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Smaller airports serve their communities in variety of ways

Airports usually fall into three categories — commercial, military and general aviation. The last category makes up the majority of airports around the country and has grown in importance to communities as more and more corporate jets fill the skies. General aviation airports may be small and have no commercial flights, but they serve a number of useful purposes and in some cases are the business lifeline of their communities.

The Bobby Chain Airport in Hattiesburg has been in operation since 1930 and maintains a vital role in the transportation infrastructure of the area. Located a few miles south of the city in the Hattiesburg-Forrest County Industrial Park, it is conveniently adjacent to U.S Highways 49 and 98 and within three miles of Interstate 59.

Manager Chip Gibson and his family’s Southeast Aviation run the day-to-day operations on a contract with the city. Four employees staff the facility 12 hours each day. He says it’s a neat place to work and that he meets a lot of nice people.

“We’re Hattiesburg’s business link with the rest of the world. Businesses rely heavily on general aviation airports because they want to fly in as close as possible to save time,” he said. “We know a lot of what’s going on before anyone else does. It’s an interesting position to be in.”

Often business people fly into the area to scout locations for expansions, and Gibson is one of the first to know, such as the new state-of-the art movie theatres soon to open in Hattiesburg. The confidentiality of who is using the airport is respected.

“Because we have limited air service in Hattiesburg, it would take two days to fly into a commercial airport and drive here,” Gibson said. “Corporate jets can fly in here, and we have a car waiting for them. They conduct their business and can be back on the plane by 3 p.m. When companies put the numbers to it, corporate jets save money.”

The 6,200-foot runway can accommodate all corporate jets, and Southeast Aviation provides a number of services at the Bobby Chain Airport. Those include fueling, hangaring, catering and transportation. Arrangements are made through local vendors to have rental cars, taxis or shuttle service available when planes arrive. Local caterers are used when meals are requested. The airport is staffed 12 hours each day and can have 12 corporate jets flying in on an average day.

Corporate jets representing retail, legal and medical-related businesses, along with a lot of University of Southern Mississippi-related business, use the facilities. Gibson says the largest corporate plane he’s seen there is the Bombardier Global Express, a jet comparable to a DC 9 or smallest commercial jet.

“It makes me proudest of what we do when we have medical-related planes fly in for organ donors,” he said. “That’s a rewarding feeling.”

Darrell Cooper has managed the Laurel Airport and Industrial Park since 1991 and says the airport is more like an airport service station. Hesler-Nobler Field provides fueling and small maintenance to the corporate jets flying in and out.

“We have a lot of corporate jets coming in here with people flying in to meet with Masonite, Howard Industries, Sanderson Farms and the 35 oil-related companies that have district headquarters here,” he said. “It’s what I call transient aircraft.”

He said the airport has 15 to 20 takeoffs and landings daily. There are 92 businesses located in the 1,800-acre industrial park.

With an 8,500-foot runway, Stennis International Airport in Hancock County can accommodate any aircraft. Its role continues to grow as high -tech companies locate at Stennis Space Center and the technology parks operated by the county.

David Sims, an aviation intern working with airport manager Bill Cotter, said Stennis also deals with international flights and has a lot of military flights out of South America.

“We have a good deal of corporate and business aircraft, air cargo and training is done here for Vortex helicopters and others,” Sims said. “We have 10 to 20 flights daily and a lot more when the helicopters are training.”

They recently landed a Russian Antonova 124, the largest production aircraft made in a factory.

Harvey Planes has run the private Diamondhead Airport for six years. Manager Randy Price said they do single- and multi-engine maintenance, fiberglass repairs and limited avionics repairs. The airport hangar is leased to them and the runway is 3,800 feet long.

The airport has been in operation 20 years and was designed for Diamondhead homeowners, some of whom live adjacent to the taxiways. Price said most of the planes using the facility are two- and single-engine planes and all are privately owned. On average, there are 20 takeoffs and landings per day.

“It’s a nice little setup,” he said. “There are 15 to 18 homes on the taxiways, and the homeowners taxi right up to their hangars and use them as a garage.”

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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