The history of the Macon County Airport has long been one of controversy and compromise, says Airport Authority Chairman Milles Gregory. At a recent meeting of the Aviation Historical Society, Gregory gave a presentation on that history in which he noted the many fits and starts since the airport was founded.
Born and raised in Franklin, Gregory told members of the society that after leaving town for a time as a young man, he returned with a vision to improve the opportunities for young people. Gregory served as a county commissioner for 8 years. Since 1999, Gregory has been the Chairman of the Airport Authority.
Gregory reviewed the history of the airport's early days before it was moved to the picturesque Iotla Valley where it is currently located. Originally, the Macon County Airport was where the Riverwalk shops on the Highlands Rd are now located. In 1968, the FAA ruled that the Macon County Airport was not up to standard. After searching for a different site, the only one that was approved was a farming area in the Iotla community.
The Airport Authority has the power to buy property and to make any changes to the airport that they deem necessary. During his presentation, Gregory told Society members that his goal has been to improve the airport in order to bring beneficial economic growth to Macon County. He noted, however, that there has been some major opposition along the way to making such improvements.
The runway at the Iotla site started out at 3,800 feet. About eight years ago, the decision was made to extend the runway by 600 feet. There was considerable opposition from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians over the first expansion of the runway, noted Gregory. The EBCI was opposed to the Airport Authority moving native graves from that location. After much debate, Gregory, and others, came together and finally reached an agreement to grade the land by one and a half percent. That way, the expansion could go forward and the graves would be left undisturbed.
Gregory explained that the reason for the recent second extension and improvements was that insurance companies will not insure jet aircraft coming into an airport that is below a certain standard. Since it is more convenient for prominent people from Highlands and the surrounding region to come into the Macon County Airport, the Airport Authority proposed legislation to extend the runway a second time, a project which is just now being completed.
When the project is finished, the runway will be approximately 5,000 feet with a 300 foot long safety section. These changes will bring the Macon County Airport up to the current FAA and insurance company standards. Gregory said that the project was set to begin on May 17th and should take about three weeks to complete. Gregory also noted that the Airport Authority is making future plans to widen the airport runway by 50 feet. There are also plans to eventually build more hangars and bring a better water line to the facility.
Gregory said he believes that in the long run, making the airport available to accommodate larger jets and commercial aircraft will bring revenue back into the county, which will increase business potential and will keep the county tax base lower by facilitating people and businesses from Highlands and surrounding areas. Gregory also added that if there were ever a disaster or any kind of crisis in Macon County or the surrounding area, then the airport would be instrumental in supporting the necessary jets and military aid.
Gregory acknowledged that the Airport Authority is once again meeting opposition to its plans. There is an underlying concern among some of the public that the expansion of the airport would only create more problems such as noise, traffic, instability and confusion. The debate between natural country appeal and economic growth continues.
Narelle Kirkland, who attended the presentation, has lived in that area for a number of years and has watched the growth of the airport with growing concern. “This area could have been another Cades Cove had they been smart enough to think that far ahead 30 or 40 years ago,” Kirkland said, referring to the Tennessee community which has preserved its rural character and become a major tourist destination.
The Aviation Historical Society has been meeting for 25 years. About 20 members of the AHS historical society attended the presentation, which is headed up by John Redrup. Redrup said afterwords that he thought Gregory’s presentation “was one of the more interesting ones because it was about the local airport itself instead general aviation. It was very thorough and interesting.”