Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Darwin Simpson retiring from Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport (KSPA)



Darwin Simpson’s fascination with aircraft began as a child, fashioning model planes out of small sticks.

Simpson, now 74, has been flying airplanes for 53 years, including the one he keeps in a hangar at the Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport.

Nearly nine years ago, the retired U.S. Army general and former chemical company executive was approached about serving as the airport’s director.

His answer was simple – yes, because there wasn’t anyone else willing to improve it.

“I knew a lot about flying, and I knew a lot about government bureaucracy from my experience in the military, but I had really never run an airport,” he said. “I was sent to the airport to fix it.”

Simpson agreed to lead the airport for $1 annually in 2009.

At the end of this month, Simpson will retire from the post where he has worked tirelessly on projects to grow the airport as an economic asset in the city of Spartanburg.

Opened in 1927, the downtown airport was the first airport in South Carolina. Today, nearly 90 percent of airport operations relate to business, with about 10 percent relating to recreational flying, Simpson said.

As a general aviation airport, the downtown site caters to corporate jets, emergency medical transports, organ transplant program flights and cargo and military aircraft. The airport also assists with traffic watch, law enforcement operations, search-and-rescue missions and wildlife and forestry monitoring.

“I cannot emphasize enough how big of an economic machine that this airport is,” Simpson said.

When Simpson took on the role of airport director, there hadn’t been much investment or improvement of the site for about 50 years, he said.

Knowing it would be hard to find another location for a downtown airport and a large task to build the infrastructure from scratch, Simpson set his eyes on projects that would breathe new life into the facility. To date, he’s taken on around 80 projects there.

The largest airport project to date is the runway expansion that launched in March 2016. That project also includes resurfacing the existing runway and upgrading airport navigational and lighting systems.

Simpson said he was able to secure around $35 million from the Federal Aviation Administration for the project.

“It’s been more than 35 years since that runway was resurfaced. Landing here, the runway is pretty rough and has a lot of bumps in it,” he said. “When the runway extension and resurfacing is complete, we will have one of the finest general aviation runways of any airport in the country.”

Other highlights during his tenure as director include renovating the airport terminal building.

Without a single cent to fund the building’s renovations, Simpson said he worked closely with city leaders to secure money for the improvements, which totaled around $5 million and were finished in late 2011.

But Simpson isn’t one to take all the credit.

“There were a lot of community leaders, a lot of people at the city, consultant firms, architects and a host of people and organizations that really helped in the resurrection of the airport,” he said. “The city has a lot of skin in the game as far as supporting the airport.”

Spartanburg City Manager Ed Memmott said during Simpson’s time as airport director, he has selflessly served the community and set a public asset with unrealized potential on a steady course of improvement.

“The Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport has been transformed into one of Spartanburg’s key economic development engines under his leadership,” Memmott said. “The expanded runway and safety zones now under construction will serve larger aircraft and will significantly broaden the airport’s impact.”

Spartanburg Mayor Junie White called Simpson a tremendous leader and someone the city will miss working at the airport.

“Darwin has been a real push down at the airport and made a lot of things happen. He took charge and he’s done a terrific job,” White said. “You hate to see people like him retire; he’s served this community well.”

Looking ahead, Simpson said the biggest obstacle the airport faces is having enough space to store aircraft.

There are more than 40 people on the waiting list for a T-hangar (a hangar for smaller aircraft), and there’s a demand for community hangars to accommodate larger aircraft, he said.

“There are all these people that want to bring their aircraft to Spartanburg and base them here, but we don’t have any hangars here to put them in,” Simpson said. “If that little piece of the puzzle is completed, then the economic impact for the city and county is really going to be tremendous.”

Simpson said it’s been an interesting journey as airport director and that he’s ready to hand over the reins to a new leader.

“Management, after a while, no matter how good you are, you often get stale or locked in to certain ways, and I think it’s healthy to keep bringing in new blood,” he said. “New people and younger people have ideas and are usually pretty productive.”

As for Simpson’s retirement plans, he’ll be working on his golf game and still be a familiar face at the downtown airport when he wants to hop in his plane and go for a flight. He also said he intends to stay active in other community projects.

“Darwin Simpson is a public servant in a true sense of the word. He’s served our city well for several years,” said Spartanburg City Councilman Sterling Anderson, who is a close friend of Simpson’s and who represents the district where the airport is located. “He’s laid the foundation for the future of Spartanburg. His influence and wisdom are unmatched and unparalleled by anyone, and we’re so grateful for his service to the city.”

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