By BILL WALKER, For General Aviation News
The story is painfully familiar. A once thriving airport, this one in rural South Carolina, falls on hard times and faces permanent closure. Hemingway-Stuckey Airport, 38J, hit bottom last year when the State Aeronautics Commission told local officials to clean up the place or close it.
The hard facts, according to the FAA, are that 16 public use airports were abandoned in the U.S. during 2008. And 38J appeared ready to join the list.
But Stuckey’s mayor and a group of concerned aviators stepped in to stop the closure. They were as distressed as the state officials at seeing the overgrown runway and rusting hangars on an airfield that had once been a social and aviation center for the communities of Stuckey and nearby Hemingway.
The towns are in Williamsburg County in the Palmetto State’s eastern, Pee Dee region. Stuckey has about 250 residents and Hemingway about twice that number. Built in the 1950s, Stuckey Airport’s 3,386-foot runway was one of the first paved runways in the region and even today the closest paved airports are more than 20 miles away in Kingstree and Andrews. Florence Regional is 35 miles away.
The man leading the airport revitalization is Stuckey Mayor David Rose, who returned home after a successful business career in Charleston. He said he found the town and its airport in a sad state. “Somebody had to do something,” he recalled, “so I ran for mayor in 2000 and was elected.”
Rose (above), who learned lessons on determination and leadership in the hardest sort of way in combat in Korea, sought support from the county and the state. He found a willing ally in Williamsburg County Grants Administrator J.P. Gamble, an octogenarian pilot with more than 8,000 hours in his logbook.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
The beginning of the field’s decline can be traced to the change in ownership of Wellman Industries, a large plant in nearby Johnsonville, according to corporate pilot Herman Parker, who once flew the company’s executives, primarily in twin-engine Cessna 402s and 421s. “Wellman had a corporate aviation department and we flew from 40 to 80 hours a month from this field. But when Wellman went from a private, family-owned company in 1983 to a public company, the flight department closed, and it has been downhill for the airport since then,” he said while standing amid knee-high weeds that covered much of the badly-cracked airfield asphalt.
After the decline, the town of Hemingway, which owned the field, gave it back to the county for disposition. “What we had was a ghost airfield that didn’t have any owners,” said Gamble. “Everyone originally connected with the airport had died.”
Then came the State Aeronautics Commission visit. “The state said ‘let’s do something with it or get rid of it,’” he noted. “They were not saying we want to get rid of it, but we don’t want it to remain in this state of disrepair and stay in the state system.”
The county began the comeback by naming four new trustees. Parker, now retired from corporate flying, was joined by three other local men — John Sims, James Brown and Jon Stuckey — in taking over the revitalization, along with Rose.
Their assignment to bring the airport back up to state standards won’t be easy. What they need most is cash and Williamsburg often leads South Carolina’s 46 counties with the highest jobless rate. In addition, the recession dried up most sources of funding.
But Mayor Rose is confident the money can be found. “The first part is a clean up,” he said.
“The vegetation that now covers the fences has got to be cut back,” Parker said. “There is a stand of pines at the end of the runway that present an obstacle to landing on runway 29. Those pines were only a few feet high when the field was built, but they haven’t been trimmed in 25 years. I remember former Texas Gov. John Connally once flew in here in a Lear jet. The pilot put it right down and got out of here again.” With the pines at their present height that landing couldn’t happen now, he said.
There is limited traffic at the airport these days. A crop-spraying firm uses the field extensively and general aviation pilots brave the weeds and cracked asphalt to shoot landings occasionally. During the interview for this story, Rose took a call from a pilot planning to fly in for a funeral. “If you land, you do it at your own risk,” the mayor told the caller.
The second stage of the revitalization would be an extension of the runway to 5,000 feet so corporate jets can land. That would mean about 20 local landowners, including several people with homes adjacent to the field, would have to sell their properties to the county before the expansion could begin. Rose believes that will happen. “No one has said no to the proposal,” he said. “We are seeking $1.5 million to $2.5 million in federal and state funds for the start of the project.”
When the extension is complete the field could safely handle most corporate aircraft, he added. “We have a Tupperware plant nearby, but their jets can’t come in here because their insurance company forbids them to land on a runway of less than 5,000 foot,” Gamble said.
“We can’t attract industry if they can’t get their corporate aircraft in here,” Rose noted. “You can’t get industry if you don’t have an airport. And one of the trustees, John Sims, said if we extend the field and improve it, he will buy a Lear jet and put it here.”
Rose said when he was elected mayor he was told there was no money for improvements in town. But with the help of county officials he secured nearly half a million dollars in grants. “We’ve been able to clean up the town with that money and the airport is next,” he added.
“A good, working airport will bring jobs to the community and improve life for everyone,” Rose said. “This is not just about flying, this is about improving our entire community.”
For more information: WilliamsburgCounty.sc.gov.