Raleigh County Memorial Airport
Room to develop
Business View Magazine interviews Tom Cochran, Airport Manager of the Raleigh County Memorial Airport, as part of our series on regional American airports.
Raleigh County Memorial Airport (RCMA) is using land and infrastructure to attract aerospace industry businesses to southern West Virginia. Located three miles east of Beckley, West Virginia, and about 30 minutes from the Virginia border, the Airport offers daily commercial flights as well as private and charter options. Raleigh County Memorial is open 24 hours a day, has 12 employees, two runways, two industrial parks, and two interstate highways nearby.
An initial engineering study has already been conducted for a private road that will connect the Airport to a rail line about three miles to the south. “So, we’ll have rail, air, and truck and auto access to this Airport,” says RCM Airport Manager, Tom Cochran. “The only thing we don’t have is water, and we’d need to float the ark again to have the water where we’re at.”
Raleigh County Memorial Airport sits at an elevation of 2,504 feet; only an hour’s plane ride from Washington, D.C. and within a 10-hour drive of 65 percent of the U.S. population. While much of the surrounding terrain is mountainous, there are four wide open approaches into the Airport. “It’s located right in the middle of the north and south corridor of the East Coast,” says Cochran, “and all that traffic flies over us. We are in a situation where we’re kind of sitting out here by ourselves, so to speak.”
The history of the Airport can be traced back to the post-World War Il era. Acquisition of a 3,000-acre plot of land began in 1948 and the Airport was formally dedicated on July 4, 1952. At that time, it had one east-west runway that was about 5,000 feet long and 100 feet wide. For the first two decades or so, Piedmont Airlines provided commercial service using DC-3s. “And they were hopping all over the East Coast here, from Pittsburgh down to the Charlotte area,” Cochran recalls.
By the late 1970s, the Airport expanded with the addition of a second runway. This north-south runway is 6,750 feet in length and 150 feet wide. It was resurfaced in 2001, doubling its weight-bearing capacity and the size of aircraft it can accommodate. Cochran saw the resurfacing as another opportunity to prepare the Airport for more growth. “l was able to get permission from the FAA to put conduit underneath the runway, enabling us to get all the infrastructure of water, sewer, electrical, gas, and communications over to the west side of the Airport for future development. Then, in 1978, we were able to get the funding to build what is now our primary runway, which is 6, 750 feet long by 150 feet wide.”
A 24,000-square-foot main terminal was also completed in 1978. It houses a restaurant, gift shop, airline terminals, and rental office spaces, as well as Hertz and Enterprise rental car services. Cochran compares that terminal’s appearance to the main terminal at Dulles International Airport, noting, “That terminal building has some of the pristine renderings of what Dulles Airport terminal looks like, as the roof of our terminal here is kind of an air fold design just like at Dulles, but that moved us along with what the real thought was.”
Today, RCMA offers daily commercial flights to and from Douglas International (CLT) in Charlotte, North
Carolina, with Contour Airlines. As one of the largest Part 135 operators in the United States, Contour Aviation operates a diverse fleet of aircraft that includes regional airliners for its commercial service, as well as numerous business jets available for private charter. Being a small facility, Raleigh County Memorial Airport markets itself as a low-stress alternative to busier hubs. Parking is free and there are never long lines for security clearance. Passengers can check their bags at the counter or the gate. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, social distancing within the Airport is not a problem.
A strong coal industry, along with funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, helped drive much of the Airport’s early development. Many coal operators had their own aircraft and more than a few spent time at RCMA. With the coal industry on the downturn in recent decades, the Airport has looked to diversify as a way to help itself and surrounding communities. Two chunks of property, one of 174 acres and the other 278 acres, have been set aside for industrial parks and those parks have already attracted hydraulic companies, small manufacturers, and electric companies.
The goal, looking forward, is to attract aerospace industry businesses, which will require qualified workers, so the Airport has partnered with New River Community and Technical College, located about a mile away, and West Virginia University Institute of Technology, about three miles away. “We’re partnering with them to do an A & P (airframe and powerplant) school here, as well as to support the workforce for the potential aerospace industry that we plan to locate here,” Cochran explains. He’s hopeful this opportunity will appeal to former coal miners. This group of people typically has a mechanical aptitude, as well as hydraulic and electrical experience. However, aerospace industry jobs aren’t limited to former coal miners.
“Even the younger generation that wants to be in the aerospace – they can go for the two-year program for the A & P, or they can go on for the four-year through West Virginia Tech that has an aerospace engineering cadre within their school, as we speak,” Cochran reports. These training and education opportunities were part of the reason Tucson Atlantic Consulting and Common Sense Economic Development, along with data partner — the University of Southern Mississippi — awarded the AEROReady Community Certification to the Airport, connecting seven counties in southern West Virginia supporting an additional workforce potential. Those counties are Raleigh, Fayette, Summers, Nicholas, Wyoming, Mercer, and McDowell.
To assess the viability of attracting aerospace industry businesses to the seven-county region, the consulting firm reviewed 14 factors that typically stimulate relocation and expansion projects. Those factors included existing aerospace industries, training and education institutions, airports, workforce and support services, and several quality-of-life indicators. According to the assessment: “This airport,alone, has all the resources, services, and available industrial land to support aerospace manufacturing business and MRO operations.”
Earlier infrastructure development at the Airport has prompted capital opportunities of Eight ($8) million dollars of committed Federal, State, County and Local funding acquired through New River Gorge Regional Development Authority of 105 acres of “Site Ready” Aerospace property. Construction start up is November 15, 2020. There is still plenty of room for more. “We, again, are a little bit unique in what we have in the abundance of land that we have to develop,” Cochran notes. “There is enough room on either end of the north-south runway for it to be expanded to a total length of 8,000 feet.” That’s something Airport officials are looking at because, in addition to being well suited for aerospace industry businesses, the Airport has features that would make it attractive to the cargo industry, including a good infrastructure of highway entrances into the area. The convergence of Interstate 64 and Interstate 77 is only about a mile from the Airport site, and Interstate 81 is about an hour away.
But connectivity alone won’t spur growth. It takes proactive leadership, something that can be found in the five-member, Raleigh County Airport Authority and local government leaders. Cochran sums it up well, stating, “1 think we have a good visionary board and county officials that support what we are trying to do to better the use of the Airport.”
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AT A GLANCE
Raleigh County Memorial Airport
WHAT: A commercial and general aviation airport
WHERE: East of Beckley, in Raleigh County, West Virginia
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City of Beckley – www.beckley.org
The City of Beckley is a hub of commerce, education, and tourism in Southern West Virginia – an area known for scenic beauty and recreation. City leaders are excited for Beckley-Raleigh County Memorial Airport’s AEROready certification and aerospace projects. The airport’s location is in the middle of the North/South and East/West corridors and it has one of the longest runways in the state.
The Beckley-Raleigh County area has 12 institutions of higher education. With three hospitals and several clinics, the community also serves as a health care hub. Tourism, arts and entertainment attractions include the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, Youth Museum of Southern West Virginia, Tamarack – The Best of West Virginia artisan center, Theatre West Virginia, Historic Black Knight, Beckley Art Center, and events/festivals.
Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy four seasons of recreation – WinterPlace ski resort, the YMCA sports complex, golf courses, lakes, rivers, hiking and biking trails, ATV parks, along with the New River Gorge National River, and The Bechtel Summit Scout and High Adventure Park.
The New River Gorge Development Authority, HIVE business incubator, and the Beckley-Raleigh County Chamber of Commerce assist and welcome new businesses.
For information, visit www.beckley.org; “City of Beckley” on Facebook; Phone 304-256-1750.