economic development in the state and local communities they serve,” Spates said during a presentation to town council on the airport last year.

White and his fellow pilots are hopeful they can help the Town’s airport take off to even greater heights for the community.

A fixed base operator would be a tangible first step.