Aviation writer Mark R. Twombly flies up and down the East Coast for business and pleasure.
Unicom answered our query with a wind check and landing runway advisory. No other traffic reported, and none heard on the frequency. We had the place to ourselves. Nail the bug speed on final, wipe the power off crossing the fence, tug gently to flare, feel for the runway, and...ah, a smooth touchdown. It's a good day! Welcome to UKF, Wilkes County Airport in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
Trundling down the taxiway to the ramp, I noticed a large hangar looming from behind several other corporate-size hangars. The blue coloring and big-box design looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place it.
The ramp was sparsely populated with a few singles and one piston twin. Other than a lone Cessna CitationJet that landed and disappeared into one of the hangars, there were no other takeoffs or arrivals in the hour we spent at the airport after landing. There didn't seem to be a lot going on.
I learned later that the county airport used to be located on the west side of town, down near the Yadkin River, which splits North Wilkesboro from Wilkesboro, the county seat. Despite its narrow width and the morning fog that rolls in off the Yadkin, the old 4,250-foot-long strip was host to all kinds of aviation, and a lot of it. Life was good in Wilkes County.
After World War II, the county's rural setting in western North Carolina proved to be an ideal location for the growth of a new cash crop — moonshine. That, in turn, led to another growth industry — stock-car racing. North Wilkesboro Speedway was one of the earliest Nascar venues, and over the years was a powerful economic engine for the community.
Holly Farms, the chicken processor, was founded here as was another familiar corporate name. In 1946 H. Carl Buchan bought out his partner and brother-in-law, James Lowe, and became the owner of a neighborhood department store in North Wilkesboro. Buchan began to expand, building a chain of stores that sold hardware, appliances, and building materials at low, eliminate-the-middleman prices. The formula worked — Lowe's, the giant home improvement retailer, now operates more than 1,250 stores in 49 states.
As Lowe's and other Wilkes County businesses grew, so did the flying activity at the county airport. Cecil "Bud" Crouse, who has been flying out of Wilkes County since 1979, remembers when eight to 10 business jets and turboprops would take flight in the morning, then return to the nest in the evening. "At the old airport, it was nothing unusual to come in and have us stacked up six high for the nondirectional radio beacon approach," he says. "It wasn't a very good NDB, either. Weak signal. But we got pretty proficient at it. We always made it home."
But the airport's physical constraints meant it could not keep pace with the growth in corporate flying. So the county picked a site on higher ground northeast of town and in 1990 opened a new airport with a longer, wider runway and better instrument approaches.
As Lowe's grew so did the size of its aircraft. The runway was lengthened to its present 6,200 feet to accommodate Lowe's Falcon jets. Then, 18 months later, in December 2004, the bottom fell out. Lowe's, which had relocated its headquarters from North Wilkesboro to Mooresville near Charlotte, moved the flight department 28 miles south to Statesville. Lowe's huge three-bay hangar at Wilkes now sits empty.
"Daily operations are perhaps half what they were back in the day," says Dick McNeil, a Stearman owner and 20-year member of the Wilkes County airport commission. Not surprisingly, fuel sales, the lifeblood of most airports, also are down dramatically from the salad days. The airport currently has some 33 based aircraft including about a half-dozen turbine-powered business aircraft and three piston twins.
There have been other losses. The Holly Farms flight department disappeared a few years after the company was bought by Tyson Foods. The speedway was sold in the mid-1990s and its two Nascar races moved to larger tracks and bigger markets in Texas and New Hampshire. A flight school associated with a maintenance shop withered and died.
Hindsight says that perhaps the decision makers should have leveraged the focus on corporate aircraft at Wilkes by doing more to attract and keep a foundation of small aircraft. For example, a number of large corporate hangars have been built on the field, but there are no T-hangars for small aircraft.
"The airport is looking at building some," says McNeil, "and is trying to attract a flight school operator." Meanwhile, Bud Crouse, who does some flight instruction along with flying a Cessna CitationJet and Beech King Air for local owners, fields calls from people asking about primary training. He has to tell them that there are no rental aircraft available at UKF in which to teach. "Advice is about all that a man can offer," he says, and often that advice is to check out other nearby airports.
What of UKF's future? "We're going to be here," says Manager Jack Stillman, who has worked at the airport for 16 years. "We're trying to reach out to sport pilots and GA," McNeil adds.
He, Crouse, and Stillman, cheerleaders all, laud the airport's and the area's strong points — the long runway and ILS approach, the airport staff, an "excellent" maintenance shop on the field (American Aviation), and the friendly folk, temperate climate, and natural beauty that is Wilkes County.