After more than 32 years at the controls of the Stanly County Airport, Manager David Griffin announced his final approach on the job.
At the end of next week Griffin, 69, will conclude more than three decades as airport manager and officially retire. He’ll be remembered as the accidental airport manager who with no relative experience piloted Stanly County into aviational significance, making it one of the most unique airports in the U.S.
“I had no qualifications to be an airport manager,” Griffin admitted. “I was a licensed pilot – that was it. That was not an asset – doesn’t give you an advantage.”
Griffin said as much to Carlton “Buddy” Holt, then mayor of Albemarle, who called on Griffin to forgo an impending move to Florida. Holt wanted Griffin to stay in Stanly and take over as airport manager.
“Buddy, I don’t know a darn thing about running an airport,” Griffin recalled. “Buddy laughed and said ‘that’s OK. If I remember correctly you didn’t know anything about the health department either.’”
Holt was referring to Griffin’s circuitous journey in environmental health, which followed an early job in the grocery business. The first of those 12 years in environmental health began in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, then Stanly before leaving for Anson County, where he was raised.
Griffin had just negotiated an offer to move to Florida as an environmental health manager when Holt intervened.
At that time Stanly County enjoyed a bustling economic climate, primarily due to textiles. Company executives then relied on the county’s airport, which had a runway of 4,400-feet-long, 75-feet wide.
Once on the job, Griffin sought airport expansion. He wanted a longer runway of at least 5,000 feet and an instrumental landing system.
First, however, he had to secure funding with the latter costing about $2.5 million during the mid 80s.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I do know how to read,” Griffin said as he boned up on how to obtain grants from the Aviation Trust Fund, which held about $22 billion for various airport projects across the U.S.
Repeated attempts, however, led to the countless rejections by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“Back then a lot of aviation money was coming into North Carolina, but not Stanly County,” Griffin said.
Griffin noticed the small town of Wilkesboro seemed to be getting more than its fair share of aviational funding, primarily because of influential corporations like Holly Farms.
“One of the last excuses given to me was that we didn’t have the support of the community, Griffin said of the FAA’s explanations. “I thought that’s a pretty feeble excuse.”
Next Griffin gathered all the county’s corporate executives and other stakeholders together along with a slideshow of an active Stanly airport for FAA leaders to see. Although they were impressed with Griffin’s efforts, funding rejections fcontinued.
FAA representatives explained there simply wasn’t enough money to share with Stanly, Griffin recalled.
“I’m an old country boy from Anson County and my math is simple, but I knew there was enough money,” Griffin said.
Then one day while Griffin was griping about the elusive funds of the FAA and its seemingly unfair politics, a bystander overheard him and suggested he call the 145th tactical airlift of the Air National Guard (ANG) in Charlotte. The gentleman advised Griffin that each of them had a problem that could bear mutually-rewarding solutions.
As it turned out, the ANG unit struggled to find airports suitable for necessary training. The airports had to be able to accommodate the ANG’s C-130 airplanes. As Charlotte Douglas International Airport continued to grow, commercial airlines demanded more space, which squeezed the ANG, Griffin explained.
Forced to travel to other airports in convoys of loaded equipment, the ANG sometimes found themselves bumped for other military training.
“It didn’t happen all the time. But, it happened often enough the crew couldn’t maintain their efficiency,” Griffin said.
It seemed the ANG was getting repeatedly denied training opportunities as Stanly rejected for funding.
“We had a lot of things in common,” Griffin added.
In 1989, the Stanly County Airport struck a deal with the ANG providing the 145th tactical airlift unit with a guaranteed venue for training. In exchange, the ANG ensured the Stanly airport would get the upgrades sought, and needed for the heavier C-130s.
Consequently, military funding poured into the airport.
Stanly got its runway lengthened to 5,500 feet and widened to 100 feet. It also obtained the coveted instrumental landing system as well as an aviational weather monitoring system.
Over a 20-year period, some $60 million poured into the county airport. ANG pumped in $40 million. Even the FAA tried to reclaim relevance by tossing in $15 million. The state and local government pitched in the rest.
Since then the relationship with the ANG has benefitted the airport with a radar system, control tower and two parallel runways.
Per the ANG, a fire department is provided to the airport, which also responds to nearby calls off airport property.
“It was a windfall for Stanly County Airport,” Griffin said.
The relationship has also served the ANG as the group has made the airport their home way from home.
Col. Troy Gerock, Commander of the 145th Airlift Wing, called the arrangement “invaluable.”
“Within 20 minutes we can go over there and engage in two hours of training,” Gerock said.
He also acknowledges that all of that is possible because of Griffin.
“He has opened up the airport to us,” Gerock said. “I can’t think of anybody easier to work with.”
Because of all the upgrades and its arrangement with the ANG, the airport generates an economic impact of $100 million annually, Griffin said of an economic impact study.
County Manager Andy Lucas recognizes economic benefits of the airport’s deal with the ANG.
“The partnership with the ANG is the life blood of our general aviation airport,” Lucas said. “The ANG’s economic impact on Stanly County is significant. The ANG staff and visitors frequent our restaurants and hotels generating sales tax and tourism tax revenue. Further, the ANG’s facilities provide a training ground for visiting troops from other areas of the U.S. and other countries. When these troops come to the base for training they typically frequent many of our retail establishments.”
He also understands Griffin’s hand in the relationship with the ANG.
“David’s interpersonal skills, knowledge of airport operations and outstanding relationship with the various ANG personnel have served him well over the years,” Lucas added.
Like most enterprise funds, including airports, they’re always necessary and typically cost more than they earn. Stanly’s airport, however, fares better than most.
Stanly typically appropriates around $300,000 annually for the airport, but it actually costs roughly one-third of the sum.
“The remaining funds come from fuel sales, State grants, hangar and office space lease revenue,” Lucas said.
Roughly 45 airplanes are housed at the county’s airport in hangars, generating property taxes for Stanly’s coffers. There’s a waiting list for others to house their planes, too.
While Griffin might have lacked airport management experience, his self-professed stubborn streak equipped him to never quit on securing the funds to advance the airport. Add his good ol’ country boy, laid-back personality and he became the ideal leader for the job.
“He leads us with direction and then lets us go,” said Becky Broadway, airport operations specialist. “He’s never been one to look over our shoulder or micro-manage.”
Gerock said Griffin’s is personable and direct, void of any “double speak” or “political correctness” that sometimes gets in the way of effective communication.
“We find him to be very down-to-earth,” Gerock said. “I’ve never seen him frustrated. He tells you like it is.”
Stanly’s airport, along with its near 1,000 acres, is poised for new growth. As the military looks to retire the workhorse C-130 for the newer C-17, there will be a need for additional upgrades since it carries a heavier load. The runway will be required to convert to concrete instead of asphalt at that time, Griffin said.
A new manager, preferably with military experience, is expected to be named in the coming weeks with Griffin lending a hand with his replacement’s transition.
Mostly, Griffin plans to spend more time with his family and turkey hunting.