By Erin Nelson
About 100 aircraft are parked at the city-owned Tuscaloosa Regional Airport on any given day, but when the Alabama Crimson Tide football team plays at home, the number of planes more than doubles.
On game days, at least 101,821 fans flock to Bryant-Denny Stadium to watch the Tide take on SEC opponents at home, including last weekend when the Tide played the Texas A&M Aggies.
While many Alabama fans drive to Tuscaloosa, hundreds fly in on private planes.
Last weekend, the airport had about 250 planes parked along the runways and in hangars. Charlie Huggins, a pilot from Memphis, Tenn., and friend of airport manager Wayne Cameron, said the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport probably housed more general aviation (private) planes that day than any other airport in the country.
“The general public has no idea what goes on at the airport before or after the game,” Cameron said. “They think there’s not much to it.”
Many people are involved in running a general aviation airport like the Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, especially on a game day involving Southeast Conference opponents.
Cameron’s secretary, April Walker, begins the process by taking reservations for every pilot planning to fly in.
The pilots receive a reservation number, file a flight plan and must fill out paperwork with the Instrument Flight Rules division that will be sent to the Atlanta flight center. Atlanta then sends out the “strip” with all of the pilot’s information to the control tower at the Tuscaloosa airport. The “strip” informs the tower of the type of plane that’s coming, the flight’s origin, the pilot’s reservation number with the Tuscaloosa airport and the the plane’s anticipated arrival time.
As pilots start arriving the Friday before a game, the Tuscaloosa airport lights up and staff work long hours so things run smoothly.
The head linesman at Bama Air and Dixie Air, the airport’s fixed base operators that service the planes, are in charge of marshaling the planes as they land. Crews work to make sure that every plane with a reservation has room to maneuver and a place to park. Last weekend, every available space was occupied.
Also flying in last weekend were the Aggies and their fans.
When a plane is carrying more than 30 passengers, like the Texas A&M football team, the airline is required to have every passenger go through a safety screening performed by the Transportation Safety Administration. The TSA-certified members check the contents of every carry-on item and use hand-held metal detectors on passengers before they can board .
“We try to do (the screenings) as efficiently as possible, checking every carry-on item the passengers wish to bring onboard,” said TSA Screening Manager Karl Gray.
As players, coaches, managers and trainers boarded the Aggies’ United Airways 737-900 ER, they were greeted by their captain, Steve Olsen, and waited for takeoff. The trip from Tuscaloosa back to College Station, Texas, was Olsen’s fourth trip with the team this season. He said he has flown the Texas A&M team about 30 times during his 35 years as a corporate pilot.
“The guys are all very polite and courteous, and the return flight is either quiet or very festive, depending on the outcome of the game,” Olsen said.
The plane that took Texas A&M home was the second United Airways plane to come into the Tuscaloosa airport in the past 10 years, Cameron said.
By the time the visiting team’s plane left the airport, nearly half of the 150 planes that came in for the game had already left.
On Sunday, most of the other visitors who flew in for the game returned home. By nightfall, the airport was quiet once again.