Chilton airport turns 75 next summer

Published 1:00 pm Friday, July 22, 2011

Chilton County Airport has a rich history. Gragg-Wade Field is one of the few airports built during the Works Progress Administration. In 1948, the airport purchased one of the hangars used by the famous Tuskee Airmen. More recently, work has been done to the runway and the hangar pictured on the left, which once again is used to house planes for the first time in six decades.

For the average motorist, not much thought is given to the Chilton County Airport upon passing; all of it looks like just another small town airport to the average eye.

Which is the truly sad thing about the average eye; it often fails to see the rich history and bright future of a place like the Chilton County Airport and Gragg-Wade Field.

“In 2012, on July 3 and 4, Chilton County Airport will celebrate its 75th Anniversary,” said Billy Singleton, Chilton Airport Authority member. “It’s one of the oldest continually operated airports in the state.”

Constructed in 1937 under the Works Progress Administration as part of New Deal, Singleton said the airport helped Chilton County during the Great Depression.

“In a sense, the construction of the airport took a lot of community participation,” he said. “It put a lot of people to work.”

A grand opening was held over the July 4, 1937 weekend. Despite the fact it launched during the Depression, the Chilton County Airport opened with a bang. According to an article from the July 1937 edition of the Clanton Union-Banner, “Hundreds of local residents attended the landmark event,” which included parachute jumps, a model plane contest, a demonstration of formation flying by the Alabama National Guard, aerobatics, a street dance on Saturday night, and plane rides on both days.

On Sunday, all activities ceased between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., “out of respect and observance of the Church Hour.”

The airport started out with three all grass runways and covered about 50 acres compared to the 90 it covers now. Singleton said the fact that it is open after all this time is an amazing feat all its own.

“There were quite a few airports, around 42, built by the WPA,” he said. “Clanton’s is one of the few still open. The original hangar is one of three, that I am aware of, that are still standing.”

The airport proved to be vital to the U.S. Government in the late 1930s as the nation readied itself for the threat of war.

“The airport was one of 12 in the state not associated with a college that had a Civilian Pilot Training Service,” said Singleton. “It trained people who had an interest in flying, [and in turn would be ready for military aviation.]”

After WWII, the airport was used as an emergency landing field on Commercial Airmail Route 40 (Site 27) between Memphis and Tampa, Fla. The airport’s hangars were also used for various community functions and social events.

“You can look in the hangars,” said Singleton, “and see where the rails are that would hold curtains during shows.”

Then, in 1948, a piece of World War II history was brought to the airport for a price too good to be true. The City of Clanton purchased a hangar once used to house the planes of the famous Tuskegee Airmen for just $10,000.

“After the war, War Assets Administration closed the airfields, and the municipalities were given the opportunity to purchase, disassemble, transport, and reassemble hangars for almost nothing,” he said. “One of the three Tuskegee hangars went to Montgomery, one went to Troy, and the other here.”

The hangar still stands, and is the famous baby blue building most visible from the road. After the hangar was brought to the field, the east-west runway was paved and the airport was designated for general aviation, which it is still classified as today.

Through the years, though, the airport fell into a state of disrepair. Once the Tuskegee hangar was brought to the field, the WPA hangar was turned into a county shop and used in that function until the 2003.

The shape of it was so bad, many were afraid it would be torn down. It was listed as “the most endangered historic place in the State of Alabama” in 2007.

The vision of a few pilots helped save the landmark, and in turn, may have given new life to the airport’s future.

In 2009, four local aviators –Andy Roberson, Alan Dykes, Craig Cleckler, and Mark Underwood- came together with a plan to try to restore the building. The plan was to not only restore it for historical value, but to also make the hangar useable to store planes again.

“It was in such a state of disrepair,” said Singleton. “Fortunately, due to lack of hangar space, we were able to lease it out to those pilots, who helped [finance repairs].”

The hangar was completely restored, and in 2010, held planes for the first time in six decades.

“People were so glad to see [the WPA hangar restored],” he said. . “We are trying to talk to individuals [around Clanton] to try and figure out what we can do to help [the community].”

Singleton said that with a renewed interest in the history of the airport came an increased interest in the future of it, and how it could benefit the county.

“It provides an economic benefit to the county,” he said. “We’ve got a unique opportunity here. We’re less than a mile from I-65, we’re in the center of the auto maker Triangle (Hyundai in Montgomery, Mercedes-Benz in Tuscaloosa and Honda in Lincoln), and we’re even in the center of the state. The airport represents a tremendous asset to the community.”

Thanks to grants from the FAA, the Airport Authority now has the funding for a three-step plan to make the airport a place Chilton County residents could be proud of.

“First, we want to make it as safe as possible,” Singleton said. “By eliminating obstructions on the runway, completely resurfacing the runway, and improving lighting. Secondly, we want to make it accessible [to more kinds of planes.] A number of businesses already use us; the governor uses it frequently.

“Third, we need to make this airport aesthetically pleasing. The runway has not been paved in a quarter of a century. We want to utilize the airport so members of the community can take advantage of it.”

Singleton said plans for improving the airport are already in their early stages of completion, and that if things go according to plan, Chilton County Airport could be a hub for bigger planes and a convenient stop for prominent businesses.

“Another goal is to reach a point where the airport is self sustaining,” he said. “And an economical asset to the county. Will we ever have airline service? No, but it’s been a general aviation airport up until now, and now we’re trying to upgrade the airport to meet the Federal Aviation Administration classification as a General Aviation Regional Airport.”

With the improvements and a little luck, Singleton says there’s a chance the airport could go back to being that booming place of the late 1930s.

“Clanton has a unique place in the history of Alabama aviation,” he said. “The airport has been a big part of the community, and we want to continue that.”