HWA - Fly or No Fly?

Graham Allison, in his classic, Essence of Decision, perfectly characterized the Horace Williams Airport situation when he wrote about governmental behavior: "No decision is made just once or for good." He also argued that "where you stand depends on where you sit."

I sit next to HWA and have been involved in this issue for over 10 years now. By way of review, here are some key HWA historical data points:

1940s - grass airport built and used for training Naval pilots during WWII

1950s - Estes Hills School built in flight path; HWA still dirt and very few daily flights

1960s - Chapel Hill Board of Alderman make HWA a non-conforming use UNC indicates that HWA would phase out

1963 - Phillips Middle School opens in flight path (still dirt)

1965 - Chapel Hill High School opens (still dirt)

- Chancellor Sharp writes that continued use of the airport is "undesirable and ...hazardous"

1968 - AHEC program begins

1971 - UNC paves HWA (3500 feet)

1989 - HWA extended to 4000 ft, now long enough to land turbo jets - School Board calls for closing HWA

- Chapel Hill Town Council passes resolution saying HWA is poorly located

1997 - UNC System President Spangler allows jets to land in spite of UNC-Town agreement to no allow jet use

- Chancellor Hooker establishes UNC-Town HWA Advisory Board

Well, after Chancellor Moeser arrived and kicked the Flying Club off HWA, there was a lot of discussion about closing HWA, safety issues, and AHEC's operations. Many in the community were surprised when the Chancellor announced that HWA would close in order to support building Carolina North. This decision generated legislative reaction and action, and it appeared that UNC's desire to build its Innovation Center would definitely mean that HWA would close and that AHEC would operate out of RDU.

BUT --- no decision seems to be final, even though the GA passed legislation to construct the necessary facilities at RDU and the Board of Governors is "on board" with the plan.

On May 27th, Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican has introduced a bill to keep HWA open. He believes that “The plain, simple fact is shutting down Horace Williams Airport is just a landgrab for Carolina to expand an office park.” In spite of the fact that UNC owns the land, I'm unsure how that becomes a land grab. He also calls for HWA to remain open until a replacement is built within 10 miles of the current HWA. Ten miles? He's serious, right? I suspect if that was in any way possible, it would have happened by now!

Today, the N&O stated that CN executive director Jack Evans says that UNC still plans to close HWA in order to build the Innovation Center. I'm not sure if the good senator really believes his bill has a fighting chance or not, but it does prove that Prof. Allison is right (again): no decision is made just once or for good, and where you stand does depends on where you sit.

Anyone taking bets on the future outcome?



"back in the day" chem-lab waste was buried

on HWA grounds. old Kenan contaminants.

bottles with no labels. let the excavaction begin.

I wish to state my emphatic support of Senator Apodaca's recent legislation to keep Horace Williams Airport open in Chapel Hill.

This sensible, community-minded and fiscally responsible legislation should be made law as soon as is practical.  The citizens of the entire State can not simply sit around while bureaucrats in one small town devalue OUR mutual State investment in medical services, research, and the bounty it returns to each of us, no matter where we live in North Carolina.  That is, plain and simply the case:  Horace Williams Airport is a State-wide treasure, which allows the sharing of a tremendous medical resource with ALL the State's residents.

This airport must NOT be a pawn in a shell game of selfish interests, played by short-sighted land developers situated in one community.  Instead, the citizens of the ENTIRE State must insist that THEIR rapid air access to UNC Hospitals and UNC medical school / AHEC resources be replaced, if necessary, and not eliminated.  Facilities at RDU are wholly unacceptable as a 'replacement' because the 24-mile one-way road trip to that facility can easily take an hour.

I live here in Chapel Hill, near the UNC Hospitals, have lived here since 1990, and I drive a round-trip to RDU every day.  I have been doing it for years.   NOBODY else can say, with the authority I command, how inefficient this is, and how unsuitable for medical purposes that site would be.

I am not a pilot, and I do not use the Horace Williams Airport myself.  I am simply a concerned citizen who knows what a valuable resource is when he sees it.  I can't think of any peer University that does not have ready access to a proximal general aviation airfield.  It is incomprehensible to me that the UNC Trustees have been so cavalier about squandering the 'gold nugget' asset that is Horace Williams Airport.

There is an excellent alternative site for a replacement airport; people just don't know about it.  This site is just south of Chapel Hill, and adjacent to an already-existing private airfield.  I am willing to share information about this alternative site to anyone willing to discuss it.

Before making my own comments, it's worth having the text of the bill: 

SECTION 1.  The Horace Williams Airport, in Orange County, which is owned by The University of North Carolina, shall not be closed until a new airport for service for the same geographical area is built within 10 nautical miles of the airport's current location, is open for service, and is certified by proper aviation authorities to allow incoming and outgoing flights.

SECTION 2.  The University of North Carolina shall not expend any further funds for planning, design, or materials for a hangar at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport to support AHEC medical flights. No appropriation shall be made that provides funds for operations of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Medical Air at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

For what it's worth, 10 nautical miles equals 11.5077945 statute miles.
In that case, please amend the distances in my comment below as needed re: the "10-mile radius."

