The story of corralling planes and VIPs from pasture to airport
By Ray Owen
Golf, equestrian sports and aviation have long and parallel histories in the Sandhills. Less than a decade after man first took to the sky, planes took off and landed in any open space that was that reasonably level. Pinehurst had an airfield, and while it was actually a cow pasture, there was a resident aeronautics teacher and stunt pilot, and a flight service luring travelers from across the nation. Then in 1927, Pinehurst Resort owner Leonard Tufts complained, “I think more of the cows than I do of airplanes. And the airplanes have got to go.”
Despite initial resistance, Tufts and his family joined others to open Knollwood Airport in 1929, a modest dirt runway located in Southern Pines that accommodated the small planes of the period. In the early years, numerous celebrities traveled to the region by air. Famed comedian Will Rogers flew in for polo matches and Amelia Earhart, the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, landed an experimental aircraft sponsored by Beech-Nut Chewing Gum.
At the start of the Great Depression, a short sightseeing trip over Knollwood cost $3, yet still people couldn’t afford to fly and the enterprise became in jeopardy. The county ultimately acquired the facility in 1935, and in the1940s the airport was leased to the U.S. Army Air Corps as an auxiliary airfield.
During World War II, thousands of pilots won their wings at Knollwood, and the airport played a significant role as the test site for performance readiness before the D-Day invasion. Known as the Knollwood Maneuver, the exercise began on December 7, 1943, and consisted of a U.S. Airborne “Blue Army” assault on an opposing “Red Army” in control of the airfield. More that 10,000 men took part in the war games, with 48 minor injuries and two fatalities.
In 1980, historic Knollwood was renamed the Moore County Airport, marking a new age of Sandhills flight. From its humble beginnings, the airport has grown into a major industry, contributing 305 local jobs and $17.33 million in direct economic benefits such as goods purchased and services consumed as of 2017. In total, the combined direct and indirect benefits of the airport’s operations added $71 million in economic impact each year.
The airport is publicly owned and operated by a local five-member governing body, called the Moore County Airport Authority, which acts as its board of directors. The facility has a 6,500-foot runway with 90 hangars, and offers aircraft maintenance services, a flight school with more than 50 students and a dozen aviation-related businesses. There are about 100 planes, and the airport handles over 6,000 take offs and landings annually.
Mike Jones lives in Southern Pines and serves on Airport Authority. “I’m a business guy, my factory is in Connecticut, and we make industrial cleaning chemicals, the kind that get used on Boeing jetliners. I use the airplane to get back and forth, and also to visit customers. With my particular airplane, I can get anywhere on the East Coast faster than the airlines. In fact, I leave here at 5:30 in the morning, and I’ll be one of the first ones in the office up in Hartford.”
“We found Pinehurst through golf,” Mike recalls. “My wife didn’t golf at that time. So, the first day she went out horseback riding, the second day she went shopping, and on the third day she brought a house – and we never went home.”
There’s an important element to the economic balance here, and according to Mike, “It’s a story worth highlighting. Most of the visitors to the Sandhills land at Raleigh, then they drive down here and stay at a local hotel. However, the chairman of the board doesn’t fly into Raleigh. Those key executives come directly to Pinehurst by air because their time is too valuable to waste changing planes. If this airport wasn’t here, the VIPs wouldn’t come, which means many of the golf outings would go someplace else.”
In addition to sustaining our tourist’s economy, the airport hosts numerous annual events, such as Festival D’Avion, a celebration of flight and freedom, featuring a unique collection of family-friendly special events and entertainment, honoring five branches of the military.
Since 1993, the Airport Authority has offered thousands of kids age 8-17 the opportunity to fly free of charge with volunteer pilots through their Young Eagles program. “This is one of the things the airport does perhaps better than anyplace in the country,” says Mike. “I’ve just touched the 700 flights mark introducing over 2000 kids to aviation. Through these events, young people have taken up flying, or gone into engineering or meteorology.”
Moore County native, Ron Maness, manages the airport. “For me, flying is a lifestyle. It’s been my whole life. I took my first airplane ride in 1955 or ’56, here at the Moore County Airport, when I was about 10 years old, sitting in my grandfather’s lap in a Cherokee 140. I can’t say the hook went real deep immediately, but I accomplished my vision of becoming a pilot through the ROTC group in Chapel Hill, through a program financed by the Air Force.”
“Vietnam was hot and heavy at the time and they needed pilots. I went into the formal pilot training and ended up spending 10 years as an Air Force fighter pilot. I exited and spent the rest of my career as a pilot and ended up with US Airways as a check pilot on the airbus there. Since that time, I’ve been actively engaged as a consultant. Now I’ve come full circle, back to the airport here. Aviation is the central focus of my life, not only as a career, it’s just a passion.”
Ron believes “flying is a special ability, and there’s a unique quality about it.” He explains, “Not everybody can do it and it’s a very exacting practice. One experiences a bit of an adrenaline charge getting a plane airborne and a sense of power navigating or landing safely. There is an element of freedom that few people outside of aviation ever experience – being in the air, for the most part, by yourself.”
“What you’ll see here at the airport is a social aspect to this whole thing. Pilots talk ‘airplane talk’, and it’s a very important aspect of their lives. There are those with small planes and others with jets, and the whole range in between them. But their one common passion is flying. Many of my customers are here every day, and we welcome their presence. I often interact with them to answer any questions and to learn how we might improve.”
“I serve the whole community, that’s my goal,” says Ron. “As a public resource, we want residents and their guests to visit the airport. We have an observation area for people to watch airplanes take off and land, and that’s important. There is also a putting green and we have putters and balls available for visitors. I sometimes see pilots on layovers out there practicing their putting skills.”
“Airplanes change us in a lot of different ways,” says Ron. “They expand our access to the world – to see people and make connections – and flying makes it so much fun getting there.”