It’s dark. You’re an airmail pilot, circa 1925. Rain stings your face. You’re straining through the mist to see the light beacons below. In good weather following the line they form across the country is easy, but tonight the weather is horrible. Your flight suit and gloves are soaked. Your tiny biplane is battered by the wind and offers you little protection from the elements. The clouds closed below you, you’re lost, and you will soon be out of fuel. You’re cold, tired, and very scared.
There is no radio on board, or flight instrument to guide your descent through the clouds—they haven’t been invented yet. Your alternatives are few and terrifying.
You can parachute into the dark maelstrom, or intentionally spin your aircraft, into a windmilling, free-fall through the clouds. If you don’t run out of sky, and you’re not disoriented, you’ll stop the spin and fly towards the light beacon.
This was state-of-the-art, professional flying in the 1920s…quite different from air travel today. It’s important to note that 1925 was the year that Asheville Chamber of Commerce started looking into building an airfield. Really? Eighty-nine years ago, when the mail was carried in unreliable, underpowered, biplanes, Asheville businesses recognized the potential of air travel.
The result is a story of continual growth in air services and financial stability for the region. Driving South on I-26, just as you crest the hill at the Asheville airport exit, you’ll notice piles of dirt and heavy equipment on the far side of the runway.
Construction has started for Project SOAR: Significant Opportunity for Aviation & the Region. Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) is fifty-three years old, very busy, and it’s in the initial stages of a facelift—a federally funded, 64-Million-Dollar facelift—so we decided to dig into AVL’s story.
To better understand why Asheville dipped its toe into the airstream, we need to go back in time.
Transportation as Financial Fertilizer
History has shown that transportation is the key to any region’s prosperity. The ability to move people and goods into and out of a town can make the difference between a successful colony, or a failed one. A remote area with an abundance of fruit trees, but no way to move the bounty, will be populated by people tired of eating apples.
America’s success has largely been due to our ability to move our goods from where they are produced to the rest of the world. Initially, our network of rivers and lakes allowed farmers and manufacturers to get their products to deepwater port cities, where trade was limited only by shipping capabilities.
Our inland waterways were augmented first by railroads and later with paved roads. Our port cities, as a result of all the freight, grew in size and trading prowess. When sails were replaced by steam power, and wood with steel, American entrepreneurs could trade freely with the rest of the world, and vice versa.
Adding Aircraft into the Matrix
When the first factory-built airplanes arrived, most people thought of them as military tools or toys for wealthy daredevils. Forward thinking American businessmen, on the other hand, had a hunch about this newest mode of travel.
They bought fleets of open cockpit, two-seat biplanes and negotiated with the US Postal Service to carry mail across the country. Pilots flew in any weather, day or night, trying to follow light beacons placed 10 miles apart. Piloting the coast-to-coast airmail route was physically demanding, treacherous work. Mail, as well as pilots, were frequently lost, never to return.
When one of these stalwart mail pilots flew a small plane nonstop from New York to Paris, the world was forever changed. Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 flight proved that the airplane could cross continents and oceans alike.
In the early 20th century, the state of the art for trans-Atlantic crossing was the mighty Mauritania, a steamship bearing 3,200 people and cargo. In 1905, she crossed the treacherous North Atlantic in just 4.5 days, a record that stood for 30 years.
By contrast, Lindbergh’s single engine plane, carrying one man, covered the same route in a little over one day—33.5 hours. If the Wright brother’s invention sent the world’s imagination aloft, Lindbergh’s trip across the Atlantic shot it around the world.
The earth was changed forever, and investors poured money into building planes and the airports upon which they operated.
Aviation in the Appalachians
The mountains surrounding the city of Asheville are as rugged as they are beautiful, with roads that twist along valley floors, making for long travel times… in good weather. The rivers are not deep, nor wide enough, to support commercial traffic.
In the first quarter of the 20th century, Asheville, along with other United States cities, was prospering. When airplanes attempted to carry mail, local business people envisioned transporting customers and goods over the mountains, and over snow covered roads, accelerating transportation, ergo, business for the area.
In 1925, two years before Lindbergh’s non-stop flight to Paris, the Asheville Chamber of Commerce assigned an aviation committee to look into the feasibility of building an airport.
Land midway between Asheville and Hendersonville was leased and developed as the Asheville-Hendersonville airport (A&H), funded by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and the City of Asheville.
Two runways were built, forming an ‘L’. Airplanes plying their trade at the time needed little more than a flat track of dirt to takeoff and gasoline when they landed. The field was primitive by current standards, but it served.
