General aviation has big impact across the state

aviation-banner2Can you name the busiest airport in the state of Mississippi?

The surprising answer is Olive Branch, and the reason is simple.

“Location, location, location,” said manager David Taylor. “We’re 10 miles from Memphis International and 5 miles due south of FedEx world headquarters.”

It is classified as a reliever airport for Memphis but that’s a misnomer, said Taylor. “We’re relieving Memphis every day. There are 160 planes based in Olive Branch and if they weren’t, they’d have to be based in Memphis.”

And Olive Branch is not just the busiest general aviation airport in the Magnolia State.

“It’s the busiest airport of any type in the state,” Taylor said.

Following Olive Branch are Meridian, Jackson and Gulfport, three of the state’s eight commercial airports.

Olive Branch averages more than 200 takeoffs and landings a day. Taylor said there are 515 control towers in the U.S. and Olive Branch ranks 235th in daily operations. The air traffic control tower operates from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.

The airport opened in 1973 and Taylor has been manager for 30 years.

“When I came we had a 4,000 foot runway and two buildings, probably 30 planes but no jets based here. Now the runway is 6,000 feet, we have a control tower with 56 additional hangars and all kinds of jets every day.”

Bustling Olive Branch is one of about 80 public-use airports in Mississippi serving 4,355 pilots and 2,500 general aviation aircraft. Aviation Across America, an industry group, reports that general aviation employs 1,560 Mississippians, with an annual payroll of $32.4 million. Overall, general aviation contributes $860 million to Mississippi’s economy, according to a Merge Global study.

Thomas Booth, director of the state Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division, described the state of general aviation in Mississippi as strong.

“We have a fairly active state from an aviation standpoint,” he said.

There is a mix of business at Olive Branch typical at other airports.

“We have probably 30 percent corporate business and 50 percent flight training,” Taylor said. “We have two schools on airport. The other 20 percent is individual and military.”

The Metro Olive Branch Airport’s pedigree is mixed, too.

“We are privately owned and we’ve got a public owned control tower,” Taylor said.

The airport is part of Metro Industrial Park owned by Belz Enterprises.

Taylor said business at the state’s busiest airport likely will continue.

“We are poised and ready to grow as soon as the economy breaks a little more,” Taylor said.

At the opposite end of the state is Stennis International Airport in coastal Hancock County has experienced post-Katrina expansion and will soon have a ribbon cutting on its new terminal and hangar complex.

“We started 2013 with seven construction projects and we are now down to the final one,” said Bill Cotter, the airport manager for the Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.

The upscale terminal will include a lounge, cafe and pilot rest area with a movie theater where crews can wait comfortably before flying out. He said a grand opening will be around May.

When pilots have options choosing airports, Cotter expects the new terminal to give Stennis an edge. “They spend a whole lot of time sitting around,” he said.

The airport’s fixed base operator is Freeman Holdings, the largest Million Air FBO franchisee.

Cotter said Stennis is running around 3,000 take offs and landings a month and the military is the field’s largest user. “They can do operations after the air traffic control tower closes,” he said.

Stennis offers nighttime training for C-130 crews from Keesler Air Force Base in nearby Biloxi. “We turn the runway lights off and there’s no housing in the Stennis Space Center buffer zone so it gets very dark. It works very well for them.”

Stennis also is seeing more Air Force special ops training missions from Hurlburt Field in Florida and from the Navy’s special warfare unit training. “We’ve also get the Marine Corps out of New Orleans doing some work in Huey and Cobra helicopters.” One tenant, Selex Galileo, tests radar and other systems they install on C-130s at the airport.

Stennis also gets spillover business from the New Orleans and Gulfport airports. Celebrity passengers have included Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg.

The airport was home to about 110 aircraft when Hurricane Katrina hit and now there are 50 aircraft based there. “Those numbers continue to build slowly but surely,” Cotter said.

Another pre-Katrina asset will return soon.

“We’re pretty excited to be starting a flight school again around the first of March,” he said.

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