Flight in Richmond County and the Richmond County Airport
Observers on the ground in Richmond County in the early years of the 20th century were fascinated with the arrival of aircraft overhead. The airships became a new novelty.
Clayton Carriker and his family were picking cotton when they first saw an airplane: “We sat and talked about that thing the whole evening,” he recalled as told in the Richmond County Historical Society’s book, Mixed Blessings.
Alice Snead Douglas saw a blimp not knowing what it was, just something shaped like a peanut, going slow and making a little purring sound like an airplane. Dirigibles passed overhead regularly following the U.S. 1 route from New Jersey to Florida, said Thomas K. Thrower Jr. of Rockingham.
Mixed Blessings stated that by the 1920s barnstormers set up shop at Battley’s Dairy. For $15 anyone could buy a ride. In downtown Rockingham, balloon rides were offered. Flights were also offered at a place called “Watson Heights.” Because planes could land on grassy surfaces, it was possible to land and take off at many locations around the county.
The first airport, which local historian Joe McLaurin referred to as a “flying field,” was developed at Foxport on U.S. 1 north of Rockingham at its southeast corner intersection with Wiregrass Road. It covered over 28 acres and included a gas station and café. It had a dirt landing strip, dirt parking area, and a small wooden hangar that could hold three or four planes. The landing strip was between 1,500 feet and perhaps 2,000 feet long.
Private airplane owners went there to give flying instructions to new students. It was private and owned by Ludolph Glenn Fox, a Rockingham pharmacist, whom McLaurin said, was not a pilot. It was used until the public county airport was built.
Air Show Weekends
Thrower gave an account of his recollections about the Foxport Airport saying: “Some weekends were very active at the airport when they had air shows. Students, parachute drops and passenger rides were very entertaining. I wanted to go up in an airplane, so when I was 10 years old mother let my younger brother and I go for a ride. It cost 50 cents. We flew in a classic three-engine Ford Tri-Motor. It carried 15 passengers. We sat by a window and up, up, up we wide-eyed boys looked as the plane circled over Rockingham, and our old home of East Rockingham, then on to Hamlet before flying back to the airport. What a thrilling experience for a 10-year-old boy! From then on I knew that I wanted a career in flying because I love exploring the skies.”
McLaurin said his father, Bert McLaurin, learned to fly off the field. “Many early ‘air shows’ were held there,” he said, “they were great and exciting events drawing many, many people for miles around. I can remember in the early 1930s, when I was just a child, the air shows would attract such crowds that some of the churches would have members there selling food, etc., to feed the people, and to make money for the church. There would be such crowds at the airport that I could hardly see anything except what was happening over my head.” His father later taught him to fly an airplane on the field even though he was not old enough to get a pilot’s license, much less an automobile driver’s license.
Interest in a public airport had surfaced in 1928, but faded perhaps because of the Great Depression. At that time it was being promoted by the Rockingham Civitan Club with the cooperation of other interested citizens.
WWII Stimulates Development
With World War II beginning, the airport project took on new meaning. It became essential to national defense being located between Wilmington and Charlotte. The War Department approved the airport project July 9, 1941, with certification pending for the plans and specifications. It was to be built through offices of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) with Rockingham, Hamlet and Richmond County as co-sponsors.
The county had an option on, or owned 210, of the 270 acres needed. Plans stated, “The airport will be located in a sand clay section which has an abundance of small forest growth.”
Grading at the new airport, which had begun in March 1942, was finished in March 1943. Of the two runways, 4,000 and 4,600 feet in length, one was planted in oats, the other in Italian rye.
A Richmond County Journal headline on November 29, 1943, stated, “The Air Transport Command will use the airport for experimenting in picking up gliders by a flying plane,” By that time the WPA project in Richmond County had been turned over to the Federal Works Agency. “That is, the gilder while sitting still on the field is picked up by a flying tow-plane without the plane landing. Our airport is proving to be a valuable asset to the Air Transport Command in that they have plenty of room to work on this experiment. It is very interesting to see a plane flying at 100 miles per hour come along over the field and pick up the glider which is stationary,” the Rockingham Post-Dispatch reported.
Civilian Use Begins
With WWII ending, the airport was given over to civilian use. In August 1945, it was announced that Congress had allotted $75,000 for improvements at the airport which included: “Grade one runway to extent of about 13,000 cubic yards, install a good drainage system to do away with all washes and erosions, build a fence around the airport, install day markers on the airport, plant and fertilize the runways so as to insure a good cover for both runways and the building area, improve the building area by grading and planting, and building a concrete apron on the building line 150 feet long and 100 feet wide.