A&H airport flourished, so much so, that in 1936, the Cities of Hendersonville and Asheville purchased the unpaved runways and 122 acres for land and cash valued at $33,000. Old photographs show: “A&H Flying Service,” over one of the hangars, evidence that commercial aviation was actively moving people and goods over the rugged mountains.
Wartime was a boom for the airport, as the Army Corps of Engineers operated the field to provide air transportation for their communication and weather services based in downtown Asheville. By allowing the Army use of the field, A&H Airport was rewarded with improvements: the two dirt runways were paved, lengthened, and joined by a third. A control tower and fire station were also built, greatly adding to the safety of the field.
With all these new services in place, the airlines beat a path to Asheville. Passenger and freight services operated by Delta, Piedmont, and Capital Airlines out of A&H Airport helped business owners move products and employees far more quickly than roads and rail.
An aircraft ejection seat company, Stencel Aeronautical Research Co. set up a business two miles from the airport, and kept three test aircraft on the field as Stencel worked on military contracts. A&H was generating jobs for the area in addition to supporting business needs.
Asheville Regional Airport
By 1957, the Asheville-Hendersonville Airport’s proximity to mountains and its small runways were limiting the airlines’ ability to operate at night and in bad weather. City leaders, realizing the field’s role in continued growth of the area, passed a bond issue authorizing the City of Asheville to spend $1.2 million to relocate and grow the airport.
The city found 740 acres just three miles west of A&H field, which would be perfect for the new Asheville Regional Airport. Locating the runway in a wide mountain valley made takeoffs and landings safer for larger, faster-moving aircraft. They would not have to climb or descend abruptly to avoid mountaintops, a mandatory feature for night and stormy-weather operations.
A paved 6,500-foot runway, running North-South, a control tower, and a 25,000-square-foot terminal building were constructed at a cost of $2.2 million. The new Asheville Regional Airport (AVL) was Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified in 1961 to operate day and night commercial air traffic. A year later, an instrument landing system was installed, which guides pilots all the way down to the runway surface in times of poor visibility.
Looking upon the 53 years that AVL has been operating, aircraft operations and passenger volume have grown steadily, providing the stimulus for continued improvements to the airfield.
The runway was lengthened and improved to the tune of $2.0 million, funds provided during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. The terminal has been updated numerous times, and the airline parking ramp was expanded in 2006, allowing up to 13 aircraft to be parked next to the passenger terminal.
Passengers vs. Enplanements: Used by the FAA and others in the industry for statistical measurement and comparison, enplanements refer to passengers getting on aircraft in AVL, and deplanements refer to passengers exiting aircraft at AVL. The total number of passengers is not equal to the two combined, as a result of passengers with one-way tickets.
Who Runs the Show?
Prior to 1980, operational management of Asheville Regional Airport was implemented by the City of Asheville. That year, the airport management function was shifted over to the newly created, Asheville Regional Airport Authority, governed by an independent board made up of appointees by Buncombe County Commission and Asheville City Council.
The authority is in place to assure that the field runs smoothly, and are responsible for just about everything that happens during the day-to-day operations.
Currently, the authority depends on 60 employees to keep things running. In 2013 the team kept an average flow of 71 passengers per hour, moving safely and smoothly, as well as the aircraft carrying them.
Responsibilities for airport management reach far beyond the daily routine, however. The authority must also keep the airport financially solvent. Are you surprised?
The city owns the airport, and as part of the national network of public airports, the federal government, and the North Carolina Department of Transportation, help fund the upkeep of the airport systems such as runways, navigation systems, radar, and air traffic control. But the airport must be self sufficient to keep everyone employed and the light bills paid.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld joked that airlines are a front, the real business is selling $20 tuna fish sandwiches in the terminal. Truth is, concessions were only 3% of the airport’s total revenue in 2013. The airlines and rental car companies each contributed 24%, but the largest revenue chunk came from… wait for it…parking—at 29%.
Years ago, it was said that if you died in Asheville, your soul would have to change planes in Charlotte or Atlanta en route to your destination. Airline service has changed dramatically since then. As of today, there are direct flights from AVL to 11 major United States destinations on four competing airlines.
Better airline service doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s not automatic, either. Historically, airline routes, fares, and schedules were regulated by the government via the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB).The CAB decided who would fly where in the USA and when. There were very few discounted tickets, as no airline competition was designed into the system.
Airlines were deregulated in 1978, leaving airlines to pick and choose where they fly. Investing in a route is expensive for the dollar-strapped airlines, so the airport and route selection decisions are scrutinized, and airports compete with each other for air market share.
