By BILL WALKER
A growing list of improvements, a reputation for pilot friendly service, and competitive fuel prices are helping to make South Carolina’s Marion County Airport (MAO) a popular stopover for East Coast flyers.
Airport manager Margaret Pittman notes the air field is in the second phase of a $500,000 project to upgrade infrastructure and improve facilities.
“In the past two years we have put up a new beacon, repaved the apron, paved the grass taxiways to our eight hangars, and added an automated weather station,” she said. “In addition, in the summer of 2011, workmen installed new runway lighting and a PAPI precision approach path indicator light landing system.”
A 500-foot extension of the runway to reach the 5,000-foot mark, plus a parallel taxiway for Runway 22 and additional hangars, are on the drawing board, with a good chance of completion in the next few years, Pittman added.
Pittman, manager of the field for more than 20 years, credited her supervisor, County Administrator Tim Harper, with providing invaluable support for the improvements. “Times are tough in the county with the recession but he has supported the airport every way he can,” she said. “He knows that airports are in our future. And he’s definitely behind the improvements and upgrades. He just likes airplanes. He is an enthusiast.”
Seven planes are currently based at the field, including a Civil Air Patrol Cessna 182. She said the local CAP squadron is active in search and rescue missions and also works with Homeland Security and the U.S. Air Force, helping with practice intercept missions for Air Force pilots checking general aviation aircraft. Pittman added MAO is popular with area flight schools and with military aviators because of its uncontrolled status.
“The flight instructors bring students in here to shoot landings quite often,” she said. “And we get a lot of military fixed wing and helicopter training flights here. We have Black Hawk and Apache helicopters come in and also the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey.”
Annual airport takeoff and landing operations have averaged between 600 and 800 in recent years. That does not include the many aircraft operations conducted outside normal operating hours, she said.
MAO has worked hard to build a reputation for being traveler friendly, Pittman said. “We don’t have a courtesy car, but our staff will take travelers to a nearby motel without charge and we’ll pick them up in the morning,” she said, telling the story of when a helicopter landed at 2 a.m. “The crew didn’t want to go any further so I came out to the field and took them to the local motel,” she said.
Pittman is the airport’s only full-time employee, but has a staff of six part-timers who help keep the terminal open seven days a week. Three of the six part-timers, plus Pittman, are pilots.
She began work as a part-time employee herself in 1983. The job helped pay nursing school tuition. Three years later, with a nurse’s license in hand, she was selected as airport manager. In 1991 she earned her private pilot’s license.
MAO, set among cropland and pastures inland from Myrtle Beach, has become a popular stopover for cross-country general aviation travelers because its 100LL and Jet-A prices are among the lowest along the route from New York to Florida.
“Everyone is shopping around for the cheapest price for fuel and I try to keep my prices as low as I can and still make some money,” Pittman said. “Normally, we have probably the cheapest, if not next to the cheapest, price in the state. And we’re full service.”
A check of fuel prices on AirNav.com in mid-December showed Marion at $4.76 per gallon for full service 100LL. That was six cents more than Columbus County, N.C. (CPC), 27 miles away. About 26 miles away and further inland, Lumberton, N.C. (LBT) had self-service 100LL for $4.99. Myrtle Beach International was $5.04 for self-service and Grand Strand (CRE) Airport at North Myrtle Beach was selling 100LL for $5.84, full service only. Marion’s Jet-A price in mid-December was $4.21. Columbus County was $4.20 while Lumberton was $4.94 full service only. Myrtle Beach International was $5.06 self-service and Grand Strand was $5.91 full service only.
Pittman keeps a wish list of improvements for MAO. One is to get a flight instructor operating from the field again. That looks like a real possibility in the next couple of years, she said. Second, there is no aviation repair facility on the field. Solving that problem is tougher, she said, because of insurance issues and the lack of a building to accommodate a repair shop. In addition, she hopes that the terminal, built in 1974, will get a facelift in the next few years. And, of course, there’s the runway extension. “We think that can happen too,” she said. “We’ve got the land to do it already. Five thousand feet is important because of insurance. Most of your corporate aircraft require 5,000 feet for their insurance.”
Pittman acknowledges that improvements aren’t always immediately translated into increased traffic and additional aircraft based at the field.
“But my outlook has always been, if you’ve got it, you’ll eventually get more people and new aircraft,” she said. “So that’s what we’re doing in putting the improvements in place. We think the aviation community will see what we’ve got and keep coming to Marion County Airport in increasing numbers. And when they come we’ll be here to help in any way we can.”
For more information: MarionSC.org/Airport
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