Ready for takeoff

Scott Patterson opens up the hanger where his Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche is stored, pulls his golf cart up to the front of the plane, hooks it up and pulls the plane out. After inspecting the plane and making sure it’s ready to fly, he loads up, fastens his seatbelt and cranks the engines. Switches are flipped and engines are tested as he slowly makes his way to the runway.

With one last check on the weather and a completed preflight check, he lets other planes around know he is preparing for takeoff. No other plane is headed in, and he begins his path down the 8,000-foot runway, although that length of runway is not required. In a matter of seconds, the plane is off the ground and headed for the clouds.

For Patterson, flying above the clouds and peering out at the scenery below got him hooked, and he never turned back.

“I grew up in airplanes. My father was a pilot and I grew up around airports and I started flying when I was 17 years old,” Patterson said. “I enjoy the freedom of it, I enjoy looking down and seeing the scenic beauty of it and seeing the sunsets and sunrises. I enjoy flying at night because it’s smooth and you can see so far.”

Patterson got his start at Craig Field Airport during a time when it was extremely busy.

During the Vietnam War, Craig Air Force Base was the world’s busiest airport with more than 93,516 flight hours and 455,000 aircraft movements.

Pilots were trained at the airport, and Patterson was one of those pilots.

“I went through pilot training here in 1967 and ’68,” Patterson said. “I went away in the Air Force for 20 years and was a fighter pilot. I retired and came back here.”

During his absence, Craig Air Force Base was shut down and sold to the Craig Field Airport and Industrial Authority, which has led the base since.

“During the Vietnam era, it was the busiest airport in the world because of all the pilot training that was going on,” said Menzo Driskell, executive director of the Industrial Authority. “It was established as a pilot training Air Force base.”

Over the years, the airport turned from a pilot training facility to a manufacturing facility, when Beachcraft began to build planes from scratch to finish. Other companies came in after Beachcraft, and eventually drizzled out, but the Industrial Authority strived to keep Craig open and accessible to the public.

Craig is now a general aviation airport that sees around 60,000 operations a year.

Driskell said around 60 to 65 percent of air traffic is general aviation and the rest is divided between corporate and military.

Now, when Patterson goes back to Craig, it’s not for training, but for fun.

The seasoned pilot with more than 50 years flying, has two planes at Craig, one being his Piper PA-30 Twin Comanche and an American twin-engine cabin monoplane.

“All my life we’ve had an airplane, maybe not a fancy one, but we’ve had some kind of airplane,” Patterson said. “To me it’s as natural as getting in the car and going somewhere.”

To Patterson, Craig has been a place that he has spent much of his life, being as a young pilot in training, to flying leisurely. But either way, he is glad there is such a place in Selma and Dallas County.

“[Craig Airport] is a wonderful airport. It’s underutilized,” Patterson said. “We have such a great facility, and the airport authority does such a tremendous job with keeping it up.”

While up in the air, Patterson overlooks the city, pointing out different landmarks and showing off the size of the airport.

Craig is made up of a lot more than just the airport. The complex consists of 2,220 acres, with industrial parks, an airport and a golf course. The airport is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Airport runway 15/33 is 8,013 feet long and 150 feet wide with 1,000 foot overruns at each end. Craig Airport features five miles of FAA approved security fencing around the entire airport area, a new 3,000 square foot terminal building, an ILS navigation system and an AWOS weather station. There is 70 drained concrete acres of parking way, 12 inches thick.

Driskell said Alabama Power recently completed a sub-station in Craig’s industrial complex that will prevent expensive electrical related down time for the industries located within the complex.

Driskell said this year, the industrial authority plans to remove all of the obstructions, trees located in the runway approach or glide slope, and an extensive repair of the spalling that is occurring on the parking apron.

Many renovations have been completed over the years, especially with the taxiways and hangars.

Taxiway Alpha [A] was resurfaced and re-striped in 2003 and in 2004 an entire resurfacing and stripping was completed to runway 15/33. In 2005, construction was finished on a 10 bay T-hangar facility. More recently, taxiways Bravo [B] and Charlie [C] were resurfaced and striped.

The Fixed Base Operation, Southeastern Aviation Services offers Jet-A and AV-Gas fuel at a self-serve fueling island or direct into plane fueling from their trucks. The airport also offers other aviation petroleum products, minor mechanical repairs, a pilot lounge, weather information and car rentals.

The FBO offers pilots a place to shower, kick their feet up and watch TV or even hold a meeting.

There are also multiple hangars on site, some of which were completely renovated.

On the industrial side, the park consists of Seoyon E-Hwa, Plantation Patterns, M&B Rail, Lear Selma and Eovations, all of which employ around 1,355 people, many of them from Selma and Dallas County.

There is currently one available 40,000 square foot building that the Airport Authority is hoping to fill soon.

“It’s a well maintained industrial park,” said Wayne Vardaman, economic development director.

“If you look at it in comparison with other cities, it would rank up there with the big cities as far as an asset. We call it a gem. It’s a gem, and a lot of people just haven’t found it.”

Vardaman said the airport has a lot of potential, and although some things haven’t worked out recently, he has hope for the future and what is to come for Craig.

Vardaman said several years ago, the Airport Authority partnered with Lockheed Martin to seek a military training company to base out of Craig. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out in the end, but Vardaman said some positive still came from the process.

“That was a win for us to have somebody with a name like Lockheed Martin to pick us to partner with,” Vardaman said. “We lost in the finals, but from that we learned a lot.”

In May of 2014, the airport and industrial authority began working with Science and Engineering Services to bring a Kuwaiti pilot training program to the Craig Field. The deal has been ongoing, and although it has been on somewhat of a pause, Vardaman and Driskell are still hopeful that it will work out.

If it does, there will be about 600 new people, students and employees, occupying Craig on a daily basis.

But until then, the airport and industrial authority will continue to promote the place that they love and do their best to offer the public the top airport they can.

Coming in for the landing, Patterson radios the planes around that he is making his way to the airport. He checks his landing gear, lowers it and heads for the runway. As quick as he took off, he’s safely back on the ground. Until next time.

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