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Wednesday February 8th

Horace Williams Airport may shut down. Here's a history of its impact at UNC.

A U.S. Army Curtiss plane on Martindale Field, which later became Horace Williams Airport. Taken in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Chapel Hill Historical Society.
Buy Photos A U.S. Army Curtiss plane on Martindale Field, which later became Horace Williams Airport. Taken in the 1930s. Photo courtesy of the Chapel Hill Historical Society.

When Carolina comes into conversation, most people begin to talk about either sports or academics. However, airplane enthusiasts always seem to talk about Horace Williams Airport.

Horace Williams Airport was pivotal in the shaping of both Chapel Hill and the U.S., but is now facing a shutdown. The airport is hoping to have all planes off the grounds by May 2018.

The Birth of Horace Williams Airport

When coming back from France after World War I, Charlie Lee Martindale moved to Chapel Hill to work. He began to construct buildings all across Chapel Hill, including everything from residential homes to campus buildings.

In 1928, Martindale purchased a 50-acre plot of land from then-UNC-Chapel Hill Professor Horace Williams. He called the plot Martindale Field, and the creation of an airfield soon took form. A landing area, administrative building and a wooden hangar were the first buildings to appear.

Martindale Field soon became known as Chapel Hill Airport and offered new excitement to the town. Citizens came from all over to watch weekend air shows and participate in flying lessons. In 1931, the U.S. Department of Commerce labeled Chapel Hill Airport as the second official airport in North Carolina.

Outbreak of War 

World War II began in 1939. At this time, UNC-CH was training roughly 30 civilian pilots at the airport. UNC-CH’s program was backed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. Through a partnership with Duke University, the two schools were approved by the Department of War for a larger CAA program. They also received funding from the Works Progress Administration to upgrade the airport.

Under the expansion project the majority of the land, 870 acres, was donated to the University by Williams after his death. Chapel Hill Airport, with some reluctance by Martindale, was sold to UNC-CH in 1940. These two plots of land were combined to create what is known as Horace Williams Airport today.

Horace Williams Airport was selected as one of five elite U.S. Navy Pre-Flight schools in 1942. The U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School at UNC trained over 18,000 cadets by the end of World War II, including former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush.

By the time Carolina’s CAA program ended in 1943, Horace Williams Airport had become the nation’s largest collegiate airport.

Repeated Calls for Closure

In 2002, UNC-CH announced that it was going to close Horace Williams Airport. However, this move was stalled by the North Carolina General Assembly. The assembly mandated that the airport had to stay open until at least 2005.

Three years later in 2005, the Board of Trustees brought back the conversation on closing the airport. They proceeded to pass a resolution in favor of closing the airport to clear the way for Carolina North, a satellite campus that would be on the airport's land. The resolution also stated that Medical Air Operations would be moved to Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The Area Health Education Centers, formerly known as Medical Air Operations, did not move to Raleigh-Durham International Airport until 2011.

Construction for Carolina North has not yet began and has been delayed multiple times.

The Beginning of the End

Horace Williams Airport has survived multiple closure attempts, but may soon have to close its gates. At the November 2017 meeting of the Board of Trustees, a resolution was passed to close the airport without any conditions related to the Carolina North timeline. Horace Williams Airport is expected to remove planes by this May.

Associate Vice Chancellor for Campus Enterprises Brad Ives said Carolina North plans have slowed, but the airport is still closing because it is too much of a financial burden. Losses are totaling over $1.2 million, and the runway is facing extensive repair.

“The University no longer operates any aviation operations at the Airport since we have moved our operations to Raleigh Durham Airport,” Ives said in a statement.

UNC’s Undergraduate Senate is hoping to prevent the closure of Horace Williams Airport and passed a resolution Feb. 13 in favor of the airport.

Speaker Pro Tempore Kennith Echeverria said when the concurrent resolution was passed, little debate occurred. He said the Undergraduate Senators understood the importance of the airport.

Specifically, the resolution points out that there are options for Horace Williams Airport to become profitable again. Potential solutions include lifting the tenant freeze to base more planes at the airport and capitalizing on a growing pilot shortage. Currently, the number of tenants is limited to less than one-third of the space Horace Williams has.

The resolution was sent to President of the UNC system Margaret Spellings, Chancellor Carol Folt and the University's Board of Trustees, among other campus and government leaders. Echeverria said he hopes “those who receive the letter view that student government now supports this initiative and that they should look at possibly keeping it open.”


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