Over 50 years ago, pilots took their chances landing on a tiny dirt strip, down the middle of a cow pasture, located between the sister cities of Tazewell and New Tazewell. Today, that same strip is covered in smooth asphalt and surrounded by a state-of-the-art airport facility.
The New Tazewell Municipal Airport continues to update its services as technology advances. Its most recent update is the naming by the city council of the airfield in honor of former mayor Charles ‘Bud’ Chadwell.
During his reign, Chadwell was instrumental in the development and expansion of the airport, according to the proclamation signed by Mayor Phil Greer.
The mayor recalls making several trips to Nashville in the early days. On one particular trip, Greer says the entire board of mayor and aldermen accompanied then-mayor Chadwell on a grant-hunting expedition.
“One of the officials there said, ‘they brought all their city council. Give them whatever they want.’ We got $2 million that time,” said Greer.
Alderwoman Nita Louthan said Chadwell was instrumental in getting the city interested in creating the type of airport that would be a magnet to pilots.
“His vision made it possible for the quality of the airport, as it is today,” said alderman Stan Leonard.
Once known as the Claiborne County Airport, some 125 acres of prime farmland provided a dirt landing strip for private use by local pilots.
In 1970, Tazewell and New Tazewell agreed to joint ownership of the airport. The day-to-day upkeep eventually landed into the laps of New Tazewell officials, prompting another name change.
In the early years, airport regulars used a mobile home as a makeshift lounge, of sorts. In May of 1998, while Chadwell was in office, a 10,000 square feet prefab maintenance/office building was constructed.
The new structure was installed to meet the mandate of the Tennessee Aeronautical Board, who forbade any increase in the number of T-hangers unless a true maintenance hangar existed on the airport property.
Former mayor Jerry Beeler sat down several years ago with the Claiborne Progress to reminisce about the ‘blood, sweat and tears’ involved in getting the necessary grants to move forward with plans for Airport improvements.
“When I took over as Mayor in 2006, the city was in the early stages of completing what became a five-year long project to extend the airport runway,” said Beeler.
The initial $6.4 million, 90/10 matching grant eventually ballooned to some $9.6 million by the time the project was completed, he said.
As part of the expansion program, New Tazewell government began acquiring land adjacent to the airport.
“It was a nightmare process. It seemed like every step of the way we ran into hurdles that had to be jumped. We had to move many, many tons of dirt to level the ground so that rainwater runoff wouldn’t affect the neighbors’ properties,” he said.
An inordinate amount of rainy weather hindered work, as well.
“Every time we moved forward with the project, it seemed some disaster would happen. Like, the guy we contracted with to move the dirt went bankrupt,” said Beeler.
Without the extensive knowledge of certified city building inspector Jerry Hooper, the project might have ‘crash-landed’ at any point along its arduous journey, Beeler said.
Since that time, New Tazewell government has made several improvements to the airport including the extension of the asphalt runway by over 2,000 feet and the installation of pilot-controlled lighting. City officials also created a partial parallel taxiway, have added a total 24 T-hangars and have installed a rotating beacon.
Today, the extended and resurfaced runway routinely accommodates twin-engines to Lear jets. The airport regularly plays host to area businessmen, politicians and stars.
“This airport is a vital part of the county. A little-known fact is, we’ve had local pilots fly critically ill people out of here to hospitals in different states, all at no charge,” said Beeler, during the earlier interview.
The airport currently boasts a maintenance hangar, a roomy office/conference room/lounge area and a 24 hour aviation fueling service via an updated card reader system.
City recorder Linda Stilson estimated the airport has, to this point, undergone in excess of $12 million in upgrades and improvements.
Airport manager Mitch Edwards, a certified aircraft mechanic and veteran pilot, has been according to city officials a ‘real plus’ to airport commerce.
In August, 2011, the Tennessee Aeronautical Commission honored the city during the 26th annual Tennessee Airports Conference with its Most Improved Airport Award.
Reach Jan Runions at 423-254-5588 or on Twitter @scribeCP.