Investments at Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Pay Quick Dividends

Investments at Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Pay Quick Dividends
Author: 
Mike Schwanz
Published in: 
May-June
2021

A renaissance is underway at Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport (RWI) in Elm City, NC. And master plan improvements are propelling it forward.

Airport Director Dion Viventi reports that several infrastructure projects executed in 2019 and 2020 are already boosting RWI’s bottom line. All 23 spaces in three new hangars were completely booked before the facilities officially opened, and general aviation customers have started ringing the register on a new self-serve fuel system that opened in late April/early May.

facts&figures

Location: Rocky Mount-Wilson Regional Airport (NC)

2020 Annual Operations: 30,000

Project: Hangar Construction

Size: 3 T hangar buildings; each hangar averages 48 ft. wide x 14 ft. high x 37 ft. deep

Combined Capacity: 23 aircraft
(small twins & single-props)

Cost: $3.5 million (includes hangar taxiways & new maintenance building)

Associated Revenue: $82,800/year

Consultant: WK Dickson

Contractor: PLT Construction

Subcontractor: ABCO

Construction: April-Oct. 2020

Key Benefit: Additional revenue stream

Project: Self-Serve Fuel Farm

Cost: $586,000

Funding: FAA nonprimary entitlement grant

Contractor: First Petroleum

Consultant: WK Dickson

Construction: March 2020 to April 2021

Key Benefits: Additional revenue stream; convenience for customers

Project: Runway/Taxiway Reconstruction

Cost: $14.3 million

Funding: NC state aid to airport grant

Scope: Full-depth, full-length reconstruction of 7,100-foot main runway & taxiways; new LED signs & lighting

Construction: 
April-Aug. 2019 for main runway & taxiways; secondary improvements to be completed by Aug. 2021

Contractor: Allega Cement

Subcontractor: Slurry Pavers

Signs & Lighting: Southeast Sight Services

Key Benefits: Improves safety; helps attract more cargo & corporate aircraft

Associated Accolade: FAA Southern Region 2019 Airport Safety Award

“Almost immediately, both of those projects started to bring in income to pay off our investment,” Viventi reports.

Cargo business, bolstered by airfield improvements made in 2019, is expected to double in the next few years.

Reconstructing the main runway to improve safety and attract more traffic was the crucial first step. WK Dickson, the airport’s consulting and engineering firm for nearly 30 years, assisted in the design, planning and construction administration for all of the key projects.

“The runway’s impressive length (7,100 feet) did not have to be changed. However, the surface dated back to the 1960s, and was badly in need of a complete overhaul,” explains Jason Kennedy, WK Dickson’s aviation project manager.

The recommended fix was a full-depth reclamation, with crews pulverizing the existing asphalt pavement, and mixing it with underlying stone and cement to make a solid base. Then an asphalt topcoat was added, saving the expense of hauling away old runway materials. Crews also renovated taxiways to meet FAA geometry standards and installed new LED signs and lighting.

23 New Tenants

After crews finished the runway and taxiway work in 2019, RWI focused on adding more hangars for small twin-engine and single-prop aircraft at a cost of $3.5 million. 

Since the building site was upstream from a river reservoir that serves as a local recreation site, preserving water quality was a focus before and during construction. 

Planning and obtaining state and local approvals went smoothly, but PLT Construction, based in nearby Wilson, encountered a few challenges. Due to manufacturing delays, the steel had a longer than expected turnaround of 10 weeks, compared to a normal delivery of six to eight weeks. The region also experienced wet weather from November 2019 to March 2020, making the soil too soggy to start construction when originally planned. “But once it got warmer and drier in spring, we were able to put up the buildings fairly quickly,” reports Craig Taylor, vice president of PLT’s commercial division.

The first hangar complex, which holds six planes, was completed by May 2020. The next hangar added room for seven more aircraft; and the last 10-aircraft building was finished in October 2020.

Each hangar averages 48 feet wide, 14 feet high and 37 feet deep, and offers remote-control doors. Pilots can manually push their planes in and out of their hangar, or make arrangements with RWI for help from an automated tug.

All of the new hangars are insulated, and are connected to a new stormwater drainage system. They also include epoxy painted floors, LED lighting and inside electrical outlets. Tenants have access to free Wi-Fi and centrally located restroom facilities. Concrete sidewalks wrap all the way around the new buildings.

Finding tenants was no problem. “A strong pent-up demand for the T hangars was obvious; the airport had not built any in at least 20 years,” Viventi explains. “All 23 of the spaces were leased out before we even received the certificates of occupancy from the county. So far, the tenants have given us positive feedback.”

Rent for an individual space in one of the new hangars is $300 per month, netting the airport an additional $82,800 per year. All funding for the hangar project was part of a $3.5 million grant from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, through the Strategic Transportation Investment Law. A small portion of the same grant was also used to add new taxiways to the hangars, as well as a new 1,500-square-foot storage facility for maintenance equipment that was completed by PLT last October.

