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With the last Macon County Airport runway extension project barely in the rearview, the North Carolina Department of Transportation has approved another $4.5 million airport project to make the runway even longer. 

The last expansion project in 2011 extended the runway from 4,400 feet to 5,000 feet for safety reasons — the same reason why local officials say the runway now needs to be expanded to 6,000 feet. 

Geography and population conspire to make much of Western North Carolina a terrible place for an airport; west of Asheville, commercial airstrips are practically nonexistent.

fr aeromodelersThe Macon Aero Modelers Club members are not afraid to fly much of anything. Large, wooden aircraft churning through the sky, small, light planes twisting and turning at 10, 15, 20 Gs — if it’s got wings, it’s their forte. 

The Macon County Commission last week narrowly approved funding for upgrades and an expansion of the runway at the county airport.

fr airportMacon County could once again find itself with a bigger airport runway — this time wider. 

fr airplaneShortly after takeoff, the Smoky Mountain Flying Club is having to re-route its course. 

The flying club nearly lost an $11,000 non-refundable down payment on an airplane after a deal with investors went bad.

The Smoky Mountain Flying Club is trying to get some wind under its wings again with a campaign to attract new members and buy a sporty plane, or two, for its pilots to use collectively.

Instead of the small planes traditionally flown by recreational pilots, the club is moving in the direction of the burgeoning class of light sport aircraft. These lightweight, maneuverable planes require less training and are cheaper to keep up than their larger counterparts.

fr jaxairportThe advent of live dealers and table games at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is widely predicted to bring sweeping economic benefits to the region — benefits that are so far-reaching even the tiny landing strip known as the Jackson County Airport could land a piece of the action.

More than $2 million in mostly federal dollars will pay for repaving the runway at the Macon County Airport, likely boosting a surge of business-class jets now landing there since an extension of the runway was added last year.

The state and county will each have to kick in a 10 percent match, while federal funds will comprise 80 percent of the project cost.

Macon County’s airport is the nearest airport to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort that can handle small corporate jets. Additionally, well-heeled residents with second or third homes in the Highlands-Cashiers area visit this region via Macon’s airport.

“This is another tool in our economic tool belt,” Tommy Jenkins, the county’s economic director, said Tuesday. “We’ve got an asset in the airport that a lot of surrounding counties don’t have. We’ve got to make sure we take care of it.”

Federal aviation dollars come in to the state through the N.C. Division of Aviation, which then disperses the funds based on need to airports in the state.

Macon County, again using a combination of federal and state funding along with a county match, spent $4.5 million building a 600-foot extension and a 300-foot grass safety area over the past two years.

Work at the airport has been a source of controversy, with critics citing the large cost for relatively few users and the impact of the growing airport on the rural Iotla Valley off N.C. 28. But the biggest controversy came when Indian graves were discovered in the path of the runway extension. The county reached agreements with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, however, allowing work to move forward following an archaeological excavation.

Miles Gregory, the airport board’s chairman, said Tuesday that he believes what sealed the funding deal was a firsthand visit in September to the airport by N.C. Department of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti. The state bigwig was in the area to attend a bridge naming ceremony for former state Sen. John Snow, D-Cherokee County.

“The runway is all in pieces,” Gregory said. “It’s been in bad repair for a long time. (Conti) just shook his head, and said he’d do what he could to help us.”

Bids for the repaving project likely will be let this spring.

New airport hangars are in the works, Gregory said. Additionally, there are plans to try to run a 12-inch line and hook into the town’s water.

“We have a drilled well right now. It wouldn’t put out a lit match,” Gregory said. “I’m exaggerating of course, but we could use that water.”

A statewide economic impact study conducted five years ago indicated that Macon County’s airport had an approximate $7.9 million a year total annual impact on North Carolina and supports more than 122 jobs.

When Mike Schoonover was 10 years old, he had a transformative experience. It wasn’t a religious conversion per se. There was no epiphany-inducing encounter with a sports hero. But there was a cathedral of sky and a 10,000-foot high playing field, and there was born a fledgling devotion to the skies that has lasted five decades.

