April 13, 2020, was the darkest day in the history of Lowcountry Regional Airport (KRBW) in Walterboro, S.C.
On that morning a tornado ripped across the historic grounds of the former U.S. Army Air Corps training base, destroying 21 aircraft and damaging several others, including the famed C-54 Berlin Blockade transport, “The Spirit of Freedom.” The overall damage was estimated at more than $11.5 million.
As we approach the year anniversary of the catastrophic storm, KRBW remains in recovery mode, according to longtime Airport Manager Tommy Rowe.
“We have made secure all the buildings that were damaged,” said Rowe.
The damaged or destroyed aircraft have been cleared away, except for the C-54 Spirit of Freedom, which was on the field for an avionics refit at the time of the storm. It suffered major structural damage.
“The tornado moved the C-54 about 100 yards and turned it around,” Rowe said. “And the tail came to rest on a T-hangar. The roof beams from the T-hangar punctured the left wing, causing structural damage. They had finished the avionics installation and the guys were waiting to come back to move the plane to Florida.”
Rowe said the Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation, which owns the C-54, indicated to him it was going to use the Spirit of Freedom for salvage parts because of the extent of the damage.
“The crew was down here a few days ago and they took the props off,” Rowe said in late December. “They said they bought another C-54 and will take parts off the one here and blend it in on the other one.”
Rowe, a former U.S. Navy aviator who grew up in Walterboro, said he had hoped for much quicker progress on getting things back in order at the airport, but the wait for an insurance company settlement stalled the reconstruction push.
In many areas of the 1,200-acre airport grounds there are still jolting signs of damage. Jagged corners of hangars remain visible, steel beams minus roof coverings are open to the sky, and the entire roof of a ramp fuel truck parking building sits on the pavement awaiting the new building. Metal debris is still piled in an open field near the terminal.
“I wish I had a definite schedule for the repairs,” Rowe said. “But I think we are going to get our claims settled in the near future.”
During World War II Walterboro Army Airfield served as an advanced pilot training facility, a German prisoner of war camp, and also a bomb storage depot.
More than half of the approximately 1,000 pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen received their advanced training at Walterboro. A memorial park across from the airport terminal tells the story of that training and the struggles Black aviators faced before going overseas.
“We only had downed pine trees in the memorial park area and were able to get them cut up and cleared away,” Rowe said. “The park is open for visitors and we get them every day.”
“We also still have a World War II hangar on the airport and that was one of the first buildings repaired,” Rowe said. “There was a business in there that needed to stay operational. Most of the roof has been replaced.”
Rowe said the airport master repair plan includes work on a six-unit T-hangar.
“We want to replace that hangar or repair it,” he said. “We had a five-unit T-hangar on the apron that was totally destroyed. I don’t know if we’re going to get enough to rebuild that. We had about 50 planes on the field at the time of the tornado and we lost 21. Some pilots have replaced airplanes and we’re up to 38 planes now.”
“We still need extra capacity,” he added. “I would like to see 18 to 24 T-hangars and a couple of corporate hangars built.”
The new terminal, which was completed in August 2019, suffered only minor damage and has been repaired, Rowe reported.
Lowcountry Regional, 30 nautical miles west of Charleston, is a favorite flight training destination.
“We have right around 20,000 operations for the year,” Rowe said. “We get a lot of flight school traffic from Charleston, Beaufort, and Hilton Head. We have a lot of people shooting instrument approaches for practice, mostly on Runway 23 ILS, plus the approaches 17, 35, and Runway 5. (Runway 9/27 is closed by NOTAM until June 30, 2021). We have a jet instructor operating out of here. A lot of our jet traffic, our bread and butter, is geared to a lot of the plantation resorts we have in the Low Country.”
Read more about the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial Park here.