Airport Ready to Play a Part in Economic Development for Choctaw County
December 16, 2015
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  • Mark Carruth is the Special Advisor to the Ackerman/Choctaw County Airport Authority Board. This board, with oversight from the Ackerman City Council and Choctaw County Board of Supervisors, oversees the operation of our airport and coordinates with these two governing bodies when federal, state or local funds are used for upgrades and/or expansion of the airport and its facilities. The Airport Authority typically meets at 6:00 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month in the boardroom of the Choctaw County Courthouse.

    Mark is also a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). The AOPA is the world’s largest support group that promotes general aviation.

     General aviation uses all airports the airlines use, as well as smaller ones like ours. The term “general aviation” refers to the smaller classes of aircraft used for these purposes and their non-scheduled operation, unlike the airlines.

     One of the benefits of being a member of the AOPA is the opportunity to participate in the Airport Support Network (ASN). The ASN is a network of volunteer AOPA members that work to maintain and/or improve their local airport and promote its value to the community in general. One of their goals is to connect every general aviation airport in the world through a contact at each airport. Ours is Mark Carruth, a resident of the Simpson community here in Choctaw County.

     The newspaper conducted an interview with Mark this past week. He answered the following questions.

     Tell us a little about yourself and how you became involved with the Airport Authority?

     I’m a transplant to Choctaw County since 2001, having grown up and starting to fly in the Arkansas Delta near Helena, Arkansas. I was raised on a farm and was first exposed to airplanes and aviation by being around and watching agricultural pilots work the fields in our area. My Private Pilot’s license was earned during college and after graduation, I went on to obtain an Instrument rating, a Multiengine rating, a Commercial Pilot’s license and a Certified Flight Instructor rating. I worked in airport operations at Memphis International for two and a half years until my additional ratings allowed me to begin flying professionally out of Memphis and surrounding airports.

     Business considerations enticed me to settle in Choctaw County and I began to be a frequent user of the local airport. My long-time membership in AOPA led to my volunteering as their local ASN representative in February 2013. This, in turn, led to interaction with city and county officials and agencies with regard to the airport and its development. Once the new Airport Authority Board was created, they asked me to serve as a Special Advisor to them.

     Could you tell us about the Airport Authority Board and it’s members?

     The Airport Authority Board was created by the Ackerman Board of Alderman and the Choctaw County Board of Supervisors in February 2015. It has met and continues to meet on the first Thursday of each month to consider improvements to the facility itself and operational guidelines to enhance the usability and safety of the airport.

     The members, as currently appointed, are Mr. Anthony McGee-Chairman, Mr. Alan Hovas-Vice Chair, Mr. Gradie Ervin-Member, Mr. Terry Teer-Member and Dr. Dannie Reed-Member. Mr. McGee, Mr. Hovas and Mr. Teer are all FAA-licensed pilots and/or aircraft owners. In addition, Mr. Teer is an Inspections Authorized maintenance specialist with extensive experience in the building and maintenance of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Dr. Reed and Mr. Ervin have both been involved for some time with economic development in the county and offer that particular expertise to the board’s functions.

     What are some of the ways that the airport can assist in the economic development goals for our area?

     The most effective single impact it can have is providing a modern and safe means for the numerous companies that now use company-owned or chartered aircraft to move critical personnel, parts, supplies, etc., around the country for business purposes. AOPA, the National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA), the FAA and others cite numerous studies and surveys showing the dramatic increase in business use of aircraft by every industry, big or small, in North America and the world. A key component of this usage is the small airports, particularly in the Sunbelt, that have begun in the last 30 years or so to cater to this demand for accommodation of such usage.

     When a company looks to relocate and/or expand their operations, they consider numerous factors that include cost of living, road and rail availability, schools, etc., to narrow their choices for the winning location/community. All other things being equal, the community with a usable airport for their travel and support purposes will be the winner. Even small, rural communities like Choctaw County can no longer afford to ignore the importance and potential strength of their local airport if they wish to grow their economic opportunities and future in this arena.

     Have you shared your goals with The Enterprise? The Choctaw County Chamber of Commerce? Board of Supervisors? City of Ackerman Alderman?

    Because the Enterprise is so new, direct talks with that entity have not yet occurred but you may be assured that they will. However, the new director Lara Bowman and I spoke two or three times about the airport during her previous tenure here as the director of the Chamber of Commerce. Since 2013, numerous discussions with city and county officials have gone on and some positive actions have resulted. One of these results is the creation of the Airport Authority Board so that a more detailed and aggressive approach could be undertaken with regard to the airport.

     How can we increase our traffic to the airport?

