The hum of an engine overhead causes us to look up. It’s more than just a motor powering a small airplane over treetops. It’s an economic engine that is powering the Southern Carolina region.
South Carolina has 57 airports, six of which are commercial service airports while the rest are considered “general aviation” airports. Those 57 airports generate $16.3 billion annually in economic activity in the state of South Carolina, according to a 2018 study commissioned by the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission.
In the SouthernCarolina Alliance region (which includes the counties of Allendale, Barnwell, Bamberg, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper), over $220 million in economic activity is revved up annually as a result of the one commercial and seven general aviation airports located here. That doesn’t even include the impact generated by the military base in Beaufort.
In 2018, these eight airports accounted for 1,739 jobs with a payroll of over $60.6 million. The vast majority of the jobs were created by Hilton Head Island Airport, but 453 jobs were generated at the general aviation airports, according to the SCAC study.
While those economic impact numbers are significant, area airport managers say the numbers have lifted up dramatically since the report was generated. COVID-19 was actually a boon, they say because county airports offered fewer restrictions and greater ability for people to travel in small groups.
The airports’ record “airport operations” – take-offs and landings – and estimate passengers. They consider “visitors” as those who are coming from more than 50 miles away. Additionally, there are pilots who base their aircraft at the airports, renting space and using the runways frequently.
The seven smaller airports attract over 33,878 visitors to the Southern Carolina region, and Hilton Head’s airport adds another 30,000 visitors annually, according to the 2018 study. They come here for business, pleasure or a combination of both. Some flights are just passing through, using the airports as fueling stations and taking advantage of their facilities for bathrooms, food and information.
Most of the airports offer “quiet” areas where pilots can take a nap, have a shower, get a snack or use computers available on site. They are open to pilots 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
While all but one of the airports in the SCA region sell 100LL (low lead) fuel for the smaller prop planes, several also offer Jet A fuel for small jet-engine planes. (That one airport is expecting to have both types of fuel for sale in the very near future.) Fuel sales are a major source of income for these airports and they compete rigorously to offer the lowest pricing. Pilots can look online for pricing while making their flight plans, check in-flight or be happily surprised upon landing and inquiring.
Both 100LL and Jet A fuel is available for purchase at Hampton County Airport.
Income for the airports is also derived from renting space for short-term parking, or in buildings called T-hangars or box hangars where planes can be stored for longer periods of time. Many don’t charge “tie-down” fees for short visits, enticing pilots to use their facilities. Other revenue is generated from repair facilities, flight schools or other aviation-related businesses that rent space at the airports.
The smaller airports offer less hassle and more anonymity for visitors, some of whom are on economic development missions for their companies. Having an airport nearby often is one important item on a checklist for companies seeking locations to build or expand. Their first impression of a community is the airport, which is why local governments invest in nice, clean facilities that are comfortable with artistic touches. Many of the terminals either have just undergone extensive upgrades or there are plans to do so in the relatively near future.
Marco Cavazzoni, representing District 6 on the S.C. Aeronautics Commission, said at a recent aviation event in the region, “Magical stories often happen around aviation.”
Now retired, Cavazzoni noted his first experience was in 2009 when he flew into the Bamberg County Airport “in the dark of night on Halloween incognito” on a mission for his former employer, Boeing, to consider placing a plant in North Charleston. The result was a historic decision for South Carolina.
European-born Cavazzoni and his family liked to drive through rural areas and were enchanted by the region. By meeting people and getting to know the area, Marco said he came to realize how important the rural communities are to the state and nation. He has since located his personal aircraft and invested in aviation-related businesses in Colleton County.
Funding from the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission (SCAC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been a critical key to helping local governments maintain and upgrade their airport’s runways and facilities.
The majority of the airports in the SCA region were created in the 1930s and 40s and are steeped in history. That history is also a draw to visitors to the airports and nearby parks.
Hampton County Airport has 20 new T-hangar slots and two box hangers on site. Currently 16 of the 20 T-hangars are being rented out, generating revenue for the airport.
Hampton County Airport
Hampton County Airport (3J0) is situated halfway between Varnville and the county seat of Hampton. It was created in 1947 and its runway has recently been upgraded.
The runway is 3,601 feet long. The airport draws 322 visitors a year, according to the 2018 SCAC study, but airport managers are sure this number is low. In the first four months of 2022, there have been 682 flights recorded but many of those are local (under 50 miles from the airport).
Hampton County’s airport is estimated to generate $3.4 million in annual economic activity. The airport and its services support annual tax revenues of $149,370. A total of 30 jobs are attributed to it, according to the study.
