UNC-Chapel Hill trustees say they want to close the Horace Williams Airport regardless of whether the university someday goes through with plans to build its Carolina North satellite campus on the property.
The airport is responsible for “significant annual financial” losses for UNC-CH, requires more than $1 million in runway repairs and isn’t serving any university operation these days, they said in a resolution they approved Thursday.
They acknowledged that their vote was advisory, as the authority to actually follow through on the idea rests elsewhere. The N.C. General Assembly has blocked prior closure attempts, despite former Chancellor James Moeser’s 2002 determination that shutting down the airstrip was “in the best interests of both the university and the community.”
But the next formal step for UNC-CH is to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to approve the closure, trustees Chairman Haywood Cochrane said.
As for political backing from the General Assembly, and the UNC system Board of Governors, “I think we’ve got the right amount of support” for the move, he said.
“I think we’ve in good shape there,” Cochrane said. “There could always be a surprise, but they’ve been very willing to listen to the reasons why we think it’s appropriate to close it.”
He added that the airport hasn’t been part of the university’s “core mission” since 2011, when the fleet of airplanes that belongs to the Area Health Education Centers moved from Horace Williams to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.
The latest push to close Horace Williams surfaced in September, thanks to administrators in UNC-CH finance office. They contend the field is costing the university $7,000 a month to operate.
The airport’s long been a flashpoint in town-gown relations, with neighborhood activists and town leaders alike arguing that its presence is too much of a safety risk.
Prevailing winds generally dictate that airplanes take off to the west, toward Carrboro and the pastures near the Calvander crossroads.
But occasionally, they flip and compel takeoffs to the east. There, the flight path takes planes over Phillips Middle School and Estes Hill Elementary School. There’s little to no vacant land nearby a pilot could use for an emergency landing in the event of a mechanical failure or other emergency at low altitude.
University officials say they worry about “increasing liability” because of the proximity of the schools and the town’s residential development.
Trustees in 2005 joined Moeser in recommending the field’s closure, but at that time they said the move should only occur when UNC-CH was ready to start development of Carolina North. To date, no such development has occurred, thanks in part to the 2008 recession and more broadly because the university hasn’t had the money to go through with the project.
Despite the university’s position and the town opposition, the field’s always had a good bit of political support, most recently from the likes of former state Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson.
Advocates of retaining it note it’s far from uncommon for small airstrips to operate in the shadow of major airports like RDU, offering a base to private pilots who’d otherwise have to compete with the airlines for parking and air space.
Apodaca’s also questioned the university’s economic argument, noting that UNC’s own moves to cut down on the number of planes based there reduced the field’s customer base. Moeser terminated a long-standing basing arrangement between the airport and a local flying club, and the move of AHEC reduced the number of operations further.
Horace Williams Airport dates from the 1930s, and has some national history behind it because it served as a U.S. Navy pre-flight school during World War II. Former President George H.W. Bush trained at the school before serving as a torpedo-bomber pilot in the Pacific, and former President Gerald Ford was a ground-based physical fitness instructor there.
Though he wasn’t a pilot, Ford also has the distinction of having crashed in an airplane there, at least once and maybe twice.
He was on a plane that was destroyed in a bad-weather heavy landing late in the war, after he returned to the U.S. after serving as an aircraft-carrier navigation officer in the Pacific. And he’s said to have wrecked a Piper Cub he and a couple of friends acquired during their stay in Chapel Hill in hopes of learning to fly on their own.
Cochrane said the presidential ties and the airport’s history have come up when he’s been lobbied him to retain it.
But “I’ve said we’re not keeping it because of the past,” he said.