Today we’re going to offer our readers a look at something that might be off the radar for most Gilmer County citizens: the county airport, known officially as 49A. We will see what the airport provides to the local community as well as its potential as a positive driving force for the economy.
Officially designated 49A, the airport was originally constructed in 1968 with Appalachian Regional Commission funds. By the early part of the last decade, the airport had become run-down and in great need of repair. The runway was cracked and sprouting weeds, and the original buildings had fallen apart.
In 2002, the decrepit state of the airport prompted the FAA to present Gilmer County Officials with grant money for its improvement and maintenance. Although the decision of whether to go through with the project was left up to the county, the FAA planned to revoke the certification of 49A as a public airport if the board declined. As a part of de-certification, Gilmer County would have been required to pay back a portion of previously received federal funds.
When Gilmer County administration changed in 2005, the incoming commissioners, recognizing the value of the airport, voted to start the improvement projects. Jim Smith of the Gilmer County Board of Commissioners office has served as the county liaison and coordinator for those projects.
As Mr. Smith explained, the initial improvement projects included re-surfacing and widening the runway, clearing trees from the ends of the runway, demolishing the existing buildings, expanding the aircraft tie-down areas, installing runway lights, and installing a new beacon. These improvements were funded by FAA and GDOT grants, which added up to 95% and 2.5% of the project costs, respectively. The remaining 2.5% of the project funds came from the county.
Once the airport was back in an operational state, Mr. Smith and other project leaders focused on realizing its economic potential. A key part of any valuable general aviation airport is what’s known as a “fixed-base operator”, or FBO. The FAA defines the term as
A commercial business granted the right by the airport sponsor to operate on an airport and provide aeronautical services such as fueling, hangaring, tie-down and parking, aircraft rental, aircraft maintenance, flight instruction, etc. – U.S. DOT, FAA publication
In business since May of 2010, 49A’s FBO, Gilmer County Aviation, operates out of a first-class facility leased from the county. Gilmer County Aviation offers a range of amenities to general aviation travelers:
- 22,000 square feet of hangar space with 18 foot tall doors
- A self-service AV-GAS and JET-A fuel farm
- 14 tie-downs
- An automated airport weather station
- A passenger terminal
- A pilot’s lounge
- 24-hour access restrooms with shower
- 3000 square feet of office/tenant space available for lease
As company President Nancy Isom explained, GCA pays fees to the county as a set percentage of its income from fuel sales and hangar fees – 10% for each. Mrs. Isom has overseen the business since its founder, her late husband, passed away last year.
For those not interested in or involved with aviation, it may be difficult to appreciate the value of a general aviation airport. Consider, however, the findings of a study conducted by an independent consulting firm for the Commonwealth of Virginia:
- Each dollar spent by aviation and/or aviation-dependent businesses generates an additional $1.52 in economic activity.
- Aviation facilities attract new industry to the commonwealth
- Many visitors arriving by air spend $70 per day in this geographical area
- “Airport construction projects are particularly beneficial because dollars spent by state and local governments are highly leveraged with federal and private funds.”
Although the above study was conducted for Virginia, it’s reasonable to assume the overall trends apply here as well, especially considering the potential of local high-dollar real estate and vacation businesses to attract wealthy air travelers.
As we saw during the recent plane crash search effort, the airport serves a highly valuable purpose as a hub for emergency service aircraft and personnel. I have spoken to a few officials for their opinions on the matter, and they all value what the airport offers in this regard.
Chief Tony Pritchett of the Gilmer County Fire Department expressed his appreciation for what the airport offers the community. He pointed out that the logistics of the May search operation would have been considerably more difficult if not for the availability of the airport as a helicopter re-fueling station.
Jim Smith mentioned the airport’s role in fighting last year’s forest fires. Fire service aircraft would have had to travel an additional 15-20 miles to Blairsville in order to refuel for the battle. In regards to the recent search operation, Mr. Smith said:
Without the fueling facilities being there…what would have been required of the CAP and the GSP? They would have had to do it in Pickens County or Union County. – Jim Smith of the Gilmer BOC Office
Paige Joyner, a Major in the Civil Air Patrol who took part in leading the search effort, commented on the value of 49A (the following is not an official CAP statement, only the personal opinion of Major Joyner):
Unfortunately, we have had many airplane crashes in the North Georgia area over the years and I can guarantee that there will be more. In my personal opinion, having an airport with the appropriate space and equipment nearby helped save money and time on the last crash. Plus, it allowed us to better coordinate the search with the local authorities and volunteers who participated in the ground search. The airport authorities allowed us full access to the airport facilities, serviced our fuel and oil needs, and became part of the team in the search. This not only brought money to the community; it brought the aviation community back to Gilmer County by alerting pilots that the airport is open for business now. I used to keep my airplane at 47A (Cherokee County) for many years. I was not aware that Gilmer County had revitalized the airport. Last I remember, after flying over one day to land there, grass was growing on the runway. I am glad to see the transformation and happy to know that my “gateway airport to the mountains” is open.
In this last search, being able to use the airport in the community also allowed us to be close to the families so we could keep them up to date on the actions we were taking looking for their loved ones. This was truly a gift for all of us involved as we became part of the community. The support we received from the local community was tremendous. In all of my years participating in searches, we have never had this kind of support. Since we are all volunteers, and love what we do, this kindness from the community gave us the momentum to keep going. We can’t say thank you enough to everyone. – Paige Joyner
As we have announced, the airport will soon be home to the Civil Air Patrol’s newly formed Squadron 507. Gilmer County Aviation is donating office space to the squadron, which will meet at the airport about once a month for training exercises. Other local businesses, including Lowe’s, have donated to the CAP squadron as well. We will have more on this story once the squadron holds its open house on June 26th.