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Regional Flight: Upgrade means a bigger pot of money

Buzz Sawyer allows that it may be easier for a plane in a storm to find the Demopolis Municipal Airport than it is for many local residents.

That’s because the airport is equipped with a radio beacon for planes to home in on during bad weather. River City citizens looking for the airport must keep a sharp eye out for the modest sign indicating the airport’s location on the outskirts of town — way, way on the outskirts of town — just off U.S. Highway 80 West.

“A lot of folks don’t even know there’s an airport out here,” shrugs Sawyer, who acts as fixed-base operator and airport manager.

That may be about to change.

The Alabama Aeronautics Bureau recently upgraded Demopolis from a general aviation facility to a regional airport. While it may be business as usual for the time being, the designation portends some significant changes down the road.

According to Sawyer, the state takes numerous elements into consideration when designating a regional airport — such as location, facilities and economic impact to the surrounding area.

“We have adequate facilities and adequate runway to handle any general aviation aircraft, even jets,” Sawyer says proudly.

Such was not always the case.

When Sawyer came to Demopolis in 1987, he found the airport in much the same shape as one of those “fixer-uppers” listed in the real estate classifieds. With the support of Mayor Austin Caldwell and the Demopolis City Council, the former Air Force tactical fighter wing commander and veteran of three Vietnam tours set about the tedious — and expensive — process of getting things shipshape.

“We just about started from scratch,” recalls Sawyer. “My first step was to publish a series of five-year plans. We gradually accomplished one phase of upgrades and then another.”

The runway lighting was improved and the runway itself resurfaced. Just recently the taxiway was also resurfaced. “Every square foot of useable airport surface has been resurfaced since I’ve been here,” Sawyer notes.

Just as importantly, the airport’s instrument recovery procedures have been upgraded. The airport now boasts a radio beacon, a global positioning satellite signal and published approaches. The latter allows planes to land even when fog or low-lying clouds limit visibility.

“If you didn’t have that,” Sawyer says, “you couldn’t get down.”

And while the result may not be all that fancy when compared to the facilities available at a larger metropolitan airport, Sawyer declares the Demopolis airport to be at “an acceptable — a very acceptable — stage for a small town.”

“We can fuel and turn around just about any private, general aviation jet aircraft,” he says.

Perhaps even more importantly, the regional airport designation qualifies Demopolis for a number of federal airport improvement programs covering such things as land acquisition, hangar construction, lighting and runway widening.

“With the regional airport designation you’re in a position to get more federal financial assistance,” Sawyer says. “That’s important because airports cost money.”

He estimates the airport currently services an average of 25 planes a week that are not based here and pumps around 4,000 gallons a month of aviation fuel.

Occasionally, one of those visiting planes carries a VIP. “Most of the governors have flown in here at one time or another,” drawls Sawyer. “And (NASCAR driver) Tony Stewart likes to come down here to hunt and fish. But I guess the governors are more important that Tony Stewart, aren’t they?”

The facility offers limited maintenance, with more extensive maintenance available on call.

Sawyer, who flew F-4 Phantoms in the Air Force, is also available as a flight instructor.

“I like the jets,” Sawyer says. “I like to go fast.”