Albany has history up in the air

In this photo posted to an RAF message board by a member known only as "Reg," a line of training aircraft sit on the flight line at Albany airport in 1942. Reg was one of hundreds of foreign pilots who trained in Albany throughout World War II.

In this photo posted to an RAF message board by a member known only as "Reg," a line of training aircraft sit on the flight line at Albany airport in 1942. Reg was one of hundreds of foreign pilots who trained in Albany throughout World War II.

ALBANY -- In 1942, a young British airman assigned to the Royal Air Force traveled with several hundred other British and Canadian flyers from Toronto to Albany, hoping to earn the right to take to the skies over Europe and repel the Nazi push across the continent.

At that time, Albany's municipal airfield was home to a civilian school that trained RAF and French pilots in order to get them into combat as quickly as possible.

"We learned how to fly and we learned the hard way," the pilot, known only as "Reg," posted on an RAF message board about his experience in Albany.

Now 89 and living in Dover, England, Reg's post on his time training in Albany is candid and revealing, offering a glimpse into a historical time in the Albany airport's past from a perspective few have had the opportunity to experience.

"General (Henry) Arnold ... had made it quite clear that we would follow the very tough itinerary prescribed for the U.S. Army Air Corps, as the U.S. Air Force was then known, and that standards would, in no way, be relaxed despite the crying need for pilots in the U.K.," he writes.

"We got the full peacetime training comprising 200 hours on three different types of aircraft at a time when some unlucky people were going straight on to Hurricanes and Spitfires with some 20 hours on Tiger Moths in their log books! I have forgotten the times that I have said that I am still here today because of that training (and a lot ... I mean a LOT of luck) and I am eternally grateful for it," he writes.

Reg was one of hundreds of foreign cadets who earned their wings in Albany during the war at an airport that is now vastly different than the "Army Air Field Albany" that he once knew.

Now poised to build a multimillion-dollar passenger air terminal, the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport has become the state's second-largest cargo airport behind only Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, and is seeing its corporate and recreational use slowly start to increase following a bitter recession that has strangled commercial air travel.

The airport's beginning dates back to 1928, when Albany City Commissioners and the Dougherty County Commissioners of Roads and Revenues -- as they were known at the time -- entered into a series of agreements to purchase and lease land off Newton Road where the airport now sits.

The first document that appears to spell out the creation of a city-operated airport was signed by city and county officials June 8, 1928.

It was then that a contract between the city and county first allowed the city to lease with the option to buy the land located west of Slappey Boulevard for $50 per year until June 1, 1933, which is when the contract was extended.

In November 1938, the city agreed to enter into an agreement with the Works Progress Administration "for airport and landing area improvements," followed two years later by agreement with Harold S. Darr to create an aviation training facility on the premises.

It was Darr who created Darr Aero Tech, the civilian flight training school that would end up educating Reg and scores like him on the ins and outs of air combat.

Darr himself is reported to have put $400,000 into building hangars and support structures for his school and was reported at the time to have started the U.S. Army's first construction project in Georgia built in response to aggressions in Europe as the U.S. ramped up for war.

Just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Darr sold his school to a defense plant that renamed it Albany Army Airfield. The school eventually closed in 1944.

In 1945, control of the airport was returned to the city of Albany, and Eastern Airlines resumed mail service and began offering commercial passenger service out of a very simply built Albany terminal.

Challenges of passenger travel

In the post-war years, the airport continued to grow and began offering commercial passenger services through Eastern Airlines.

Eastern, whose president and CEO, WWI Flying Ace Eddie Rickenbacker, was familiar with both Turner Field and the Darr Aero Tech school, began passenger service following the war

Runways were improved and terminals built.

In the late 1950s, the city completed construction of its current passenger terminal on the site, which it dedicated to former Albany Mayor William McAfee.

McAfee died in office during his second term in office when his plane crashed in 1958, killing him and two others. Just prior to the flight, McAfee and the commission had secured an appropriation to expand commercial air travel at the airport.

Civilian air travel would continue exclusively at the airport into the 1970s -- a period that numbers suggest was the golden age of Albany passenger air travel -- when the Albany City Commission faced a tough decision.

According to official meeting minutes, the commission considered moving all municipal airport operations to Turner Field in the late 1970s when the federal government ceased operations at the facility, which had been both an Air Force base and Naval air station.

Instead, the commission opted to work with state and federal authorities to repurpose and redevelop the area for manufacturing and private industrial use and keep airport operations where they were.

It would be a decision that would haunt Albany and Mayor James Gray long after the die had been cast, with many still wondering what economic opportunities may have come out of converting the base, and what was the world's longest runway at the time, to Albany's commercial air hub.

"I've heard about the controversy, and I honestly don't think it would have had that big of an impact," current Southwest Georgia Regional Airport Director Yvette Aehle said. "There were studies done, I'm sure, that looked at the mechanics of such a change ... how much it would cost to rehab the military airfields and proximity to highways and things like that."

Aehle said that what really hurt commercial air travel and impacted the airport the most in the latter half of the 20th century was the deregulation of the airline industry by the federal government.

"I can remember as a little girl in the '70s that the airport was a big thing," Aehle said. "But after deregulation, the airlines cut services and started really watching their routes. ... Airlines like Eastern held on as long as they could, but even they went under eventually."

Before deregulation, Aehle says airport flight records show that the airport would routinely fly 70,000 or more passengers in and out of Albany each year.

Today, airport officials are lucky to see half that number.

"Albany hasn't really grown, in large part, due to deregulation," Aehle said.

Looking ahead

Today, the airport stands on the cusp of obtaining millions of dollars in new developments that will carry it into a new age of air travel.

This week, airport officials officially broke ground on the site of a new multimillion-dollar airport passenger terminal that will replace the aging McAfee terminal.

Once that new building is erected, the final phase of airport improvements will include improvements to parking, landscaping and drainage, as well as construction of a smaller terminal for operations of the airport's fixed-based operator.

Aehle said that the new terminal project comes after nearly seven years of work on improving runways, signage, lights and electronics.

"Before we could even consider getting any funding for a terminal, we had to improve all of the stuff on the runway side of it," she said. "So six and a half years later, we're finally there."

And while the Federal Aviation Administration has already told Albany officials to back their noses from the federal government trough for a spell following terminal construction, Aehle said that long-range plans are to extend the airport's longest runway to 8,000 feet to allow for bigger cargo planes to come into Albany.

"We'd like to be able to reach out to UPS and offer Albany as a spot where they could bring the bigger jets," she said. "But to do that, we've got to extend the runway."

And it's not as easy as pouring another 1,400 feet of concrete.

Aehle said the vacant land at the ends of the runways vary in elevation. Tons and tons of fill dirt and gravel would have to be brought in to level the surface, and the runway would have to be engineered in a way to accommodate the slope.