“This work is to be finished this fall and several airline companies have already applied for franchises to make our airport a regular stop for the transportation of passengers and mail,” reported the Hamlet News-Messenger. A fireproof hangar 80 feet by 60 feet was being built to accommodate 15 aircraft. The two landing strips then were 4,000 feet long and 500 feet wide with no landing strip lighting.
On November 27, 1946, it was announced that the dedication would be held Sunday at the Rockingham-Hamlet Airport. It was hoped that in the future “much of the mail, freight and express will be shipped by air,” said Rockingham Mayor William G. Pittman, tireless promoter of the airport. He began promoting it in 1931. He had learned to fly an airplane at the Foxport Airport.
Public Airport Dedicated In 1946
On December 1, 1946, the new public airport was dedicated. Some 8.000 people driving some 2,000 cars attended the ceremony and viewed the “thrilling air circus.” The main attraction was said to be the drawing for a new Ford vehicle, $800 worth of furniture and 100 other “valuable” prizes. Raffle tickets were $2 each.
“Bevo” Howard and his acrobatic circus provided “plenty of thrills.” Jack Aley of Station WAYN was there to broadcast the events. Profits of $10,000 from the drawing were for the benefit of the Memorial Hospital fund.
The Rockingham Post-Dispatch on November 19, 1947, reported “Air Show Coming” in a headline to announce the coming November 27 of “Grady Thrasher’s Aerial Circus” as a modern version of the old-time hair-raising flying circus days.
Grady’s brother, Bud, had an act where Grady picked up Bud from the running board of a car and “…fly around the field while he is suspended by means of a rope ladder, then put him back on the car.” Admission was $1.
By 1958, the sod runway was extended to a length of 4,500 feet. It was described as “one of the best smaller airports in this State.“
“But,” the Rockingham Post-Dispatch on May 1, 1958, stated: “it has never been used to its full potential. No airlines use it and only a few light planes are based there. Business is slow even in this day and age of jet airliner travel and intercontinental flying. Occasionally flights in and out by textile executives are its main business use.”
Paving, Lighting Added
In 1967, the longest turf runway (14/32) was first paved, and runway lighting was added in 1968.
Over the years, the operation of the airport was leased to many operators. They included Joseph Foy Barwick beginning on August 30, 1945, who was a former Army Air Corps flying instructor with the 2152nd Army Air Force Base Unit, Bennettsville, S.C., during WWII. He was employed in 1943 by Southeastern Air Service, Inc., which operated as an Army Primary Flying School.
Also serving as operators were: Cecil Boone, Johnny Grubb, Dr. Bob Sosnik, Stan Baldega, Glenn Baxley, Haywood Lambert, J. B. Howell, Adam Hardison, then Howell again, Charles and Myrtle Hudson and Doyle Haigler, who became operator in 1969.
In 2012, the Richmond County Airport was a general aviation facility serving the county. It is equipped with a 5,100-foot by 100-foot lighted runway (14/32) with published Global Positioning System and Non-directional Beacon approaches. In addition, there is a 3,009-foot by 500-foot crosswind turf runway (04/22).
An Automated Weather Observation System gives pilots weather conditions at the airport. It is available by calling 997-4093 or at VHF frequency 118.775. Information is updated every minute. Local weather observations are relayed to weather-related outlets every 20 minutes.
The main runway (14/32) in 2012 was in excellent condition having been overlaid with new asphalt pavement in 2009 at a cost of nearly $1 million. The county paid 10 percent of the cost with the rest paid for by funds through the N.C. Department of Transportation, Aviation Division. It had not been repaved since the early 1980s.
The county replaced the old hangars with 20 nesting T-hangars and one large aircraft hangar 60 feet by 60 feet. An older large hangar was moved and renovated.
Now County Operated
The county leased the airport to private operators from 1946 until 2001. Doyle Haigler, who was the last lease-operator, then became a county employee operating the airport. He had operated the facility since 1969. He was joined later by his brother, Sam Haigler, as assistant manager. Operators are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with an extra day on leap years. The airport is staffed during the day six days a week.
While the name was changed to Richmond County Airport on July 10, 2006, it was not until October 17, 2006, that the new terminal building was dedicated by the Richmond County Board of Commissioners.