Shutdown closes historic airfield

First Flight Airport, two others closed

October 10, 2013

Three federally owned airports on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, including First Flight Airport, are closed amidst the federal government shutdown, though they appear to be the exception: Similar airports owned by the National Park Service (and other agencies) continue to operate around the country.

North Carolina Department of Transportation officials, who operate and maintain the airports on behalf of the National Park Service, were asked to distribute notams as the federal government shut down, informing aviators that First Flight Airport (the unattended airstrip yards from where the Wright Brothers pioneered powered flight) and two other National Park Service-owned airstrips (Billy Mitchell and Ocracoke Island) were closed to all but emergency, military, and government aircraft operations through Oct. 17.

Bobby Walston, director of the state transportation agency’s Division of Aviation, said North Carolina officials were told that the closure of access roads and the unavailability of National Park Service staff to respond to any emergency were the reason for closing the unattended facilities.

“It was their decision,” Walston said. “They requested we put out a notam. ... We worked with them to get the notam out.”

Meanwhile, an unattended airstrip in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve that is also owned by the National Park Service remains open, though the AWOS is out of service according to a notam retrieved Oct. 10. An online search found none of the nine airfields owned by the National Park Service outside of North Carolina, nor any of the facilities owned by other agencies (there are about 90 such airports nationwide) were closed for the same reasons and timeframe.

Walston said federal officials (who could not be reached for comment because they are not at work) did not provide a rationale for closing the Outer Banks airfields through Oct. 17, rather than indefinitely. State officials will attempt to clarify that as the end date of the current notams approaches, Walston said.

Tens of thousands of pilots use First Flight Airport each year, Walston said (more than 40,000 by one count, though Walston is skeptical the actual total is quite that high). Walston said federal park service staff began barricading access roads and facilities even before informing state officials and requesting the notam. Airport users were the first to notice that activity.

“We had gotten a call from a local pilot,” Walston said.

The federal government remained closed Oct. 10, though financial markets reacted positively to news that a potential solution to the impasse might be gaining steam. It was not clear if the Oct. 17 expiration date of the notams closing Outer Banks airports, also the deadline for raising the federal debt limit, were by coincidence, or design.