July 13--MERIDIAN -- CLARKE COUNTY -- Meridian resident Charles Wiggins doesn't buy gas in Lauderdale County. When he wants to fill up, Wiggins travels to Quitman. Wiggins doesn't drive to Clarke County though. He flies.
Wiggins is among a growing number of pilots taking advantage of cheap gas available for purchase at Clarke County Airport, located two miles north of Quitman on County Road 153.
"We've been going to Clarke County Airport for years to buy gas," said Wiggins, who flies in formation at area events with four other local pilots . "It is about 45 cents a gallon cheaper for gas there than anywhere else around here. My gas tank holds about 200 gallons. When you are buying a lot of gas that adds up over time."
You won't see any commercial airline planes landing at the small airport that sits atop a bulldozed hilltop surrounded by pine trees. Clarke County Airport is a fixed based operator, commonly referred to in the industry as an FBO.
FBOs provide a myriad of services to general aviation pilots who fly private planes, which includes those used by businesses, corporations, and individuals such as Wiggins, who's single engine, four-seater Navion built in the 1940s was among the planes that flew in formation over Meridian City Hall June 20 for the opening ceremonies of the State Games of Mississippi.
According to a survey conducted by Aviation Resources Group International, as of 2009 there were 3,138 FBOs in the U.S. that met the minimum standards established by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Most airports that handle commercial flights also provide space for separate FBO providers. Meridian Aviation handles FBO services at Meridian Regional Airport and there are two FBOs in Jackson -- Atlantic Aviation and Aero Jackson.
According to one commenter on airliners.net, FBOs are "like a service station for aircraft owners. You buy your gas there. They might have an aircraft servicing facility, a flight school, and some even have a car to loan a visiting pilot."
At a minimum, most FBOs offer fuel for sale and most have an office with bathrooms for use by visiting pilots. Many have hangar space where pilots can store their planes. From there, the sky is the limit as to what amenities are available.
Meridian Aviation boasts 40,000 square feet of enclosed hangar space and 23 open-air hangars, as well as full aircraft maintenance provided by Dean Aircraft Service, according to the company's website.
Other amenities include a pilot's lounge, briefing rooms, a courtesy car for pilots and free hot dogs and ice cream.
At the Innisfree Jet Center in Pensacola, Fla., pilots are met by Sadie, a golden retriever wearing an orange safety vest, airport badge and headset, according to an article on phillips66aviation.com, and are picked up in a "screaming red 1970 GTO ragtop convertible with a license plate that reads "GR-RRR!"
The Pensacola FBO boasts pilot lounges with satellite television and gaming systems, hotel-style sleeping rooms with private baths and an executive board conference room with three-drop down plasma televisions -- and a putting green and ping pong, along with a fully equipped commercial kitchen with chef service, according to the company's website.
A different clientele
While small FBOs can't compete with the amenities found at their larger counterparts, they are preferred by many pilots.
"The bigger the airport, the higher the gas price usually is," Wiggins said.
Larger airports also mean more planes queuing up to take off or land.
"The Navy keeps Key Field in Meridian pretty busy," said John Brown, board president for Clarke County Airport." The National Guard is up there too. There is a lot of traffic over there. Here, you can fly in and 95 percent of the time you will be the only airplane in the pattern."
Clarke County Airport's 3,200-foot long runway is suitable for smaller single and light class twin engine planes, which includes antiques, ultralights and even some homemade planes.
Larger FBOs like the one in Meridian cater to high end clients who fly light jets that can't land on shorter runways, Brown said.
"They could care less about the kind of planes we are talking about here," Brown said.
In addition to the cheapest 100 low lead aviation fuel around, the airport is also the only FBO within 100 miles or more that sells Mogas, a 93 octane unleaded gas suitable for light planes, said Kim Scarbrough, who manages the airport along with her husband, Tim.
"A lot of the planes, such as Cessnas, are being converted to Mogas because it is cheaper," Kim Scarbrough said.
Many of the airport's customers are cross-country flyers and they get drop-in traffic from both north-south and east-west travelers.
Kim or Tim greets each pilot who lands and will pump their gas for them if they like. First time customers are photographed beside their planes and their picture is posted on the wall of the combination office and pilot lounge that boasts immaculate restroom facilities.
"We work hard to keep the FBO building here clean," Brown said. "It's no different than driving. If you take your wife with you and you take a rest stop of any kind, I can tell you what is first and foremost on a lady's mind. She wants a clean place to stop and rest and use the restroom."
The focus on customer service and low gas prices have paid off, Brown said. The airport, which averages two to three fly-ins a day, has seen an uptick in traffic over the last four months, with up to eight to 10 planes logged on some days.
Tim Scarbrough attributes the increased traffic to positive comments about the airport on AirNav.com, an online website that provides information on FBOs across the country.
On the website, Jens Muncheberg wrote, "We were en route from Fort Walton Beach, FL, back to our home in Wichita, KS. We decided to stop at Clarke County Airport for fuel and take a quick break. Of all the fuel stops that were made during our entire trip, this as by far the best. We were greeted by Kim and her granddaughter. Both were very inviting to use their facility, which included the nicest FBO I have come across in my many years of flying."
Chris Robin wrote, "Found out about this great little place the day before I headed south for a family trip in early October. Awesome service from Scarbrough and you can't beat the Avgas price! Make the effort to find this great place when going through the 'Hospitality State.'"
Bids are being accepted for runway and taxiway striping at the airport, with funding to be provided through the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Improvement Program.
Hopes are to eventually expand the facility. To that end, the airport recently acquired 10 adjoining acres with hopes to build additional airplane hangars.
The airport only makes a small profit margin from fuel sales and funding is supplemented by leasing space for airplane storage inside the three hangars at the facility.
There are 10 planes housed at the airport now, with enough room available for a few more. Hopes are to build both T-hangars, which are open hangars with a roof over it, and enclosed hangars to provide more lease space for airplane owners.
"We want to work with the Airport Improvement Program to have some fully enclosed hangars to see if that will attract a high-end guy who loves his plane so much he wants to have a roof and four walls around it so it is very protected," Brown said.
Airplanes have to be inspected annually be a certified airframe and power plant mechanic and Brown would like to eventually offer the incentive needed to attract a vendor to the airport who could offer those services as well.
Many smaller FBOs are city or county owned. Clarke County Airport is no different. The Clarke County Board of Supervisors provides the bulk of the funding for the facility. Last year, $28,000 was allocated to the facility, enough to pay for utilities for the airport. The Scarbroughs are paid a small stipend and provided a place to live onsite.
In return for their investment, the county has its own airport.
"The supervisors are doing whatever they can to attract business to this area," Brown said. "If a business is interested, we have the ability to say to them, 'We have our own airport. If you want to fly the vice president of the plant here, you don't have to go to Meridian, you can come here.'"
The airport is also involved in the community and sponsors a local Civil Air Patrol chapter.
This past spring, the airport hosted two field trips for elementary school children, with static displays of airplanes and helicopters.
Last October, the airport hosted its first fly-in, with an open house for pilots. That event was a "test run," Brown said, with a big event planned for the Second Annual Clarke County Airport Fly-In slated for Nov. 1.
There will be airplanes on hand for viewing, food, children's activities and a "bomb drop" where pilots will compete to see who can drop a bag filled with flour closest to a target set up on the airport grounds.
"Mostly it's the ultralight and the small airplane pilots that enjoy doing that kind of thing," Brown said.
Hopes are "to put the airport on the map" and to continue to make it grow, Brown said.
"Our game plan is to compete by keeping our hangar rates and fuel prices below our competitors," Brown said. "I think we can do that."
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