June 30, 2008

Shiloh About to Take Off


STONEVILLE -- When the chairman of the Rockingham County Airport Authority looks at Shiloh Airport, he sees potential.

The small Stoneville airport, a favorite destination of recreational aircraft and the occasional commercial jet, is no metropolitan port. Hay bales sit by the runway, and one pilot recently reported nearly hitting a deer while landing his plane.

Ben Bragdon, who has worked as a fuel and hangar attendant at the airport for four months, said he once moved a large snapping turtle off the runway.

But Robert Keys, chairman of the airport authority, has plans to transform the rural Rockingham County airport into a center for major corporate air traffic.

"The airport area is really kind of a sleeping giant because of the potential it has to be a center of commerce and business in the area," Keys said. "The airport is positioned to play a major role in economic development in our county."

Keys' guess is that once FedEx opens its planned air cargo and sorting hub at Greensboro's Piedmont Triad International Airport, which is set to open in 2009, companies will start moving into the surrounding counties to provide support services for the shipping business.

And Keys thinks those supporting companies will need a relatively inexpensive, accommodating landing field to ship in supplies and drop off executives. He wants Shiloh ready to meet those needs.

In recent years, the county has built a new terminal building and installed 24-7 fuel access so aircraft can get fuel at any time. The Piedmont Triad Airport Authority recently gave Shiloh an old firetruck, which Keys said the airport has needed for several years but wasn't able to find the money to buy.

And funding already is secure for the next project, an expansion of the airport's taxiway to accommodate large aircraft. Construction should begin sometime in August.

Expanding the runway and installing an instrument landing system to allow foul-weather takeoffs also make the to-do list.

But Mike Bragdon, the airport's manager, said Shiloh's future isn't tied solely to FedEx. The authority has a five-year plan that continually changes as ideas emerge for making Shiloh competitive.

"One of the things we need is sewage," he said, explaining that Shiloh now operates with a septic tank and will either have to connect to a sewage system or build one to support growth. "You can't build a business park on septic tanks. Either way, it's going to be extremely expensive."

Mike Bragdon noted that attracting corporate air traffic becomes even more important as fuel prices skyrocket. Although Shiloh provides fuel at lower cost than major airports, owners are curbing recreational use of planes, which now can cost more than $50 in fuel for an hourlong flight.

As Ben Bragdon, Mike's nephew, pointed out, $50 buys a lot of groceries.

But though Keys sees limitless possibilities for improving Shiloh's competitiveness with other North Carolina airports, he also acknowledges that the airport has come a long way since it was built in the 1970s.

"The airport is approaching becoming self-sustaining," he said, explaining that the county now funds only $70,000 of Shiloh's more than $250,000 budget.

"We're moving from a place where a few people can have fun on weekends to a place that is having economic impact on the county."

Contact Emily Stephenson at 373-7080 or emily.stephenson @news- record.com

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