“I can remember it like it was yesterday,” says Schoonover, who lives in Waynesville.

He’s sitting in the tiny office of the one-runway Jackson County Airport, an unassuming room with faux-wood paneling and the single air conditioner in the small hangar, whirring against the staunch July heat.

He recounted tagging along in the cockpit during a sales call with a family friend who sold used airplanes.

Now he owns his own airplane, a 2006 Maule M4-180V — a throwback, he says, to the earlier days of small-scale flying, and earlier this month he and his 13-year-old grandson, Sam Bolduc, achieved the complicated feat of touching it down in all 48 contiguous states.

They did it in six days. The plane averages around 110 miles per hour, so even a cursory encounter with a map and a calculator will tell you it means essentially constant flying.

And Schoonover did much more than a cursory encounter.

“It was so over-planned and, you know, I flew this thing on paper over and over, four or five times — what altitudes will I fly at, what headings,” says Schoonover.

He’s a self-described type-A man, the kind of person who finds precision relaxing. When he says the trip was highly planned, his claims are genuine.

He planned the routes, of course, and the particulars of the plane. But he also made survival plans, mapped out locations where the plane was most likely to go down without radio contact and then researched and packed a survival kit for the eventuality.

He worked out which foods they could take in the tiny, two-seater plane. They subsisted mainly on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and bananas. Apparently, they’re lower on the choke-hazard scale. Because, says Schoonover, you can’t just pull over a plane to do the Heimlich maneuver.

But even with the copious preparations, things went far better than even the pilot himself expected. He blocked out 12 to 14 days for the trip, breaking it up into 48 1.5-hour flights. That’s another fun fact gleaned from his background research — it takes about 1.5 hours to fly from one state to another, pretty much regardless of size.

He got the idea in the doldrums of winter, one of those intricate daydreams that carry us through the gray expanse of winter days.

But Schoonover’s fantasy crossed the portal from dream to idea, from idea to reality. He doesn’t think they’ve set any records doing it, but that part is a little murky, because he couldn’t really find any record of someone else actually doing it. He’s pretty sure people must do things like this all the time. But maybe, like him, they didn’t exactly look for any record books to put it in.

Record breaking or simply noteworthy, it was an exhausting and expensive proposition. Schoonover was the plane’s sole pilot for all 5,951 nautical miles of the journey, and he relieved himself of more than $3,000 on fuel alone.

“I knew it was one of those things that was once in a lifetime, but at a certain level is hard to justify,” said Schoonover. Overall, the trip cost around $4,000. “But to say that we’d done something like this and to have the experience and have it documented and share it with people and family and stuff, I could justify it one time.”

Hearing him recount the tale, too, it’s clear that one unexpected benefit was worth four grand.

“My grandson loved it. He got into more than I would expect. He became more than a passenger, he was truly a copilot,” says Schoonover. He has 11 grandkids, but this particular 13-year-old seemed the right age. So when he was planning the trip, he called his daughter in Cary.

Would Sam like to come?

Sure.

And just like Schoonover’s own inaugural ride into the clouds, he hopes his grandson will remember this voyage as the moment his love of aviation began.

“I know he will because I watched and I saw how he got into it. If you ever have that deal where you can see somebody with a passion, see that passion begin,” says Schoonover, the joy on his face replacing the end of his sentence. That is what he saw kindled in his grandson.

Over the course of the trip, they burned 600 gallons of fuel, flew more than 59 hours and made friends at small airports in every quadrant of the country. They passed over three major disasters and countless acres of untouched natural beauty.

Would he do it again? In a heartbeat, says Schoonover.

“You know, did you ever have a family event, something where you wanted it to be perfect and you hoped it would be perfect, but things aren’t perfect?” he asks, as he pushes the small plane, it’s green stripe gleaming in the sun, out for another jaunt into the crisp summer sky. “Well, this was.”

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