Ridgeland, SC, MAY 10 2022 -- An airport advocacy and advisory aviation association was recently formed at the Ridgeland-Claude Dean Airport (3J1), made up of both new and long-time pilots, hangar owners, businesspeople and related aviation interests dedicated to controlled growth and continued safe operations at the Jasper County airport.
The Ridgeland Aviation Community Association (RACA) was created a little more than a month ago but already has nearly 100 members and has attracted the attention of other airports, pilot associations, professional groups, attorneys and legislators throughout the state. Already registered with the South Carolina Secretary of State, RACA has raised “…a sizeable war chest…” its leaders say will be used to make campaign donations on behalf of endorsed political candidates, lobbying activities, legal services and the like.
“The end goal is to have Ridgeland’s aviation community voice heard,” said Steve Schmidt, a former veteran Air Force F-15 fighter pilot and FlightSafety International instructor who has held senior positions in the aviation industry for the entirety of his career. “Our membership represents a well-funded and impressive group of aviation and other experienced professionals who have been successful in their own careers and want to give back to the local community by lending their advice, professionalism, considerable experience and aviation expertise as the Ridgeland Airport continues to grow.”
A $21.7 million long-term airport upgrade that began in 2013 includes among many other enhancements a new, 4,200-foot north/south runway capable of handling larger turboprop and light jet general aviation aircraft. The runway is the centerpiece of an expansion program primarily funded by the Federal Aviation Administration designed to make the Ridgeland-Claude Dean Airport an important driver of new business investment and related growth in Jasper County.
With growth comes opportunity,” says Lee Logan, a career marine fighter pilot, retired Gulfstream Aerospace Director and now RACA treasurer. “Among other initiatives, what we like to do is offer the Jasper County Council the benefit of the collective experience of the aviation professionals here, many of whom have directly helped build and then have been flying out of the airport for nearly 50 years. Hopefully, that process becomes one of considerable mutual benefit.”
RACA not only represents a viable source of campaign contributions, but is a potent economic force in its own right. By the end of 2019, with the construction of two large, modern new hangars, there are a total of 42 privately owned hangars at the airport, conservatively valued in excess of $5 million. In addition, all hangar owners pay land leases held by Jasper County, as well as local and state taxes on the hangars and the more than 80 aircraft based and active at the airport, including gliders, vintage, classic, single and twin engine, turbine and jet aircraft, all housed in the hangars that were built by and have been maintained by local citizens since the 1970’s.
But both Schmidt and Logan have pointed to what they’ve termed some “…early bumps in the road…” as the airport expansion program continues to mature. They cite concerns among the Ridgeland pilot and hangar owner community over such issues as sporadic grass cutting that’s become a major safety concern, hiding identifier lights and encouraging the presence of birds and wildlife. Three aircraft related bird strikes occurred recently, the most ever at the Jasper County airport.
Other concerns range from tractor equipment parked in the middle of an emergency grass landing strip, difficulty using a separate grass strip as the center of glider operations, long-term inoperative toilet facilities and significant communications issues with the Acting Airport Manager, a Mr. Danny Lucas.
But at the head of the issues list is a hangar ownership issue which is currently one of the most concerning. Historically, Jasper County has never provided significant support to the local airport. Local pilots built the airport on empty, borrowed land in the 1940’s, operating as a grass strip by 1947. In 1962 private citizens managed to fund a hard-surface runway, while in 1970 local pilots were invited to build hangars on airport land leased to them by the county.
Beginning in 1971 two wooden hangars were built and operational; both are still in regular use and full to capacity. Over the following years new hangars were built on an almost yearly basis, all at the continued invitation of the county, with the owners continuing to pay land lease county payments. In addition to the hangars, other taxi and macadam areas we’re installed at private expense on the way to making the Jasper County Airport one of the most desirable and sought-after aircraft basing locations in the region.
But now, for reasons still undetermined, it appears the Jasper County Council intends to no longer renew existing hangar land leases and will no longer issue new leases. That effectively brings the value of the existing private hangars to zero at the expiration of their leases.
“The really frustrating part,” said Schmidt, “is that we can’t seem to get with the County Council to discuss the issue intelligently and try to negotiate a resolution. All of our attempt to date to review the matter with the County Council as a whole has been rebuffed, while discussions with the Acting Airport Manager have led nowhere.
“At this point we’re willing to accept that the council membership is busy dealing with other matters, although this is an important issue that carries significant financial and legal implications,” Schmidt said. “And as we’ve noted earlier, the County Council and Jasper County as a whole can only benefit from the aviation related experience and expertise a knowledgeable and well-meaning pilot and hangar owner community offers.
“Now with our association formed, we’ll be trying again. Hopefully, the Jasper County Council will be willing to listen,” Schmidt ended.
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