When the airport in Whiteville, N.C., got a little down on its luck, a local pilot and his wife stepped in to right the situation.
Phil and Mary Edwards began managing the rundown county airport just outside this North Carolina city in 2004 and within a few short years turned it into a place known for its good service, friendly atmosphere and low fuel prices.
Today, Columbus County Municipal Airport (KCPC) is a popular stopover for East Coast fliers.
“There were trees growing in the drainage ditches alongside the runway when we took over,” Phil Edwards recalled. “We didn’t have fuel because the tanks were not in compliance with government regulations. We just set out to make it a better place.”
The Edwards began putting in long hours and extra work days. Along with Joe Thompson, who is the third member of the airport team, they started a series of improvements and carefully rebuilt a customer base that had dwindled over the years.
“We got the fuel tank cleaned up and back in compliance and got a 3,000 gallon JetA tank,” Phil said. “We started to attract pilots. We are a county facility with no FBO and we were able to set our price for fuel as low as possible based on the cost of the fuel load.”
The low prices, usually at least $1 per gallon less than high transit airports along the North and South Carolina coast, were the initial draw. When pilots made the turn 50 miles inland from Wilmington and Myrtle Beach, they found not only lower fuel prices but a welcome reception.
The Edwards spruced up the terminal and made sure there was someone available to assist customers during business hours. They were soon able to greet repeat customers by name. “Will you need fuel?” became a familiar message when an incoming aircraft announced on the local common traffic frequency 122.8. An airport car was made available for visitors to get into town three miles to the north.
“We take a lot of pleasure in talking to our customers,” Mary said. “We’ve tried to show people we appreciate their business. When people have to wait out weather or have a little extra time to spare, we have a chance to get to know them.”
Comments online reflect that extra touch is appreciated. Pilot Don Ferrario wrote on AirNav.com, “Not only does KCPC offer the lowest fuel prices on the east coast, plus great service at the pump — it also offers one of the best restaurants anywhere! Joe’s Barbeque, about 2 miles away using the courtesy car provided at the airport. I always look for cheap fuel combined with good food, but never found both at the same place!”
“When I grow up I want to be adopted by Phil and Mary,” Jeffrey Reed wrote. “This way I have the best set of parents, and a good brother Joe, plus be able to play all day at the best airport on the East Coast. Excellent stop! Excellent people! N1306G will definitely be back!”
Phil, who worked out of the airport doing aerial photography for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for more than a dozen years prior to becoming airport director, noted when they first took over the airport, it didn’t have much transient business.
“We wanted everyone to feel welcome and we wanted the people in the county to come out and see a nice facility and have an airport of which they can be proud,” he said. “The effort has paid off.”
Currently, nearly two-thirds of the traffic into the 5,500-foot field is from transients, many of them repeat customers who have been stopping in for 10 or more years.
On an April afternoon this year U.S. Navy Capt. Drew Swenson and his wife Joellyn and children Avery and Henry landed in the family’s Cozy Mark IV, en route from Kissimmee, Fla., to Chester, Va.
A few minutes later a Cessna 340A landed. Pilot Bachir Hassoun was on his way from Montreal to the Bahamas. He was making his regular fuel stop at KCPC. He would be stopping on the way back also, he said.
“We have regulars from Maine to Florida who come in here,” Edwards said. “And we are still making improvements. We cleared the approach to runway 24, added a new fuel system, a new AWOS system and our NDB is still commissioned. We plan to start on a parallel taxiway. And there is a new taxiway that will provide access to hangars we plan to build.
“We get some corporate jet traffic here and have had quite a few celebrities pay us a visit,” he continued. “President Bill Clinton came in 2000 on the presidential helicopter. And Oprah Winfrey and David Murdock of Dole Foods came in their Global Express jets. Patty Wagstaff stopped by for a fill up. Craig Peyton, the founder of EarthFlight Media Productions, stops in frequently. Nancy Lynn, the aerobatic performer, visited us along with her son before her tragic accident.”
While KCPC doesn’t have a mechanic on the field, local A&P Larry Solley is available whenever he’s needed. “If we have a breakdown, he will come out and get them going,” Phil said.
More than a dozen aircraft are based at the field, including a Baron and several vintage airplanes, plus firefighter pilot Bernie King from the North Carolina Forestry Service and his aircraft.
“We have a wonderful group of local pilots,” Mary said. “It’s a blessing to serve them as well as the special transient pilots and their families that stop at CPC. We appreciate all of them.”
“It’s a labor of love,” Phil added.