Born and raised in Charleston, WV, I was blessed to be afforded an opportunity that many of my fellow Mountaineers born in the 1970’s and forward were not offered: the chance to return home to West Virginia. Regardless of whether my peers and those immediately preceding us stayed in West Virginia after high school, countless people — countless native West Virginians — were forced to leave a piece of their heart in our state’s mountains as they continue to make the all-too-familiar drive to live in another state. West Virginia’s current economy indiscriminately forces blue collar and white collar workers to leave their families and the state they love for work elsewhere. Many of those who choose to stay are forced into low paying jobs with no hope of good career progression and retirement. John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” resonates in the hearts of Mountaineers around the world because it hits so close to home: you can take a Mountaineer out of the heart of West Virginia but you can’t take West Virginia out of the heart of a Mountaineer.
West Virginians want West Virginia to truly be “Almost Heaven” to all — and for the State to experience an economic and social revival that causes native West Virginians and others to literally come flying back. To make that vision a reality, one must look no further than the challenges overcome by Yeager Airport and its vision to be part of the solution. For West Virginia to move forward, its economy must be invigorated, and it must provide a higher number and quality of jobs for new and old Mountaineers alike. As the West Virginia airport, and gateway to the world, we will play a critical role in the economic revitalization of West Virginia.
To create a vision for where one wants to go, one must first see where one is. Since the 2015 slope failure, Yeager Airport Director Terry Sayre and his team have worked tirelessly to remediate the collapsed materials and find options for a rebuild. Thankfully, Yeager Airport has received a $13.8 million dollar Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant to fund construction of a retaining wall and Engineered Materials Arresting System (EMAS) bed, which will increase landing and takeoff distances.
Simultaneous to that remediation, restoration, and revitalization, our West Virginia airport is updating its Master Plan with an intentional focus on future opportunities. Once updated, the Master Plan will detail long-term capital planning projects to position Yeager Airport to play a vital role for the entire state by providing or continuing to expand access to the world economy through scheduled airline service with four airlines; a general aviation facility with on-site United States Customs that serves as a world class terminal for business travelers; and a home for the West Virginia Air National Guards 130th Airlift Wing.
Yeager Airport’s vision isn’t centered on planes or money — but people. The vision for our West Virginia airport prioritizes the creation of new jobs. Yeager Airport’s leadership envisions an aviation school created at the general aviation area where students can take classes in professional flight, aviation management, aircraft mechanic certifications and other related courses. The airport and National Guard air base will be full of students learning in a hands-on learning laboratory to complete internships and earn a living with job opportunities upon graduation. Currently, Oak Hill High School has an outstanding program in aerospace engineering that could be replicated in other West Virginia schools, thus creating a pipeline of students for the aviation school at the college level who can then apply their education and experience at home in West Virginia.
Yeager Airport currently provides convenient air service options on American, Delta, and United airlines to almost anywhere in the world which, while not yet fully realized, makes the state more attractive for companies considering doing business here. The recent addition of on-site United States Customs and the ability to handle international general aviation flights also makes West Virginia a more attractive option for business. With a pipeline for aviation related jobs, Yeager Airport and the communities it serves will work together to attract aircraft maintenance and repair facilities. Additionally, capitalizing on West Virginia’s continuing legacy of service to her country, Yeager Airport envisions strategic partnerships with those aerospace engineering and aviation companies who serve the United States military.
Yeager Airport envisions its runways being extended to meet the air service and aircraft demands for the next 20 years. Like other industries, the airline industry is constantly changing. The latest trends include the reduction and retirement of smaller turboprop aircraft and even 50-seat regional jets. Yeager Airports leadership understand that — in the long-term — the airline industry will move toward regionalizing its services and “up-gauging” to larger 64-70 seat regional jets in markets like Charleston. Therefore, Yeager Airport must ensure its airfield meets the needs of these aircraft, so that airlines are not forced to take on weight penalties that make flights less feasible economically. Additionally, the runway must meet requirements for future aircraft flying to forecasted cities where our service may be established in the next 10 years. Land currently owned by Yeager Airport situated in Coonskin Park– combined with the aforementioned runway improvements — will create many acres of flat land that will provide opportunities for diverse use. Such land could be used for baseball or soccer fields or other athletic complexes, plus a revitalization of Coonskin Park’s shelters, trails, and other recreation assets.
General aviation plays a critical role in the state’s economy and should be capitalized on for future growth. Several years ago, Yeager Airport’s old crossing runway 15/33 was closed and is now a taxiway. Today, an opportunity exists to extend Eagle Mountain Road behind the general aviation to connect with the West Virginia Air National Guard base. Constructing a public road around the back of the General Aviation Area will allow our West Virginia airport to utilize approximately 25 acres of flat land that could be used for new hangars, air cargo, aircraft repair facilities, warehouses, shipping, and other aviation-related areas.
The construction of such a road will also create a secondary entrance for the West Virginia Air National Guard base and provides more flexibility and protection against future Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) rounds, which have threatened the base’s continued existence in the last decade. Yeager Airport’s partnership with the West Virginia Air National Guard is a great benefit for both organizations. The Air Guard provides 24-hour fire protection for all operations of the airport in exchange for leasing the base for one dollar a year. This arrangement allows the United States Department of Defense to keep the 130th Airlift Wing at Yeager Airport without paying to maintain their own airfield — a significant cost savings to local and national taxpayers alike. Yeager Airport envisions the West Virginia Air National Guard providing even more job opportunities than its 1,000. Further, Yeager Airport leadership is committed to look actively for opportunities to expand the Guard’s operations given that the men and women serving in the Air Guard provide vital service to West Virginians and Americans alike, especially during times of natural disasters, by serving as a FEMA staging area for the deliverance of needed relief supplies and equipment.
The vision for Yeager Airport is larger than airplanes, runways, or buildings. The vision for Yeager Airport is to see the State of West Virginia and its people soar to never-before-seen heights of hope and prosperity. Then, West Virginia will truly be Almost Heaven.