An unstable past
Located atop a nearly 3,000-foot mountain in Cullowhee, the Jackson County Airport was built to avoid the low-lying fog that often shrouds the Tuckasegee River Valley. Its unique location provides pilots with an alternative landing strip to lower lying airports like Macon County’s.
However, as a result of its location on a flattened mountaintop, the airport has had to continually deal with issues relating to erosion and runoff. Shortly after its completion in 1976, a landslide forced the closure of approximately 500 feet of the runway. The slide progressively worsened until a repaving project finally restored the runway to 3,003 feet.
In 1990, a storm destroyed the two-story terminal building as it was awaiting renovation. But perhaps the most damning blow came in 2005, when the airport’s inability to cope with a heavy rainstorm resulted in a lawsuit by neighbors on the receiving end of a small landslide.
While commissioners had grown weary of supporting the airport, the county responded to the lawsuit by giving the airport $65,000 in 2007 that triggered the release of approximately $600,000, or four years’ worth, of federal matching grants. The airport authority hired engineers to study the site and make a recommendation.
County Manager Ken Westmoreland, who sits on the airport authority, said the study showed the site was structurally sound but incapable of dealing with heavy rain.
“What was determined was the airport proper is stable, but the problem was it could not handle a major rain event properly. It simply cascaded down the mountain and affected local property owners,” Westmoreland said.
The airport authority subsequently used approximately $500,000 to create a detention pond system capable of handling major rain events and also to upgrade the airport’s communication and approach lighting systems.