WINDER - Jumbo jets may never take off from the 5,500-foot-long runway off Pickle Simon Road, but commuter and corporate flights might be the future of the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport. As Barrow County and the region continues to grow, officials are upgrading the airport's facilities, which they believe will attract future commercial and industrial business.
"A good airport will open channels of transportation," said John Stevens, who hangars his Cessna at Winder's airport and flies about 200 hours per year. "It's an economic generator to help small places grow."
The airport has installed a new instrument landing system that gives pilots both vertical and horizontal guidance as they approach the landing strip. The system has two components, a localizer and a glideslope.
The airport currently uses only the localizer, which lines the pilot up with the runway. Pilots can land if cloud cover, called the "ceiling," hangs 400 feet or more above the ground.
"It's aggravating," Jerry Maynard said. "If the ceiling is less, you can't land there. You have to land somewhere else and to call someone to come get you, because you left your car at the other airport."
Once operational, the new ILS will allow pilots to land with a cloud cover as low as 200 feet using a glideslope, which gives vertical guidance - it lets the pilot know how far he is from the ground.
The Northeast Georgia Regional Airport operates without a control tower or air traffic controllers.
The airport received four Airport Improvement Grants from the Federal Aviation Administration totaling $2.2 million to buy and clear 60 acres for the system. The grants were issued from 2003 to 2006.
"The grant did not fund the approximate $1.5 million cost of the ILS, the FAA funded the ILS directly from its capital improvement budget. That means that FAA paid for and installed the ILS," said Kathleen Bergen, FAA's public affairs manager.
Barrow County has so far spent about $2 million to purchase about 23 acres for the system. It will be housed in a 10 feet by 12 feet building surrounded by fencing, but it needs a wide path of unobstructed land in which to operate its signal.
Airport officials intend to augment the ILS with an Approach Lighting System, which will cost between $500,000 and $1 million depending on the type of system and the surrounding terrain.
"ILS is one of the finest ways of utilizing the economic interests of big airplanes that have to get in and out in all kinds of weather," Stevens said.
Glen Boyd, airport manager, expects the ILS to benefit established businesses like Chico's, Mayfield Dairies, Barrow Regional Hospital and Chateau Elan.
Aircrane is a helicopter company operating on-site at the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport. The company uses helicopters to do heavy lifting, like putting a large air conditioning unit on the top of a high-rise building. Jason Allen, Aircrane's manager, said it will give them the opportunity to get more business.
"The new system will be very helpful in inclement weather," Allen said. "Sometimes we are grounded when visibility goes to one-quarter mile."
The airport is governed by a seven-member authority appointed by Barrow County Commissioners. Its master plan calls for lengthening the 5,500-foot-runway to 7,000 feet. At present the airport spends more money than it generates. Its operating budget for 2007 is $1.3 million with its revenue at $1.2 million totaling an estimated $87,000 shortfall which the county subsidizes. The airport has one payment left of $384,000 on a 20-year bond for hangar construction.
Airport officials plan to begin construction in 2007 of up to 26 T hangars on its 20 developable acres, which could put the airport back in debt, Boyd said.
"We would love to have a control tower," Boyd said. "We are going to put up a flagpole out front, extend the parking lot and erect a veteran's memorial plaque. There are a lot of trees on the airport. We want to remove them because they are a natural habitat for deer and a deer can tear up a plane worse than a car because it is made of lighter materials."
County Commissioner Billy Parks, a former member of the Airport Authority, said that a longer runway could balance the airport's budget and free up tax dollars.
"The longer runway could attract corporate jets, which would bring more business to the county," Parks said. "It could offset the budget shortfall and free up that money the county is subsidizing and the county would spend the money for something else."
Boyd said the Northeast Georgia Regional Airport could become the gateway into Barrow County.
"Pave one mile of road and you can go one mile," Boyd said. "Pave one mile of runway and you can go anywhere."