This story was originally published in the 2002 Summer issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
There’s something unusual about the Collegedale Municipal Airport: People don’t want to leave it. At least not people who work there or keep their airplanes there. And now it’s a better place to hang out than ever, thanks to a $400,000 terminal renovation and expansion carried out the last several months.
Having debuted in July, the terminal building has 4,200 square feet of space. That’s well more than double the size of its 30-year-old predecessor, and it includes offices and a pilot’s lounge in addition to the lobby and meeting areas, plus a soon-to-open second-floor restaurant that will have the added attraction of an outside deck. Nor will the inviting fireplace in the cozy old terminal be relegated to a warm winter memory–the new terminal will have a fireplace on each floor. All of that, officials and tenants say, will enhance the enjoyment of a day at the airport for the many people who keep their flying machines there, as well as for fly-in visitors. The new building also should enhance the one area at the airport that is equipped to handle more business now–the charter service and flight school run by Aviation Specialists, Inc., the area’s largest provider of those specialized options.
“It has to have a positive effect on the person who comes out to view our business,” said Aviation Specialists president Mike Warnock. “The old terminal was really dated. When we’re trying to make an impression on a potential client–whether it’s someone who might take a charter flight or someone interested in flight training–it’s certainly nice to have an updated, modern facility for those folks to visit. We’re not directly related to the terminal and what goes on there, but we’re so closely located that it has to help us. And with the restaurant, if someone who’s had some flight training or someone arriving early for a charter flight wants to get a bite to eat or just sit down and have a cold drink, there will be a nice place for them to do that.”
Likewise, Warnock’s employees and other airport personnel will be able to buy meals on the premises and not be forced to bring food or drive several miles to get something to eat during their workday. The same is true for the many tenants who spend hours at a time working on their planes or visiting with their airport friends. About 120 planes and seven helicopters have locked up every bit of the airport’s rentable space, and one tenant, Hixson resident Lowell Sterchi, estimated that 80 percent of the people with aircraft there are “pretty active” in using them. Sterchi, by the way, is a stunt pilot who has performed in air shows throughout the United States and in Canada and Central America. Through the years, he has rented space at five airports in two states, and he says none beats the Collegedale facility.
“This is a nice airport. I think it’s the nicest and friendliest one I’ve used,” Sterchi said. “The people here are easy to deal with. And one thing about Collegedale: They don’t mind spending money on the airport. They make it a real first-class place to be. And they do that without putting their hand in your pocket all the time.” Sterchi welcomed the terminal project as the latest example of the town’s interest. “It needed to be expanded. It was old and it was small,” he said. “And the restaurant will add a nice touch. The way I understand it, it will not be just for the airport crowd–it will be a family place.” Airport manager Bill Rawson promised only that it will be more than a “hamburger joint” or “country buffet” – that whoever got the lease would make it “something with a little flair.”
Collegedale has three crown jewels: McKee Foods, which is the largest employer in Hamilton County, Southern Adventist University, and the airport. As the only one of those the city operates, the airport gets a big part of the small lease the facility to an airport firm, but in 1990 Collegedale took over the operation itself. That’s when the airport really began to move toward its present status as the third busiest “uncontrolled” general-aviation airfield in Tennessee–and the third largest, in numbers of planes based there. The two above it are in the Nashville area. “It costs thousands of dollars to keep an airport up, and when we leased it we weren’t getting back any return,” Rawson said. “Since our airport’s been under city control, we’ve been able to keep it well-maintained and keep making improvements.” Added Frank Zarski, the facility’s maintenance manager: “It’s done nothing but continue to grow since the city took it over.”
Although Rawson is the only full-time employee, and he has a city-hall office with other duties as Collegedale’s director of public safety, the airport is staffed daily from 8 a.m. till dusk by a group of knowledgeable part-timers–retirees who know airplanes. A half day on Christmas is the only time the airport is not open in the daytime. And it provides round-the-clock fuel service, another of its popular offerings. “We get a fair amount of traffic from people who don’t even live in this area who come here just to buy their gas,” said Zarski, one of those part-timers.
Zarski, 59, has been the maintenance manager since taking early retirement from the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1996. “We have other retirees from big companies, like DuPont, but we also have a car dealer and a retired teacher, just for example,” Zarski said. “The interesting thing is that we all have an aviation background: We all either currently have airplanes or have had an airplane, and every one of us is a pilot. We’re here because we want to be here, not because it’s a job. We want to keep this airport successful. We don’t have any turnover as far as personnel–as they come on board, everybody stays.”
Zarski is an electrical engineer by training, a jack-of-all-trades by habit, and a licensed pilot who’s kept a plane at the Collegedale airport since 1981. “We had less than 20 planes here then, and 15 hangars. I don’t remember how many tiedowns,” Zarski said. “Now we have 54 hangars housing over 80 planes, and nearly 130 aircraft here in all, and there’s a waiting list of at least two years. The only way somebody moves up is if somebody sells a plane or relocates–and that’s very seldom.”
Do he and his associates feel threatened by the likelihood of a new general-aviation airport west of Cleveland in Bradley County? “To be honest, I don’t think that would impact us at all, except it might help us,” Zarski said. “They definitely need a new airport up there, and we have more business than we can handle. Probably only 10 to 15 percent of the planes here are owned by people who live really close.”
Collegedale officials have been effective in working with the Tennessee Department of Aeronautics to secure state grants for airport projects. That’s where $150,000 for the terminal renovation originated. Rawson said the next priority projects are doubling the parking spaces and upgrading security throughout the airport. Beyond that–maybe within the next two years–is the possibility of leveling off a hill that runs past the easternmost hangars and extending the taxiway the full length of the runway toward McDonald Road. That would create room for at least some new tiedowns if not hangars. But then the space runs out. Property beyond McDonald Road has been unavailable to the airport. There is an interesting development at that eastern end of the airfield, though–an 11-lot residential area in which the private homeowners will have their own hangars, on their property, but with access to the airstrip. About half of the lots have already been sold, and one already has a house on it, with the hangar under construction.
Also, Rawson said, there may be a possibility of securing some space at the west end of the airport specifically for the helicopter training–a “less congested” area–but he sees an even greater space need. “What we’re about tapped out on is ramp space,” he pointed out. “There’s a limit to what we can handle on a busy day.” As Zarski pointed out, “People will land here for a lot of reasons, like for a business meeting or a family trip or just to spend a day playing golf at the Honors Course, in nearby Ooltewah. And there are a lot of people who’ll come just to be here at the airport. There’s something going on here all the time.”
Story by Ronald Wayne
Photography by Kevin McKenzie