The leadership at Georgetown County Airport (KGGE), the county airfield across the river from historic Georgetown, S.C., is pushing hard this year to make significant progress on a plan to develop the 680-acre facility into the best general aviation airport along the South Carolina coast.
A 22-member committee spearheaded by two local pilots is at work on a far-ranging initiative called the “Strategic Business Plan For The Georgetown County Airport.”
The plan would transform KGGE and the sprawling physical plant of the former World War II U.S. Marine Corps Auxiliary Air Facility into one of the most advanced aviation economic and education centers in South Carolina.
The pilots spearheading the transformation are Don Quattlebaum, a well-known Southeastern business leader, Citation pilot, and head of the Georgetown County Airport Commission, and Doug Decker, a longtime aviator and retired business executive noted for airport improvement projects.
Both men keep their aircraft at KGGE and say civic responsibility prompted them to push for development of their home airfield into a better facility serving local pilots and the larger aviation community.
“We have four stated goals in the plan,” said Quattlebaum. “First, we want the Georgetown County Airport to become the best general aviation airport in coastal South Carolina within the next four years.”
“And to do that,” Decker said, “we want to develop the airport so that it becomes a stimulus for economic growth and investment in the county not later than the end of this year, 2018. Also, we have a plan to make the airport into a recognized center of excellence for aviation education and training within 10 years. And finally, in order to make the improvements in the first three goals, we want to increase Georgetown County revenues for the airport so it can become self-sustaining within the next five years.”
Decker has a longtime connection with improving aviation wherever he has been. In the 1970s he spearheaded efforts to open the former Wendover Air Force Base in Tooele County, Utah, to the public. He was successful and today Decker Field at the former air base honors his work there.
He was also an influential member of the airport commission at Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.
He has remained active in aviation since retiring to South Carolina a decade ago and is a recipient of the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, signifying at least 50 years of exemplary flying.
Quattlebaum, who retired from a successful career in the construction industry, is a home-grown Georgetown Airport pilot who started training in a Cessna 172 at KGGE and now flies from the left seat of his Citation jet. He has chaired the county airport commission for the past three years.
“There is heavy north-south transit aircraft traffic and also good destination traffic here into Georgetown,” Decker said. “We had 48,000 operations last year and 59 aircraft are based at the field.”
The FBO is Seven Rivers Aviation, which maintains repair facilities on the field.
The airport is just south of several upscale beach developments with residents coming from all parts of the U.S.
And the nearby town of Georgetown is one of the most historic and scenic in the state. It was the second largest port to Charleston in the Colonial period and sits at the south end of the Grand Strand, a succession of 50 miles of white sand beaches that are South Carolina’s greatest tourist attraction.
There is a good portion of the airport’s 600-plus acres that can easily be developed for housing business and educational facilities, Quattlebaum said.
In the previous decade, Georgetown Airport took significant steps in improving facilities with the completion of the $2.1 million, 8,500-square-foot Thomas W. Edwards, Jr. Terminal and a 12,500-square-foot corporate hangar. In addition, Runway 5-23 was extended 500′ to 6,001′ at the same time.
“The airport already has 41 nested T-hangars and a second corporate hangar under construction,” Decker added.
The original Marine training base from 1941 was developed as a public facility after World War II. It has the familiar military triangular setup with three runways. The second runway, 11-29 (4,359′) remains in service but is not in top condition, and not part of the new development plans, Quattlebaum said. The third runway is closed.
The county is well aware of the positive economic impact the airport has, Decker said. He cited statistics that show that KGGE and the other county airport, Robert F. Swinnie Airport (KPHH) in Andrews, generate $1 million in direct economic output.
And statistics provided by the South Carolina Division of Aeronautics show that tenants and visitors at Georgetown County airports generate $3.4 million in total economic output. Of this funding, $1.2 million provides payroll to 47 full-time ancillary jobs.
Decker said development of educational opportunities tied to the airport are crucial to the success of the business plan.
“We have a burgeoning aeronautics industry in South Carolina that demands highly skilled workers,” he said. “Boeing is not far away in Charleston, yet there does not seem to be a concerted effort to provide the needed skills to county youth to compete for these positions.”
He cited as a positive fact the Advanced Manufacturing initiative sponsored by Horry-Georgetown Technical College.
“As part of Goal III in our plan, the county will establish an aviation engineering program starting at middle school and advancing through high school to the college level,” he said. “Plus, we would like to promote a joint project with the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics at Myrtle Beach International Airport 30 miles north and Horry-Georgetown Technical College to provide the skilled work force needed in this industry.”
The committee is also working with the FBO to build up a flight training school at the airport, Decker said.
“Here is the whole thing in a nutshell,” Quattlebaum said. “We have a lot of land here. We have a 6,000′ runway. We are in a resort area. It is a growing area. We are trying to use that to build up. You could just sit here and say we’ve got a nice little airport, but we want to improve things. The county council is on board. They want to develop aviation education and training for the next 10 years.”