Airport prepares for military training program

COLUMBUS — Working with the nation’s busiest air base in just one part of the multifaceted role of Golden Triangle Regional Airport.

Other facets include economic development, business travel and passenger air service.

“They’re a key enabler to our training environment here,” said Rick Johnson, chief public affairs officer for Columbus Air Force Base.

That enabling will go a step further this summer when part of the base’s pilot training operation moves to the airport while the base’s runway is renovated.

Mike Hainsey, airport executive director, said the airport will play a larger host role to student pilots for six to eight months beginning in June. One of the hangars will be renovated for classroom space, and a ramp is already marked to park the 12, T-1 training planes.

Hainsey said the hangar was built in the 1970s for student mechanics from East Mississippi Community College. Although planes are parked in it, the classrooms have dingy floor tile and falling ceiling tiles. The entire hangar will get a full makeover.

Johnson said the base has dealt with runway resurfacing before without the benefit of GTRA. It was akin to turning Interstate 20 into a one-lane road, he said.

Using the airport for temporary instruction means less congestion and improved safety, he added. The Columbus air base has the most planes of any base, and the Air Force expects it to keep turning out 350 pilots a year.

Without GTRA, Johnson said, there’s a chance the base would have to decrease its normal class size of 30. He added that he didn’t want to think about that scenario.

The base already uses the runway for takeoffs and landings. Hainsey said it comprises 40 percent of the airport’s traffic.

The airport is surrounded by an industrial park, which makes it an economic force for the region.

American Eurocopter helicopter manufacturer established a Columbus manufacturing and assembly plant in 2004. It was the first international company to land operations at the industrial park.

Hainsey said four other international firms have established Columbus operations and all have expanded since coming. The others are Paccar, producers of commercial truck engines; Severstal steel mill; and Aurora Flight Sciences and Stark Aerospace, both of which produce unmanned aerial vehicles.

The airport has spent $23 million in grant money in the past eight years to make the property attractive to industry, he said.

Calisolar, a silicon chip manufacturer, is on its way to the industrial park.

The airport has acquired land to add another runway, part of a master plan to help service an aerospace park. Hainsey said the master plan allows the airport to switch the current runway to industrial use and use the second runway for executive, private and passenger service.

More than 550 people are employed in industry and airport services on the property, he said.

GTRA does not handle freight traffic, Hainsey said.

But it is an important ferry link moving international executives from around the world into Columbus and vice versa. Executives travel on their own planes and also take advantage of passenger jet service.

Three of the airport’s top 15 business destinations are in Germany, he said. Stark’s headquarters is in Israel, and Severstal is based in Russia.

Mississippi State University is the airport’s single largest customer base, Hainsey said.

“This area is so unique in the rural South,” he said, because it is so plugged in to the international community.

A viable airport is critical to attracting high-tech international industry, Hainsey said. Executives want a quality experience whether they are traveling by private or passenger jet.

Hainsey said he is always looking forward when making a decision about air operations.

The newly extended runway means T-38 trainer planes from the air base can use the airport.

There’s room to accommodate bigger jets. Hainsey predicts the airport could grow to the size of Jackson or Birmingham. In the next five years, he’s like to see four 70-passenger jets taking off daily. In the next 10 years, he wants six 100-passenger flights daily.

The remodeled terminal has a concrete roof so passenger boarding can be moved upstairs with the addition of jetways for larger planes.

“Aviation is the future. It’s the new technology,” he said.

Hainsey said the one thing few people know about the airport is its attention to safety.

He is a former flight instructor and safety director at the air base.

The most recent crash was in 2006 when a private plane crashed on approach about a mile from the runway, he said. The pilot was killed when the plane struck a tree. Before that, the most recent crash was 15 years ago.

Deer are the No. 1 cause of airplane damage, Hainsey said. The airport continues its aggressive efforts to minimize wildlife effects.

This summer, the airport cleared 43 acres of trees. That eliminates bird nesting, and birds and airplane engines don’t mix well, he said.

The runway extension and infrastructure investment improve safety, Hainsey said.

The FAA honored the airport with a national safety award.

“It’s important we treat every airplane like our wives and kids are getting on it,” he said.

In Hainsey’s case, they are.

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