Asheville Regional’s Airport Authority has a marketing staff for the purpose of attracting more airline services to the area. Armed with passenger statistics, population demographics, weather data, safety records, and market analyses, they are in constant contact with airline decision makers. In short, the authority sells Asheville as a city on the upswing, a city with potential, populated with a travelling public and businesses which need air service.
It’s working. With eleven direct flights from AVL, old jokes about connecting to get anywhere no longer apply, and fares keep dropping. Authority engineers have already planned how the runway must be modified to accommodate direct flights that terminate West of the Rockies.
As if that weren’t enough, the authority must also plan far into the future, monitoring airline trends, adhering to FAA imposed safety improvements, and in doing so, assure us all that AVL will be poised to support the area’s projected aviation needs.
Changes to systems that aircraft use are, for good reason, scrutinized by federal agencies, and once ratified, these improvements are very expensive, due to the level of safety required. For this reason, the airport authority designs and executes a 20-year plan.
Cost of ownership
AVL currently has a single asphalt runway, oriented North-South, which is 8,001-foot long by 150-foot wide. There is one taxiway on the east side of the runway, running parallel to it.
That’s 1.2-million-square-feet of asphalt just on the runway, and the last time it was resurfaced was 1995. Thirteen years later, in 2008, the airport authority was putting their budget together to once again grind off the top layer of the runway and resurface it.
The cost would be high, in excess of ten million dollars, but other parts of the infrastructure were also nearing end of life, such as the underground wiring, the runway lighting fixtures, as well as the storm drainage system. As the scope and cost of the project began to creep upward, the authority decided to approach the FAA and NCDOT with their plan to ready the airfield for the next 50 years of growth.
SOAR: Significant Opportunity for Aviation and the Region
Project SOAR, a $64M construction program, which will completely redevelop the airport, is the most ambitious upgrade since the airport’s inception 53 years ago. No local funds will be spent; 78% of the funds are coming from the FAA and the NCDOT, the remaining 22% from the airport’s operating budget.
There have been some changes to the FAA’s standards for airport construction since AVL was built 1961, necessitating changes to the alignment and configuration of the runway.
The existing runway, therefore, will be completely demolished. In order to keep Asheville’s vital hub operating, a temporary parallel runway will be constructed to the west of the current one. Air service will continue uninterrupted on the temporary runway as the old is demolished, repositioned, and paved.
Once the new runway is completed, the temporary runway will become a second, parallel taxiway.
Phase 1: (underway) Site prep for a new, temporary runway on the west side of the current runway.
Phase 2: Temporary runway will be operational after paving and installation of lighting.
Phase 3: Demolition of current runway begins.
Phase 4: Pave and install lighting for new runway.
Completion: Estimated to be 2018, the temporary runway becomes a taxiway on the west side of the new runway.
Gold to the West
Potentially, the most exciting prospect for Project SOAR will be the new taxiway on the west side of the runway, which will be a gateway to a large tract of land just west of the airport’s current boundary. Ownership is divided among three owners: AVL, Sierra Nevada Brewing, and Ferncliff Development.
AVL’s holdings are two plots of land that front the eastern edge of the undeveloped tract, one on the south side of the field, and the other on the north. The western taxiway will open this area for development.
A new general aviation area, as well as a designated air cargo area, will be developed on the west side of the new runway. The remainder of the holdings is available for development as commercial and non-commercial multi-use.
Property adjacent to airports the world over are fertile ground for business development. Businesses that participate in the aviation market would benefit from a location adjacent to the runway, as would other non-aviation firms with a need to move people or goods through the airport.
Ferncliff and the airport have been working closely to assure a positive outcome for both sides. The airport’s holdings are two plots of land that front the eastern edge of the undeveloped tract, one on the south side of the field, the other on the north. The western taxiway will open this area for development. Additionally, Ferncliff Development has been granted future access to the west side of the airport, which is key for attracting larger aviation-based firms to the area.
AVL contributes nearly half a billion dollars in local economic impact each year, and airport tenants generate $11 million in state and local taxes. Extending the airport westward could only grow those numbers, as companies who need airport access relocate.
Reworking Asheville Regional Airport now, positions the field to support Western North Carolina for the next 50 years, so that the area can thrive as a competitive and vibrant region with strong air service offerings that support business and tourism alike.
To an airmail pilot from 1925, today’s Asheville Regional airport would be something out of a Jules Verne novel. Air transportation will continue to evolve, by 2064, for instance, airliners might be flying themselves… but they will always need a place to land. The Asheville Regional Airport will continue to evolve, and persevere, as the area’s connection to the world.