The runway was updated in 2020-21 thanks to a USDA grant and South Carolina Aeronautics Commission funding coupled with local support. Hampton County’s airport now has a 3,601-foot runway with a parallel taxiway. In addition, two T-hangar buildings and two box hangars were constructed, according to Hampton County Airport Commission member Buddy Bullard. Fencing to keep wildlife out and provide additional security is currently being installed around the property.
From January through September in 2021, airport records show that 1,098 planes landed or took off at the airport. That included 1,049 regular airplanes, 43 gliders, one Lifenet, one Careflight and five tree-trimmers. Using those figures, it can be estimated that an average of 122 flights are recorded each month at Hampton County’s airport.
In 2021, an estimated $100,004 of fuel was sold as the airport offers both 100LL and Jet A fuel, according to records at the airport.
Besides fuel sales, the airport earns revenue from the rental of the T-hangars and box hangers. Currently, 16 out of the 20 T-hangars are rented out and there is a waiting list of potential renters who are actively seeking to purchase a plane, according to Buddy O’Quinn, who oversees the day-to-day airport operations. Dobie Hiers is the listed airport manager.
Hampton County Administrator Rose Dobson-Elliott reports that revenue in 2022 is anticipated to be $169,416 for hangar rent, fuel and miscellaneous income.
Most of the people visiting the airport are there for business and recreation purposes, says O’Quinn. “We are on a common route between destinations up North and Florida. Pilots stop here for fuel, the atmosphere and the convenience.”
Business people associated with industries at Lowcountry Regional Industrial Park in Early Branch also draw regular flights.
“Others are interested in real estate, some in business prospecting,” said Bullard.
A courtesy “taxi” is available at the airport.
“I can take them downtown for lunch or to a destination close by,” said O’Quinn.
Hampton County Airport’s terminal offers restrooms, a kitchenette, a pilot computer station and conference table. Taxi service into nearby communities is available by the airport staff.
Long-term plans are for more improvements with the goal of becoming a government-level FAA-recognized airport which would make it eligible for $150,000 a year in funding, said Bullard.
One thing that is new at the Hampton County Airport is the “Young Eagles” Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) program. EAA Young Eagles coordinators introduce young people ages 8 to 17 to aviation.
“We hope some may consider careers as pilots or mechanics,” said Bullard.
Allendale County Airport
Allendale County Airport (AQX) was activated in May 1969 and is situated off U.S. Highway 278 between the towns of Allendale and Fairfax. It is a place that Allendale Airport Manager Deborah Creech calls “a gem”.
The runway was originally 3,200 feet long but was upgraded in recent years to 4,990 feet. A resurfacing project is expected to begin in late 2022.
Currently, the runway can accommodate aircraft from prop planes up to 15-18 passenger jets.
According to the SCAC study, approximately 2,953 visitors arrive annually in South Carolina at this airport. In the first four months of 2022, there have been 1,392 planes that stopped and fueled at AQX.
The airport and its activities support annual tax revenues estimated at $79,840. Its annual economic activity has a total impact of $1,786,800 annually, according to the study.
There are 10 units in the one T-Hangar and all are currently occupied. An additional three planes are based at AQX. Tie-downs are available for visiting pilots.
The terminal, which was remodeled 13 years ago, includes a pilot lounge, conference room, flight planning room, and vending machines. Artwork touting USC-Salkehatchie adorns one of the terminal entryway walls.
A courtesy car is available for pilots to visit Allendale and Fairfax for a meal.
Bamberg County Airport
Bamberg County Airport (99N) was activated in 1982 and is located between the City of Bamberg and the Town of Denmark. Its lighted runway is 3,603 feet long and attracts mostly propeller-style planes. It offers self-serve 100LL fuel for sale and strives to have the lowest price in the region.
The annual economic activity is estimated to be $219,610 annually, according to the SCAC study. Over 400 visitors arrive annually via the airport. Annual tax revenues were estimated in 2018 to be $7,920 but that figure has grown. “One plane paid almost $10,000 this year alone,” according to County Administrator and Airport Manager Joey Preston.
The airport has two hangars. One belongs to the facility while the other is leased to Crosswind Aviation, which offers charter services as well as contract pilot and aircraft management services across all of South Carolina.
Plans are underway to add T-hangars for smaller planes and a box hangar that can accommodate larger twin-engine airplanes.
It has since been redeveloped with the addition of a terminal that has bathrooms, an efficiency kitchen, a pilot room, conference room, indoor lounge and outdoor porch with white rockers.
Barnwell Regional Airport
Barnwell Regional Airport (BNL) was constructed by the U.S. Army Air Force as a B-25 Mitchell bomber training base. It still draws a variety of military aircraft on a regular basis that are on training exercises, according to airport manager Brandon Chavis.
Barnwell Regional has two runways. The primary runway is 5,119 feet long, the secondary is 4,526 feet. While these runways can handle larger aircraft, the majority of planes landing there are small to mid-sized corporate-style aircraft.
