Sunday, October 27, 2013

Foothills Regional (KMRN), Morganton, North Carolina: Leaders fly airport in new direction

In June 2012, investigators with the Federal Bureau of Investigation raided Foothills Regional Airport.

Three men with the airport have since pleaded guilty to charges.

On Aug. 21, Randy Hullette pleaded guilty to embezzlement and witness tampering. On Sept. 24, 2012, Alex Nelson pleaded guilty to public corruption conspiracy, embezzlement and money laundering, and Bradley Atkins pleaded guilty to public corruption conspiracy and embezzlement. All three men are awaiting sentencing.

From the wreckage and damage these three men caused, Foothills is now turning the corner on the past and making strides toward a brighter future.

Allen VanNoppen, a pilot who has returned his planes to Foothills from the Hickory airport, said there has been a vast improvement at Foothills.

“It has transitioned from an environment where it was temporarily very awkward for regular customers and pilots,” VanNoppen said. “It was uncomfortable, frankly. It has transitioned into an environment where the pilots again feel safe, feel confident, feel welcomed, feel appreciated. It’s a much more professional and relaxed environment.”

That wasn’t the case two years ago “when it was a much more sort of controlled environment, and controlled in somewhat of a negative way.”

Pilots now feel their concerns are listened to, and that management is seeking input from them, VanNoppen said. VanNoppen has two planes: A single-engine fixed-wing Cessna and a Piper.

“The concern was at that time, that, as pilots, we really didn’t feel as safe and confident as we really need to feel,” VanNoppen said. “The thing about aviation, there is an enormous amount of trust that takes place because it is literally a life-and-death sort of relationship.”

If pilots have doubts about whether their planes are being managed, serviced or stored safely, there is little he or she can do once in the air.

“There was a lack of confidence and trust,” VanNoppen said. “The concerns were never addressed, so they went to Hickory.”

VanNoppen is now happy with the direction Foothills is headed.

“Oh, I think it’s certainly turned the corner. I think it is once again a very attractive destination for aviators. I think they are once again welcoming the community out to the airport for fly-ins and things like that,” VanNoppen said. “I suspect that before, it was a selective invitation to come to public events. It’s a community amenity. Nobody owns it. The governments own it, so the taxpayers own it.”

Regarding the FBI raid on Foothills, VanNoppen said he wasn’t shocked that it happened.

“I was not shocked that something occurred, that law enforcement got involved,” VanNoppen said. “What was interesting to me was the sort of ferociousness and velocity and magnitude of the investigation. I think that there were some of us out there that clearly felt things were being done improperly, and it was just a matter of time before people got caught. But the scope of the law enforcement action was impressive.”

Brent Brinkley, the Foothills Regional Airport administrator, agrees with VanNoppen’s assessment.

“We’ve made a lot changes. As far as financially, we’re doing very well,” Brinkley said. “We’ve made some big leaps in the last year.”

Brinkley feels the airport has turned the corner and is on its way to being healthy and viable again.

“Yeah, I do,” Brinkley said. “Our financial reporting is done in much more detail now.”

Financial Officer Danny Gilbert is the airport’s financial officer. Gilbert also serves as the Assistant City Manager of Lenoir, Brinkley said. Gilbert is over the city’s finances and human resources department.

“He’s played a big role in helping us getting our financial reports in order,” Brinkley said.

Regarding improvements, Foothills has hired the engineering firm of Talbert, Bright and Ellington, an airport engineering firm based out of Charlotte.

“And they’re going to be helping us with our 20-year plan for the airport. We’re looking to get a parallel taxiway … a full parallel. Right now we’ve got a partial,” Brinkley said. “That will increase the safety of everybody coming in and out.”

Brinkley also said the airport is hoping to lengthen and widen the runway, and get a new terminal building.

The engineering company eventually will provide cost figures for these potential projects.

Most of the grants from the state and federal government pay for 90 percent of projects and require only a 10 percent local match, Brinkley said.

The cities of Morganton and Lenoir, along with Burke and Caldwell counties contribute money to Foothills Regional Airport. Because four government entities are involved, each only has to pay 2.5 percent each, Roberts said.

Foothills Regional Airport is quite the economic driver for the region, Brinkley said.

“The North Carolina DOT (Department of Transportation) did a study last year … I think it was like $3.27 million dollars worth of local economic impact,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley thinks that number will grow over time.

The airport has 531 acres available for industrial use. The land would be prime real estate for any company wanting to build close to the airport and use its transport services, Brinkley said.

