Hollis hopes Natchez airport can live up to its potential

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 24, 2002

Claiborne Hollis remembers the day the Natchez-Adams County Airport opened. When he taxied his plane out on the new, flawless runway, the airport possessed limitless potential; it was the key to Natchez’s future growth.

More than 50 years later, Hollis stood in the center of that same runway. He could stand there as long as he wanted – traffic is pretty low these days.

He gestured toward one of the airport’s three runways, one that has been closed for years. “I told Billy Simmons we closed the wrong runway,” Hollis said. Planes using that runway would approach and leave directly over the city of Natchez, which is, in part, why it was closed in the first place. “Now people don’t even know we’re still out here.”

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That is the main problem facing Hollis and the five other members of the airport commission – few people take advantage of the airport, he said. But that problem has persisted since its construction during World War II.

Originally built by the U.S. government as a war-time emergency landing field, the government gave the airport to the county and city after the war. The field and terminal were named after T.M. Hardy Jr. and V.M. Anders, the first two Air Force pilots from the area lost in action during the war. At the time, Billy Simmons was teaching flying lessons at the Joseph Sharpe airport, which was located behind where Natchez High School is now. Simmons moved his operation to the new airfield and soon became its manager, a post he held for 41 years.

For the majority of those years, the airport tried desperately to provide air service to Natchez through a variety of airlines. But just to break even, most small airlines need 600 boardings a month, or 20 passengers a day. Most airlines averaged three boardings a day in Natchez.

“Part of it is that people don’t like to ride small airplanes,” Hollis said. Although the Natchez-Adams Airport can accommodate airplanes as big as a 727, most small airlines use much smaller planes that make some people nervous, he said. “Which doesn’t make sense. The smaller ones are probably safer than the big ones.”

Most recently, in the late 1990s, Lone Star Airlines wished to extend its current line from Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, to Natchez. A six-month trial period was agreed upon.

Lone Star lost $30,000 a month and cut air service to the airport after two months and nine days.

Hollis said the hop to Dallas may have deterred some people. “Since the air service from Natchez was cancelled, people got into the habit of leaving from Jackson and Baton Rouge,” he said. “People don’t want to go to Dallas to get to New York.”

The commission hasn’t given up on the idea of air service in Natchez, Hollis said, but getting it established won’t be easy. “Air service is always a goal,” he said, “but most airlines are going to want some kind of guarantee on boardings. With a guarantee, someone has to pay, and the commission doesn’t have that kind of money.”

The airport generates some funds through a military fuel contract and sells timber off airport land for capital to be used as matching funds for grants.

But two things will be needed for the airport to really take off, Hollis said – industry and interest.

When Hollis retired from the aeronautics industry in 1984, he tried to use his contacts to bring an industrial facility to the Natchez-Adams County airport. “We have two runways and 100 acres that could be used for a facility.”

One company showed interest in the site, Hollis said, but did not receive the military contract that would have necessitated a new facility.

“I’ve still got all the information, and it’s all still accurate. I’ve approached other industries, but we’re still looking,” he said. “To sum up, the Natchez-Adams County Airport is ready, willing and able to support and industry.”

But industries require skilled employees, which is where more community interest in flying comes in.

“There doesn’t seem to be a lot of interest among young people these days,” Hollis said. “The space program has almost become pass.”

Most people are unaware that Delta State University has one of the best aviation schools in the South, he said. “I’d like to see something like that at Co-Lin,” he said. “There are a bunch of jobs in aviation. Those jobs may not be here, but if they were taught here, it might help bring in industry. It could be a case of the chicken and the egg. One might lead to the other.”