Airport future still in doubt as Carolina North continues forward

RALEIGH – UNC-Chapel Hill officials have long considered using the Horace Williams Airport in Chapel Hill, located just north of the main campus, as the site for Carolina North, the controversial multi-use millennial campus that will feature research and residential components.

The problem with those plans has always been that the Horace Williams Airport is still in use by doctors attempting to provide care to many areas of the state where health care is not readily available. Medical Air Operations, which started in 1968, flies UNC-Chapel Hill physicians to one of the state’s nine Area Health Education Centers (AHECs) to perform medical services and offer continuing education courses.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials want to transfer Medical Air Operations out of Horace Williams Airport to Raleigh-Durham International (RDU) in Raleigh. A hangar would be built near the Department of Transportation’s hangar and would cost between $2 to $3 million, according to Dr. Thomas Bacon, who is the director of the North Carolina AHEC program. That does not include operational costs that, Bacon said, would be higher at RDU.

Physicians and pilots were critical of those plans during a June 14 hearing conducted by a joint meeting of the House Appropriation Subcommittees on Education and Health. They claim that moving Medical Air Operations to RDU would add time to already busy schedules for doctors and could hurt services rendered to patients.

Alan Fearing, chief pilot for Medical Air Operations, said the biggest drawback would be in additional times to be cleared for takeoff. On a clear day, a flight could be airborne in 5 minutes at Horace Williams Airport while it could take 10 to 20 minutes at RDU. Other time factors that could be considered would be driving to RDU, passing through security, and other clearance requirements that are not present at Horace Williams.

Some speakers said the additional time could be as much as 90 minutes for doctors if the move to RDU is completed. AHEC typically flies to Wilmington, Fayetteville, Asheville, Charlotte, Laurinburg, Lumberton, New Bern, Greenville, Rocky Mount, and Roanoke Rapids. In 2005-06, AHEC served 17,500 people, including critically ill children unable to travel to the North Carolina Children’s Hospital in Chapel Hill.

“A move to RDU would have a predictable and unfortunate attrition in patients and services,” Fearing said.

UNC-Chapel Hill officials, when pressed by legislators, said there was no way of knowing if a move to RDU would hurt services or cause an attrition among participating professors and physicians.

“Our plan is to move forward based on the decision of the Board of Trustees,” said Dr. Thomas Bacon, executive associate dean of the UNC School of Medicine and director of the North Carolina AHEC program. A resolution in support of closing Horace Williams Airport by the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees was presented to legislators.
Representatives from UNC-Chapel Hill were also pressed on if other locations were considered to host Carolina North. UNC-Chapel Hill owns the property that encompasses the Horace Williams Airport and that’s why it was considered, according to Carolina North Executive Director Dr. John Evans. Evans is also business professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Evans told legislators that UNC-Chapel Hill is maxed out at its main and south campus and that moving to the airport location would keep the three campuses within a two-mile radius of the main campus areas. He also said a fragment site proposal, away from UNC-Chapel Hill’s main area, was never considered. This was in response to questions by Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, and Rep. Cullie Tarleton, D-Watauga, on if UNC-CH officials considered other sites.

An ecological assessment report by Biohabitats, Inc., of Baltimore, that showed the airport property was the only area that could be developed on the Horace William property without harming the environment.

“The central driving idea is that the university already owns that land,” Evans said.

Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said UNC-Chapel Hill’s plan could meet the same fete as the Navy in trying to find a place for an outlying landing field in eastern North Carolina, which has been met with heavy opposition. He said it would be very difficult to find another space for an airport in Chapel Hill.

“We need to be very careful before we close down an existing [airport],” said Pate, who flew in the Air Force.