Ask a recreational pilot in central North Carolina about his favorite daytrip, and he’ll likely tell you about a little private airport right in the center of the Sandhills where you can get the finest hickory-smoked barbecue around. We’re not talking beef or sausage or any of those other meats the rest of the world claim is barbecue, and we’re not talking burgers on a grill. This is North Carolina, where “barbecue” means “pig,” with a few chickens thrown in for those poor souls who can’t eat pork.
The Pik N Pig restaurant sits alongside the runway of Gilliam-McConnell Airfield, just outside Carthage, the seat of Moore County, N.C. Since the restaurant opened around 2006, traffic at the field has increased from a couple of landings a day to upwards of 50 planes on the ground on nice weekend afternoons, and a dozen on average even on weekdays.
On landing, pilots find themselves warmly welcomed and mingling with local families who drive from as far as 100 miles away to watch the planes and eat barbecue.
Gilliam-McConnell Airfield (BQ1) is in central North Carolina, about 75 nm east of Charlotte and 35 nm northwest of Fayetteville. If you approach from the east/southeast, avoid the restricted areas R-5311 A-B-C around Fort Bragg in the Fayetteville area. Contact Fayetteville Approach for advisories and transition through their Class C area on 127.8 MHz. Otherwise, most routes to the airport are straightforward. The airport CTAF is 122.9 MHz.
Landing at Gilliam-McConnell is a little like stepping back in time. The private airfield has no control tower and no runway lights. There’s just a nice, wide, flat, well-maintained asphalt Runway 13/31 measuring 2,538 x 36 feet, a parallel grass strip on the northeast side, and a windsock. Watch for 75-foot trees that surround the airport. Once you land, a paved taxiway winds past the Pik N Pig patio south of midfield to ample parking on the grass.
Roland Gilliam, a construction contractor and pilot who’s been flying since his teen years, bought the property in 1991, and paved the runway in 1996. Since then, an aircraft maintenance service and an avionics shop have located at the airfield. Gilliam’s pilot friends wanted to buy lots to build their own homes with hangars, and he found himself the owner of an airpark. He takes a casual approach to airport operations. “The FAA chart says to call for prior permission to land,” he says. “But you don’t need to call. Just come on in!” A message on the airport phone 910-947-3599 tells the same tale. Nevertheless, Gilliam has applied to make it a public use airport. He’s also got a house for rent and tent camping for pilots (see Where to Stay).
Full service 100LL is available at the airport during daylight hours, and is often pumped by Roland Gilliam himself. Tie-downs are $10 per night. Reservations aren’t needed except during the annual “Wings & Steam” Train and Tractor Show Fly-in, “One of the biggest in the world,” according to Gilliam, held every first full weekend (Fri–Sun) in November. Gilliam likes to know how many planes will be staying over; call him at 910-947-3599, or 910-695-5216 during the day.
Gilliam is often asked where his partner McConnell is, an opening that lets him relate a little local history. James Rogers McConnell, a resident of Carthage, was one of the world’s first fighter pilots. He was a founding member of the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of volunteer American pilots fighting in World War I. The ace died in the air over France in 1917, but not before writing the classic, “Flying for France,” about his experiences.
Gilliam maintains replicas of several historic planes at the airfield, including a 7/8-scale model of the Nieuport 11 (nicknamed the Bébé), the plane that McConnell flew. Gilliam’s collection also includes a full-scale British biplane S.E. 5 used in the 2004 film, “The Aviator” starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
The airfield isn’t the only memorial to McConnell in Carthage. A 25-foot-tall obelisk on Courthouse Square downtown is inscribed in the fighter pilot’s honor. The Carthage Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, runs along McReynolds Street (NC 24-27) west from the square, and preserves houses from both the pre- and post-Civil War eras.
In the late 1800s, Carthage attained national fame as the home of the Tyson & Jones buggy, considered the “Cadillac” of horse-drawn conveyances. Henry Ford tried to buy the factory to construct his new “horseless carriages” but the owners turned him down, and he moved on to Detroit. For more than 20 years, the annual Carthage Buggy Festival has commemorated those pre-gasoline days every Mother’s Day weekend May, when buggies parade through town, 910-947-2331.
For the Sheppard family, barbecue is a family tradition. “My grandparents had a barbecue place over in Southern Pines for more than 30 years,” says Ashley Sheppard. Along with his mother, Janie, Ashley owns the Pik N Pig. Many family members work at the restaurant on a regular basis. Various in-laws and cousins serve as hostesses and waitresses, while Ashley’s aunt, Heather Davis, runs the kitchen and creates the restaurant’s desserts. Selections include the famous “Better than Sex” cake, available in both pineapple-coconut and chocolate versions.
