By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor
UPPER CUMBERLAND– Upper Cumberland Regional Airport (UCRA) manager Dean Selby likes to refer to the airport as an “interstate exit” into the Upper Cumberland. He’s right, but unlike an interstate exit, there is so much more that can’t be taken in by a quick glance.
“An airport is the equivalent to an interstate exit in the context it provides a means for corporate, freight, leisure, air medical, military and eventually commercial air traffic an ‘exit’ to reach the community,” Selby said. “With each improvement, all areas of air traffic benefit increasing access to the community and providing additional resources and options for the region.”
And there are lots of improvements happening at UCRA. They have just upgraded all the taxiway lights to LEDs and the signage to Class-2 to make them more visible for large jets. Last year they replaced all runway lead-in lights – a series of strobes, 43 of them that go out 2600 feet (a half mile)- that strobe into the end of the runway. There are two privately funded 60-by-80-foot hangars being built on the far east side of airport that are close to completion and the recently announced grant will fund a 100-by-100-foot hangar with an additional 2,000 square feet of office space.
“They have an ACIP – airport capital improvement plan – that we just restructured last year that lays out all the projects over the next five years,” shared Selby. “We are currently in the process, and this is another grant that just went out, of applying to redo our airport layout plan, a 10-year plan of where we want to be. It’ll be done by Richard Rinks and Associates with me and the board discussing all this future development and where we are going to put everything. It will fine tune the long-range plan. But with the region growing the way it is, that’s all subject to change next week. You have to be fluid.”
Commercial air service
Commercial air service may be closer to reality than people realize. Selby has been working on developing the necessary procedures so they would be in place and ready to go when the airport is ready.
Selby was negotiating with a company to possibly begin commercial service this year, but the air carrier involved didn’t have enough jets available to commit to the service.
“They had opened up so many new routes that they couldn’t commit the pilots and crew to do it,” explained Selby. “So, we are still working on that. I think it would be a great thing for this area to have a weekly flight out. It probably wouldn’t be daily to start off with. It’d probably be a weekly flight.
“The airport’s certification would have to be changed to Part 139, which makes it a commercial services airport. It’s probably a three- to five-year possibility because of the speed that airlines and the FAA move to get everything in place but that could change tomorrow.”
There is already a plan in effect to handle passenger traffic through Terminal 2 (Aaron Tippin’s current terminal). The front of the building where the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) meets is already set up with a secure and a non-secure area. The CAP would move upstairs and be secured separately along with some other offices, including the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department office. Then the downstairs of the terminal would be the secure and non-secure areas and the main part of the terminal would become the secure loading area (SIDA) required by the FAA.
One thing that would not have to be changed is the runway.
“This runway is 200 feet longer than the longest runway at Chicago Midway,” stated Selby.
The runway is currently 6700 feet long, 100 feet wide and is considered a heavy runway. It’s 18 inches thick. It can take up to 400,000 pounds without having an overload permit.
“We can handle a C-130, DC-9, or 737. Above that we have to start talking about whether they are heavy or light,” shared Selby.
Go-to fuel stop for international travel
UCRA is becoming well known among pilots as a go-to fuel stop for internationally bound planes. Last year they had 14 international departures that flew directly to Canada, the Bahamas, or Mexico from UCRA. It was the first time they had done international departures.
Selby said that there is one company that comes from New York to UCRA to fuel up so they can fly directly to Mexico City. Currently they can leave from the airport, but they can’t fly directly back to it without first stopping at an “airport of entry” that is approved for inbound international air traffic.
“Some of these larger jets that we are getting through here now have flight attendants on board,” explained Selby. “Even though they are corporate or privately chartered, they are bigger aircraft. They want you to make sure their catering is ready. Their galley is ready. They have ice or newspapers. That they have everything they need and fuel. Someone like the businessman going to Mexico City will take 3,000 gallons of fuel to get there. That’s a big deal for an airport, especially one that’s trying to grow.”
Immediately after Hurricane Irma, the FAA allowed UCRA to serve as a port of entry for two days. Two planes carrying people and animals evacuated from the islands to the Cookeville/Sparta area. One of the planes belonged to Kenny Chesney and transported some of his island friends that had sheltered in Chesney’s house that was destroyed in the hurricane. That plane left from St. John in the US Virgin Islands while the other plane left from the British VI. UCRA had to get FAA approval to let that one flight come in.
Commercial air freight
The amount of commercial air freight moved through UCRA is surprising. According to Selby, the winter months of January through March are historically slow but then business picks up.
“We run quite a bit of air freight out of here,” Selby said. “Last year from April through November, we ran about three freight aircraft out of here a day on average, everything from a small twin engine Baron with packages in it up through a DC-9 that we are loading up with heavy cargo from one end to the other. Embraers and larger aircraft too. So, it’s kind of a mix.
“There are many freight companies hauling freight from UCRA. Most are smaller independent freight haulers. Even the larger aircraft are owned sometimes by some mom and pop who has 20 DC-9’s and flies freight all over the country. As long as their paperwork is in order, that’s all that matters.”
Acrobatics box above airport
“They brought it in and were doing loops and rolls, stress tests,” said Selby. “They had their entire engineering department here. They had engineering and marketing here for two to three days staying in town while they were doing all these certification flights with the FAA and all of those people present.”
Lockheed Martin came because the UCRA approached them about it offering something somewhat rare. UCRA has an acrobatics box above the airport.
“Very few airports have an acrobatics box that allows them to do acrobatics above the airport,” said Selby. “Usually it is offset somewhere, but this airport is one of the few that have it over the airport.”
Selby explained, “The acrobatics box actually belongs to Aaron Tippin for testing purposes, and he lets people like that use it as long as they sign waivers and do their due diligence. They (Lockheed Martin) have already asked about doing more certification flights at UCRA, and all this came about from a freak coincidence that a guy happened to come through and I started talking to him about what the airport had to offer.”
“We have a lot of people who fly in here for vacation time, and a lot of them have found it because they stopped here by accident,” shared Selby. “They were flying through and stopped here, and we see them again for vacation.”
Airport staff said that often the pilots will come in while the business people are doing business and ask what is there to do, so they send them to the waterfalls and different places saying, “Oh, you need to go try this place to eat, or do that.” They usually come back saying that was cool and we like this area.
“There’s a domino effect,” said Selby. “People fly in here and spend the night, so there’s a motel. They need to eat, they are going shopping. Sometimes they fly in and go to the lakes. We have had people fly in here and then we see them six months later because they wanted to see the lakes, so they’ve rented a houseboat on Center Hill or Dale Hollow Lake.”
The airport has Hertz and Enterprise rental cars available on site. Although there is no physical presence there, with one phone call the vehicle is waiting on them when their plane arrives.
Economic Development impact
“With White and Putnam counties and the cities of Sparta and Cookeville targeting industrial development, this airport has seen a tremendous growth in air traffic supporting the business growth in the area” said Airport Board Chairman Randy Porter. “The airport has taken an aggressive stance in attracting corporate and business air traffic to further assist in the recruitment of new business.”
All of this activity has Selby looking toward a bright future for the airport.
“I think we will see, increased fuel sales, increased customers, increased traffic which increases the amount of people that come and see the area, spend the night in the area and see the town, move here or relocate their business here,” said Selby. “They look at the place and say that’s where I want to move my business to.
“I think that’s a big benefit of attracting these people in here, not just you’re getting them in here and selling them some fuel but you’re getting them in here and showing them what Sparta and Cookeville and the surrounding areas have to offer.”