New Fueling Option

RWI opened its new self-service fuel system, located near the new hangars, in late April/early May. It allows pilots to taxi up to the pumps at any hour and pay with a credit card, just like at a gas station. The facility has two 8,000-gallon fuel tanks—one with avgas, another with Jet A—and caters to small aircraft, such as single-prop planes and small jets.

When designing the system, WK Dickson focused on safety, airport operations and convenience to pilots. First Petroleum Services, which had experience with similar facilities, was in charge of building the system. Construction was delayed due to a severe steel shortage that delayed delivery of the fuel tanks. The COVID pandemic also made it difficult to secure other specialized materials and labor.

“We lost at least four months just getting the raw materials to the site,” states Charlie Allsopp, president of First Petroleum. “Once we had everything we needed, the construction went smoothly.”

Strict environmental regulations and fire codes had to be met, especially concerning potential fuel spills and stormwater runoff. “The tanks are double-walled, and the whole facility is built on a concrete containment area. This containment section contains a 6-inch concrete curb around the perimeter to provide additional protection and to collect leaks or spills from the system. Stormwater collects in one corner of the containment area so that it can be inspected by the airport for contaminants prior to release,” Allsopp explains. “It also helps that both fuel tanks are placed above ground, avoiding additional costly underground environmental requirements.”

Other safety measures include a safety shutoff valve, a 911 phone and detailed instructions posted by the pumps. Hoses are 75 feet long, to make use easy for pilots.

The new fuel system cost $585,844, and was fully funded with an FAA nonprimary entitlement grant.

Cashing in on FBO Services

The self-serve station is expected to account for a fraction of the airport’s overall income from fuel sales. Assuming control of the airfield’s fixed base operator (FBO) in August 2019 significantly increased RWI’s fueling revenue. Beyond fueling, the airport also took exclusive control of aircraft handling, catering, rental car operations, etc.; but a third party continues to provide aircraft maintenance services.

Taking over all fueling services has been very profitable. “It has been a very lucrative part of our operation,” says Viventi. “We started out selling only 8,000 gallons of fuel a month. By February 2021, we were up to 74,000 gallons a month.

“We did have to purchase more equipment to run this FBO operation, and hire people to do that,” he continues. “Nevertheless, we were in the black our first year.”

Rebuilt Runway Attracts Larger Aircraft

While smaller aircraft are expected to primarily use the new self-service pumps, large cargo jets serviced by fuel trucks often purchase 3,000 or 4,000 gallons each to fill up their tanks. And more cargo planes are using the airport since RWI reconstructed its main runway in 2019.

Closing for three months during construction was a short-term financial hit, but RWI officials decided it was best to perform all of the work at once. “We did give our tenants a two-year advance notice, and also gave them a break on their leases during this time,” says Viventi.

When the airport reopened, larger cargo aircraft started taking advantage of the lengthy runway’s new surface and boosted fuel sales accordingly.

One of RWI’s main cargo customers is Cummins Engine Company, which has a large operation in nearby Brattleboro that ships diesel turbine engines out of the airport several times a week. In addition, the company uses a corporate jet to shuttle personnel between RWI and its headquarters in Columbus, IN.

Cummins hires cargo operators with specially designed planes to deliver its heavy engines to customers. RWI personnel help load the engines onto the planes, often using a forklift with a built-in scale.

The airport’s long, reconstructed runway is expected to draw new cargo customers in the future. In fact, officials expect this side of the business to at least double in the new few years.

Expansion Plans

The next major project on Viventi’s agenda is to add more hangars for corporate jets. He and his staff are talking to potential tenants who indicate that they would base large planes at the airport if hangars were available. One prospective client operates a Gulfstream V, which has a range of more than 7,700 miles and would require a lot of fuel. 

This spring, the airport staff is putting together funding requests for larger hangars, and Viventi hopes to get the green light within the next year.

Although his airport is relatively close to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU), Viventi believes RWI has several selling points to attract more corporate aircraft. Its location between several major interstates allows executives to fly into RWI and rent cars for the 45-minute drive into Raleigh, NC. In addition, cargo operations are less congested and pilots can avoid the controlled airspace of RDU, adds Viventi.

Another big selling point for RWI is the cost of its fuel. For instance, in early April, Jet A and avgas both cost $3.60 a gallon at RWI, compared to $6.96 at RDU.

“Perhaps most importantly, we think our level of service is a real plus—we are small and personal,” Viventi adds. “We are selling that hard to prospective new customers.”

Other long-range plans include adding an extra parallel runway and an industrial park. “We have a good amount of space on the property, so that gives us a lot of flexibility for future projects,” he concludes.

 
Subcategory: 
General Aviation

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