In 2006, Ashley was selling barbecue from his mobile concession stand on the side of the road. There he met Roland Gilliam, who was looking for someone to open a restaurant at his airfield. It proved a perfect fit, and both fly-in and drive-in business is booming.
The restaurant occupies a rustic cedar-sided building, moved to the airfield by Gilliam. The interior sports many features rescued from the old Carthage post office. It seats about 40 in the main room where wide windows look out onto the runway. A back room with long tables seats an additional 30 or so, with another 30 seats available on the roofed patio.
The business end of the Pik N Pig is out back in its own screened in cabin—a rotisserie cooker that holds 350 lbs. of barbecue at a time. “We do barbecue the old-fashioned way, rubbed and smoked,” Ashley says. “We use only Boston Butts, the top part of the shoulder. They are juicier than the ham, with more fat and marbling.”
The butts are rubbed with the Sheppard’s secret spice mix, then smoked eight to 10 hours over natural hardwood coals, with hickory added for flavor. Then they are pulled apart into juicy chunks, the traditional way at a North Carolina pig pickin’, and served with your choice of sauces, a hotter vinegar-based sauce, or a milder tomato-based sauce laced with honey.
Chicken and thick, hand-cut pork chops also go into the smoker, joined on Saturdays by slabs of pork ribs. “We only do ribs once a week,” Ashley says. “It’s a big thing with us. They come off at 5 p.m. and people need to order ahead if they want any.” Prices vary for ribs, but generally run $20 for a full rack, $12 for half. Plates of pulled pork, chicken, or pork chops, $8–$14, come with two sides, and your choice of corn muffins with jalapeño butter, a pile of light, delicious hush puppies, or a dinner roll. Sides include baked sweet potatoes, chunky applesauce, and Brunswick stew.
The menu also offers a selection of hot and cold sandwiches, $7–$9, including the Janie, sliced pork loin topped with honey barbecue sauce and cheddar and Swiss cheeses. All items are also available for takeout. The Pig-Pen Special with a pound of pulled pork, pints of baked beans and slaw, buns or corn muffins and sauce, serves four, $20.
The Pik N Pig is open Tue–Sat 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Sun noon–3 p.m., 194 Gilliam-McConnell Rd., 910-947-7591.
The Sheppard family has a deep love of another kind of pickin’ as well, the kind done by bluegrass musicians. On occasional Friday nights or Saturday afternoons, live bands play on the Pik N Pig patio.
If you arrive other times of the year, you can catch local musicians pickin’ and singing every Tuesday night at the Maness Pottery and Music Barn, six miles from Carthage on NC 24-27, 910-948-4897.
The region is noted for the many potteries lining its winding country roads. Ceramics made of Carolina clay have been a tradition in these parts for centuries, from Native American bowls to pre-Industrial Revolution utilitarian pots to modern day art pottery. Nearby Seagrove has a museum and maps for a driving tour, 336-873-8430.
Golfers should bring their clubs. The Sandhills region of North Carolina boasts 43 golf courses, and is home to the Pinehurst Resort, just 12 miles from Carthage, where both the Men’s and Women’s U.S. Opens were played on the legendary No. 2 Donald Ross course in 2014.
But you don’t even need to leave the airfield to break out a club. Gilliam-McConnell has a driving range right next to the taxiway; use the token dispenser, $3 for a bucket of balls.
Although there are numerous resorts in the area, most with golf courses, the most convenient overnight options might be right at the airport. Otherwise, try a bed-and-breakfast inn located in Carthage’s historic district, just over a mile from the airport.
Roland Gilliam has a two-bedroom, one-bath house for rent right next to the runway that comes with a free tiedown, $850 per week. He even offers underwing camping to pilots only with access to nearby showers and restrooms, $15–$20 per night depending on how many people, 910-947-3599.
The Old Buggy Inn occupies an ornate Victorian complete with tower rooms, gingerbread woodwork, feather beds, and wraparound porch, just steps from Courthouse Square. Enjoy a full breakfast, wine and hors d’ oeuvres in the afternoon, and fresh-baked cookies in the evening, $115–$125, 301 McReynolds St., 910-947-1901.
Roland Gilliam says visitors shouldn’t worry about getting around. Just let him know where you need to go, and “we’ll get you there.” For more freedom, Hertz rents cars at Moore County Airport (SOP), 10 miles from downtown Carthage, from $32 per day, 910-692-5858.
Pilots coming into Gilliam-McConnell land in the heart of an authentic North Carolina experience—golf, bluegrass music, down-home hospitality, and of course, pig barbecue. And North Carolina barbecue doesn’t come any better than what you’ll find at the Pik N Pig.