“We’ll be working with the local EDCs (Economic Development Commissions) on this,” Brinkley said.

Foothills Board Chairman Bruce Roberts is happy about the direction Foothills is going in.

“I feel like we’re going in a good direction,” Roberts said. “We have a new company working for us to help us to secure some grants.”

The first project Talbert, Bright and Ellington is tackling for Foothills is “an assessment as to what the airport needs,” Roberts said.

“Our airport serves, really, as the face for economic development for some companies that are coming in that are looking to use the air services that we have. We also play a role in satisfying the needs of the local community as far as the private pilots and the commercial pilots that come in and out of that airport,” Roberts said. “We are used by some folks that traverse between here and their second home, which may be in the mountains.

“It’s a balance you have to strive with all those folks and proceed in the best (way) that you think you can. We’ve made some headway with opening the new hangers at the airport, getting those finished up. The customer service of the line staff is really good.”

The engineering firm also is helping Foothills assess “what does the state want and what are they willing to fund,” Roberts said.

The state has a ranked system regarding “what they want us to have,” Roberts said. “We’re trying to work within that system to maximize the taxpayers’ money to make it go as far as it can.”


National Naval Aviation Museum: X-47B unmanned aircraft now on display

Pensacola, Fla. –As part of the National Naval Aviation Museum’s 50th anniversary, the Museum is proud to present the Navy’s latest in aerospace technology, a full-scale mock-up of Northrop Grumman’s X-47B unmanned combat air system.  The X-47B was originally scheduled to be part of the Museum’s 50th anniversary which was postponed due to the government shutdown.

“The National Naval Aviation Museum has a powerful mission – to preserve and display Naval Aviation history,” said Carl Johnson, vice president and program manager of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) program at Northrop Grumman. “Our company has long dedicated itself to designing and building aircraft that transform Naval Aviation – from the famous 'Cat' family of aircraft in World War II, through the Cold War era Intruder, Hawkeye and Tomcat designs, to today's unmanned Triton, Fire Scout and X-47B UCAS demonstrator aircraft – and we are grateful to the museum for their continued commitment to this rich history.”

"Collectively, the museum's aircraft collection represents the amazing technological journey that has occurred in naval aviation for more than 100 years," said CAPT Robert Rasmussen, USN (Ret.), the director of the National Naval Aviation Museum.  "This X-47B mock-up represents one of the latest chapters in aircraft development and will give visitors the opportunity to contrast unmanned platforms of today with the Navy's first unmanned vehicle to be employed in combat, the sole surviving example of the World War II TDR drone also on display in the museum."

The National Naval Aviation Museum features FREE admission. For more information on events, exhibits and attractions at the Museum, visit or call (850) 453-2389 or (800) 327-5002.

About the National Naval Aviation Museum

The National Naval Aviation Museum features nearly 350,000 square feet of displays and is one of the world’s largest aviation museums. Located aboard Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida, the facility boasts more than 150 beautifully restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard aviation, and is Florida’s Gulf Coast #1 attraction on Trip Advisor. Be sure to visit the Museum’s new expansion, Hangar Bay One, displaying aircraft of the post- WWII era including Marine One and the Apollo 17 lunar module replica. Among the countless things to touch, see and experience are thrilling 3D and HD flight simulators, amazing exhibits, as well as the drama and power of the IMAX® giant screen theater. The Cubi Bar CafĂ© offers a unique dining experience, and the Flight Deck Store is the perfect place to find a memento of the spirit of Naval Aviation. Museum admission is FREE and open to the public. The National Naval Aviation Museum is open from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily. For more information, visit


SafeLaunch: Kids in Santa Maria paint Cessna airplane to raise awareness about addiction

There are a lot of small, privately owned planes on the Central Coast, but there's one that stands out a little bit more than the rest. 

On Saturday, a group of local young artists met up at the Santa Maria Airport to paint a 2000 Cessna 182R.

It's all because of an organization called SafeLaunch. They're trying to raise awareness about addiction through art. They recruited kids from the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Maria for Saturday's painting. Throughout the day, the group learned about addiction and how to stay drug and alcohol free, then they expressed what they learned by painting about it.

"After we fly it away with the paint on there, and they can see their message fly, we'll wash it off, and then we'll go to another community where we'll invite other people to come do the same thing," said Janet Rowse, the co-founder of SafeLaunch.

The plane is mostly used in the Tri-County area, but SafeLaunch plans to take it to Riverside and Palo Alto before bringing it back to the Central Coast. 

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