Google Earth image of Beaufort, N.C., with a now-dated view of Michael J. Smith Field (taken prior to improvements) at top right.
The fresh paint on the pavement was barely dry when the newly extended runway at Michael J. Smith Field in Beaufort, N.C., began to pay dividends.
Runway 8/26 reopened in February, having been lengthened from 4,249 feet to 5,000 feet—a magic number in airport planning that allows broad access by business jets of nearly every size. Ryan Segrave, who owns Southern Air, said the longer runway has allowed some unprecedented sights: jets landing in the rain.
“I’ve been here 10 years, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one land in the rain,” Segrave said—a “strange” but encouraging sight.
Even more encouraging, the runway itself has managed to make a little rain for a friend of Segrave’s who builds luxury fishing yachts in the area. Segrave said his fellow business owner closed a recent sale in large part because the buyers wanted to have their boat built in a place easily accessible by jet, and the availability of a 5,000-foot runway sealed that deal with that crucial advantage over the competition.
“He got the job about a week ago,” Segrave said.
According to the North Carolina Dept. of Transportation, Michael J. Smith Field generates about $7.2 million in economic activity each year—a figure that may not include deals like the one Segrave described which are not always directly attributed to the airport. The airport directly supports about 60 jobs, based on a 2012 study cited by state officials. Segrave expects that activity and jobs will increase as word spreads about the improvements, which also include new LED runway lighting. Segrave said he has been told by pilots that aircraft owners are looking to buy property in the area, in large part because of the new runway.
“Over a period of years that money will come back tenfold,” Segrave said of the total investment of about $4.2 million from state and federal sources. (North Carolina receives airport funding through block grants, with monies administered at the state level.)
Airport Manager John Betts said the lengthening of Runway 8/26 also will allow the shortening of Runway 3/21 from 4,191 feet to 3,400 feet, effectively discouraging the use of that runway—with an approach and departure path directly over the town’s historic district—by larger aircraft. Betts said relations with the community have improved significantly in recent years, with cooperation from both.
“We have a pretty good relationship with the city,” Betts said. “As a matter of fact, they’re tooting our horn for us as far as the runway’s concerned.”
The airport is located 92 nautical miles southwest of Kill Devil Hills. Beaufort, a former fishing village, is also a popular stop along the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, according to the New York Times , among others. Beaufort was chosen, along with Hammondsport, N.Y., as America’s “Coolest Small Towns” in 2012 by Budget Travel magazine.