The Davidson County airport has been situated alongside Interstate 85 since its infancy in the late 1950s, providing a long-term home for corporate jets and a brief respite for transient two-seaters.
But airport officials say they still run into locals who don’t know it exists.
“Lexington has an airport?” Karel Van Der Linden joked during an interview this week, summoning his best Southern accent impression. “I’ve lived here 30 years and there’s no airport.”
Van Der Linden is the co-founder of Fly High Lexington, the airport’s management company since 2010, and one of the airport’s many advocates who see economic opportunity aplenty across the 330 acres of land it occupies.
Alongside the Davidson County Airport Authority, whose appointed members oversee the airport’s operations, Fly High Lexington officials are hoping to put that opportunity into action. They say two major projects involving approach lighting and runway improvements will greatly enhance the airport’s ability to attract both touch-and-go and long-term traffic in a way that dovetails nicely with Davidson County’s still-budding I-85 business park.
Accessibility is key
The airport’s most significant contributions to Davidson County as a whole come not from the attraction of private sight-seeing trips or plane-spotting excursions, but from the import of traveling businessmen who use the runway as a parking lot to scout out opportunity and from the fuel they buy to leave town at the end of the day.
If those businessmen do so enough, and ultimately like what they see, the most covetable of incentives becomes attainable: those businesses opt to locate here and store their high-end, high tax value planes in Davidson County for the long term.
L.G. Cashion, former chairman of the Davidson County Airport Authority now serving as a consultant to the group, said that starts with improving accessibility at the airport, giving pilots no reason to land their planes elsewhere.
Last summer, Cashion secured $360,033 in appropriations from Davidson County Board of Commissioners to begin design work on a runway lighting project that could greatly improve an incoming pilot’s willingness to touch down in Davidson County.
In bad weather or at night, pilots will eventually use the series of five flashing lights leading up to the runway as a roadmap to the airport.
“When the pilot sees that, he knows he’s 1,000 feet from the threshold of the runway,” Cashion said of the light sequence. “He can’t see anything when he is approaching the airport, so when he gets down to a minimum descent altitude, he has to make a decision as to whether to continue to try to land.”
Without the lighting feature, Cashion said, many companies wouldn’t even consider landing their corporate jets at the airport.
The lighting project remains in its design phase, with two land parcel acquisitions still remaining, but Cashion said it is nearing final approval. He expects construction could begin this summer.
Bigger is better
In the meantime, Cashion, Van Der Linden and company have their eyes on a more expansive project — one that would not only attract more aircraft into the airport but also larger aircraft.
The 5,004-foot runway at the Davidson County Airport was last paved in 1999 with the expectation that it would last approximately 15 years. After regular rehabilitation and patching projects provided by the state, the runway is in year 17 and ready for a facelift. With that facelift comes the opportunity for an improved weight capacity.
As a general rule, the airport’s runway is able to comfortably intake dual-wheel planes up to 60,000 pounds, which generally means planes with smaller engines, smaller passenger totals and smaller fuel capacities.
It can’t handle, for example, a Dow Chemical Global Express jet that approaches 100,000 pounds or a Caterpillar Falcon Jet at 69,000 pounds.
“Once they know our weight limit, they don’t come back,” Cashion said of planes that easily exceed the airport’s capacity.
Transient planes that are able to land under the weight limit have to do so with lighter fuel loads and then are limited on how much fuel they can purchase before takeoff.
The airport has secured a state grant in the amount of $3.6 million that would double the runway’s weight limit by adding a layer to the existing pavement and enable aircraft up to 120,000 pounds to land. The extra 60,000 pounds would open the door to not only larger business and passenger planes but also larger freight shipments.
All told, including strengthening the airport’s taxiway and apron, the project is expected to total $7.2 million, ideally paid almost entirely through state grant money, but which would include a $720,000 local match. Neither the state nor the Board of Commissioners has committed to fully funding the project.
With regional airports littered throughout the greater Piedmont Triad area including the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro and the Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem, the Davidson County airport has to work hard to attract new transient aircraft and long-term hangar rectors.
The effort will be essential as the business park, which is being developed less than four miles from the airport, begins to attract more suitors and business jets eye the most efficient way to get to and from the park in a day. That’s where Davidson County Manager Zeb Hanner sees a real selling point.
“We can say, ‘look you’re five minutes away from a general aviation airport, you can fly in real quick, you don’t have to go through the tower. You can have your meeting and get gone,’ ” Hanner said of a potential business park client.
Cashion and the airport authority also take pride in taking care of those clients while they’re here, offering a number of services — none more important than the aircraft maintenance hangar, operated by Superior Aero Services.
Owned by Robbie Newsome, the maintenance hangar offers wide-ranging services including procedures as simple as fixing a flat tire to diagnosing and addressing engine malfunctions.
“This is extremely important,” Cashion said this week, walking through the hangar. “I would never even go to an airport and leave my airplane unless they had a maintenance facility.”
For routine needs like fuel, the airport offers quick access to both Avgas and Jet A pumps, serving either gasoline or jet-fueled planes. 50 small-size T-hangars, six corporate hangars and land for two additional private corporate hangars offer storage space ranging from $250 up to $1,100 per month.
Beyond that, Van Der Linden and Fly High Lexington take over.
Waiting at the airport on any given day are two Crown Victorias, Smokey and the Night Watch as they are known, that service customers to and from town during their visit. Van Der Linden said most out-of-town flyers know Lexington’s barbecue reputation well and want to check it out themselves en route to an East Coast destination north or south of North Carolina.
Staff at the airport also arranges rental care services through Hertz and Enterprise and catering for business groups that want to be greeted in style. The mindset that nearly every need can be met is one on which Van Der Linden prides his operation.
“I train all the personnel here that if somebody calls, we try to give them a straight answer and say, ‘yes we will do the utmost to get hotel, catering, whatever they need,'” he said. “Because the day you say, ‘hold, I will call you back,’ they go to another airport.”
Marketing its services
When Fly High Lexington took over managing the airport in 2010, Van Der Linden and his wife, Mari-Elena, also moved quickly to take advantage of growth in digital marketing.
Through data mining and targeted Google advertisements, the Van Der Lindens were able to ensure that any internet search for airports in the Piedmont area pulled up results for the Davidson County Airport. The duo then adapted Fly High Lexington’s website and social media efforts to meet the trends of their traffic.
Van Der Linden determined that 83 percent of the website’s hits were coming through smartphones and tablets, leaving only a small portion of desktop users. So now the website boasts a sleek mobile layout with easily navigable tabs listing services and area information.
“You only get once chance for these guys to get in, and we need to give them a reason to come,” Van Der Linden said. “When you are very small and depend on all those things, like I said, you only have one chance; otherwise, they won’t come back.”