The study indicates that Barnwell’s Airport draws 2,072 visitors annually to South Carolina. That is particularly true during the week of the Masters Tournament in April as Barnwell is only an hour’s drive from the world-renowned golf course.
With regards to economic impact, Chavis said they have sold over 8,500 gallons of just 100LL fuel in February, March and April of 2022, not including jet fuel.
While technically owned by the county, Barnwell Regional Airport receives no local government funding and operates self-sufficiently, according to Chavis.
In addition to selling fuel, the airport offers tie-downs, 30 T-hangar slots, 7 spots in a box hangar, a 2-bay open hangar and a 3-bay maintenance hangar.
Its terminal offers pilots and passengers a lounge, flight planning room, pilot room with a shower, vending and kitchenette, and Wi-Fi.
Lowcountry Regional Airport
Lowcountry Regional Airport (RBW) in Colleton County once served as the Walterboro Air Field where airmen received their final training before going overseas in the 1940s. It is also home to the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of Black pilots who were feared and respected by their German combatants. Historical sites such as these draw visitors to the region and add to the economic impact of the airports.
When the federal government ended operations, it deeded the airport to Colleton County and the City of Walterboro in a 50/50 partnership.
Now the 1,400 acres of land is the home of a modern airport with two open runways that can support large corporate jets, although mid-sized jets and prop planes are the most common. One runway is 6,007 feet while the other is 5,700 feet.
The airport also offers 26 T-hangars and three box hangars that can accommodate 24 spaces.
The new 5,600 square-foot terminal which opened in 2019 includes granite counters, hardwood floors, a large conference room, and a kitchen. Visitors are greeted with artwork on the walls and some locally crafted furniture. Those who don’t have a car waiting for them can arrange for a rental car.
Ridgeland-Claude Dean Aiport
Ridgeland-Claude Dean Airport (3J1) in Jasper County is an airport that is on the verge of greatness. As a result of the $23 million already spent and the additional $6 million scheduled to be spent, the airport will become a full-service professional airport. Jasper County is basically building a new airport on the campus of the old airport, according to Development Services Division Director and Acting Airport Manager Danny Lucas.
Phases 1 – 4 included a 215-acre land purchase, construction of a new runway and parallel taxiway, construction of a new 84,000 square-foot apron, construction of a 32-stall parking lot and laying the groundwork literally and figuratively for new facilities.
In 2020, the new 4,200-foot runway and parallel taxiway were opened. The former 2,672-foot runway was turned into a taxiway. Already there are plans underway to extend the new runway another 1,200 feet, although Lucas admits that an extension is a number of years away.
A modular temporary terminal/fixed base operation (FBO) has opened. Furniture and fixtures have also been installed.
“We are in Phase 5 now,” said Lucas. That includes installation of an Automated Weather Observation Station, creation of a permanent terminal / fixed base operation, an instrument landing system, building 12-unit T-hangars, and another ramp.
One project that will have the greatest impact on the airport will be the installation of two 12,000-gallon fuel tanks and trucks for fuel sales in the near future.
Lucas said he hopes Ridgeland-Claude Dean will be a full-service airport by the end of 2026 although construction and delivery timelines have been impacted by COVID, companies experiencing labor challenges, and supply-chain issues.
The SCAC study reported 1,540 visitors annually to the Ridgeland airport.
Ridgeland – Claude Dean Airport is approximately 40 minutes from Bluffton, 50 minutes to Hilton Head Island and 60 minutes to Savannah.
Congaree Golf Club and Turkey Hill Plantation provide shuttle services to their facilities. Ridgeland’s airport has a contract with Enterprise car rental and also owns a courtesy van for 2-hour usage by pilots. The airport is also home to 70 based aircraft with a waiting list of pilots wanting to call Ridgeland their home airport.
The SCAC 2018 report reported $8.3 million in economic impact at the Ridgeland airport so the changes will only make that number grow.
Beaufort County has two public airports: Beaufort Executive Airport on Lady’s Island and Hilton Head Airport on Hilton Head Island. Both are owned by Beaufort County.
Beaufort Executive Airport (ARW) has a runway of 3,434 feet that is situated on 110 acres of land on Lady’s Island. It was activated in 1973. There is a partial parallel taxiway with medium-intensity runway lighting.
According to the SCAC study, there are 12,689 visitors annually to the Beaufort Executive Airport. The airport and its activities support annual tax revenues estimated at $512,500. Total economic activity at this airport is $12.5 million.
Hilton Head Island Airport (HXD) is the only commercial airport in the SCA region and has a manned control tower. Travelers can choose flights aboard Delta, American and United airlines that travel along its 5,000-foot runway with parallel taxiways.