     Think about a new interstate highway that is built through an undeveloped area. Now, put an exit out in the middle of that rural or undeveloped area. You now have a nice, very usable road but without some type of services such as gas stations, quick stops, restaurants, motels, etc., only a very limited number of travelers will use that exit only because that happens to be where they are going. Otherwise, they will pass it up for the next exit that has those things. This is a pretty good illustration of our situation. Commendable efforts have been made over the last 10 or 15 years by local officials and professionals to upgrade the airport from where it was and now we have a good runway and ramp area, but little else. We can increase traffic and use of the facility in the short term by adding things like hangars, an office or lounge area with bathrooms, phone, computer (for checking weather, filing/closing flight plans, etc.), fuel, and developing an approved instrument approach.

     Long-term plans could include lengthening the runway or beefing it up to take heavier aircraft and buying/developing more land for aviation-related businesses to locate on.

     “If you build it, they will come”, as the movie says, although it will take some time to promote these new services and facilities until the flying public becomes aware of your new capabilities, you must have these in order to promote the airport.

     What improvements have been made before and since you came on board?

     Twenty to thirty years ago, the airport suffered from neglect and some indifference. A member of the Board of Supervisors (at that time) actually proposed plowing it up and closing it to save money.

     These trends of industrial usage and economic development value of local airports were already underway and knowable for those who would look and see it.

    The first time I landed here in a high-winged aircraft, the weeds growing through the cracks in the asphalt of the runway were so high they brushed against the bottom of that high wing.

     Since that time, it is to the credit of city (notably the late Mayor Burney, among others) and county officials that the need to rejuvenate the airport back to a safe and usable condition was acted upon. This was facilitated by a change in the FAA’s funding formula, making it easier and much less costly to the city and county to make these repairs and improvements. 

    The runway was completely resurfaced, new pilot-controllable runway and taxiway lights were installed, Precision Approach Path Indicator (PAPI) glideslope lights were installed at both ends, a new rotating beacon was put in and a new parallel taxiway was constructed in anticipation of future development. Also, 250-foot unpaved emergency overrun areas were constructed at each end of the runway.

    Since then, FAA and Homeland Security-mandated security fence construction around the airport perimeter has been done and approach areas known in FAA parlance as Runway Protections Zones (RPZ) have been determined and acquired. This latter was partially assisted by the county in clearing tall trees on the north end of the field.

    What are some goals with regards to improvements to the airport you would like to see done?

     Most of them have been mentioned previously: hangars, fuel, lobby/bathrooms with computer flight planning, instrument approach, etc. A longer runway is a great idea but will take much more analysis and budgetary planning.

     One immediate goal that is being discussed is to better inform and engage the members of the local community about the existence of the airport (many city and county residents don’t even know we have one) and its potential use to the community. One idea being discussed along these lines may involve some type of annual open-house at the airport with aircraft invited to fly in for display, possibly airplane rides, etc. Let me emphasize that this is only at the informal talking level and any such decisions would be up to the Airport Board, the Board of Supervisors and City to implement.

     How will you get funding to complete these goals?

     Just as you pay gasoline taxes at the pump to fund highway improvements and maintenance, aviation-related activities have a similar federal fund called the Aviation Trust Fund. A small amount is added to airline tickets and aviation fuel is taxed to generate the income for this fund. The money is then doled out to airports as they apply for it to pay for projects they wish to accomplish. The most popular and most widely used is known as the Airport Improvement Program or AIP. It non-competitively grants (not loans) 90% of the cost of an approved type of project. Mississippi MDOT Aeronautics Division, as a participant with this program, provides a 5% additional grant to such projects, leaving only the remaining 5% to be supplied by local sources. There are also additional multimodal grants available from MDOT, but these are highly competitive and may not provide as high a level of funding. FAA also has other discretionary funding available but, again, it is highly competitive.

     Once these goals are completed what will be some of the advantages our airport has to offer?

     Lack of traffic or a complex air traffic control structure, such as a tower, will allow simpler and faster operations in and out for the users of the airport. This will not mean less safety but our type of airport and airspace is often preferred by many pilots when traffic and weather considerations do not require them to use bigger and busier airports. Having all-weather usage day and night, 24-hour fueling facilities, hangars and a public lobby or terminal office would provide a large percentage of the needs the flying public has, putting us on an equal footing with the majority of public-use airports around the country. Then we can proudly begin to market (even before we have all of these) our facility to the business flying community in support of our local economic development efforts.

     Does the airport participate in social media?

     Not yet, but this is being researched to determine the most effective media that will reach the flying public and business users.

     Editor’s note: This is the first of several articles the Choctaw Plaindealer will run on this topic.