Fred, as you know, I have always been unconvinced about the ability of the University (not to mention the town) to "fly in the face" of the general aviation lobby regarding HWA. Your history just skims the surface of the end runs and power-plays to keep it open, and I was struck by Sen. Apodaca's claim that he isn't optimistic about his bill's chances. He went to the trouble of filing it for some reason, and I doubt if mere protest was the motivation. I'd say it's just the opening volley of a larger full-court press, which will be supported in the public forum, and behind closed doors, by "friends" of general aviation and particularly HWA.

TALKING POINTS, PURPOSE OF AIRPORT: It's worth remembering their talking points, which always focus on implying that the airport is primarily for medical health care delivery -- with dramatic reference to saving lives -- and always assert what an asset to community/state it is.

Apodaca's and inventor6's statements both refer to the MedAir services as if they were the main use of the airport. As we know from more than one study, MedAir flights actually represent a minority of the flights in and out of HWA, and of those, only some are actually health related (some are commandeered for University business), and very, very few flights entail actually flying patients to Chapel Hill. (Remember that emergency transport is taken care of by helicopter services directly to the hospitals.)

However, every bill to keep HWA open has been carefully worded to make sure the airport will be available to all general aviation traffic, not just for University/MedAir use -- and Apodaca's is no exception (see Section 1 above). AOPA’s mission has always been to force airport owners to keep their airports open, regardless of the financial, administrative, ecological, or social burdens – never mind the owners’ own choice of what to do with their own land.

No surprise here, either.

THE 10-MILE RADIUS: The choice of 10-mile radius is more interesting. That circle scribes the larger southern half of Orange County, a swath of northern Chatham County, and a chunk of Durham county that’s largely developed. The Talbert & Bright study to identify (permanent) replacement airports for MedAir flights (http://research.unc.edu/cn/concept/Talbert_Bright_files/frame.htm) used a radius of 25 minutes’ travel-time, taking into better account the realities of ground travel and also providing a little more geographic flexibility.

The T&B study recommended RDU as the first choice alternate, with the runner up a site in far southwestern Orange County, close to the Alamance line, south of Rte. 54. RDU is 16 miles away; “Airport H” would apparently be right at the 10-mile mark. T&B chose RDU on the basis of costs to the University (and by extension, the taxpayers) and the needs of the MedAir flights. Obviously, T&B were not charged with worrying about convenience for general aviation (although they did include non-medical use of the MedAir planes); but they did take into account convenience of commuting from not just UNC-CH but other participants' locations.

A UNIVERSITY AIRPORT? If efforts to obscure the real reasons behind the fight keep the airport open -- by not building a hangar at RDU -- seem both cynical and self-serving, they also seem, at this point, unnecessary. There is an argument -- one with both pros (education, service, prestige, convenience) and cons (ever-increasing costs to the taxpayers, and security and liability issues) -- for a University to maintain an airport.

The main problem with HWA has been where it is.

I may be the only one who remembers this, but at one time (was it as much as 7 or 8 years ago?) amid one of the more serious confrontations between AOPA, UNC-CH, the GA, and the Town, pro-airport lobbyists were calling for immediate action to start planning a new airport, claiming that there was plenty of Federal money to do so, just for the asking. At that time, the argument was designed to delay closure of HWA until the new airport could be opened - and time frames of as little as 4 or 5 years were cited.

The more cynical of the pro-closure advocates, myself included, believed the stalling tactic was no more than that, intended mainly to keep the airport open until another, new, University administration and Board could be convinced to drop Carolina North plans and keep HWA open. And that itself may be part of the thinking behind actions such as Sen. Apodaca’s bill – the “landgrab” comment certainly suggests so.

In any case, at the time, it occurred to me that it is, indeed, strange that a state touted as "First in Flight" should not have a full-fledged aviation education program associated with at least one of the University campuses. (There is an aviation-engineering program, I believe, at Wilmington, but not a full department of aviation.) It struck me that the very wealthy AOPA lobbyists along with other like-minded organizations might well embark on helping to set-up just such a program in association with a new, state-of-the-art airport, located somewhere in the state other than in the middle of a town.

Although I doubted that quite as much Federal money was really as available as claimed, it seemed to me that some of the time and money spent trying to keep HWA open could certainly have been used better to pursue such a project.

Had they started back then, think what they might have now.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a licensed private pilot that has not used that license in 33 years. From the time of being a young boy, I have always had an interest in aviation started out building model airplanes and even u-control. Not being able to afford the flight time to be safe while raising a family I gave up flying private aircraft. Two years ago I took up building and flying (I mean crashing) RC model airplanes as a hobby. Therefore, I have always been interested in Horace Williams. I was sad that the flying club left Horace Williams and had been considering joining that club before other problems nixed that notion.

I do not know if this bill is right or not but general aviation ever since the early days of aviation has been part of this country. In Alaska, private aircraft are a major means of transportation. I guarantee you that not all pilots are rich and the AOPA is not just full of rich lobbyists who have gobs of money to throw around. If we would talking AARP instead of AOPA then you would be talking serious money. There are many pilots who eek their way through just barely managing to practice their love affair with aviation. Most small general aviation air fields exist from day to day never knowing if they are going to be alive next month.

Even if Horace Williams is in the wrong spot, I do believe it is advantageous to the community to have a general aviation airport within its borders and a reasonable distance from the University.

By the way, I am also acrophobic. I do not like to get on ladders. An acropobic pilot is an interesting combination of words.


I think what got the AOPA folks and other HWA supporters upset is why HWA is closing.  It wasn't the local oposition that has existed for years, the concerns over safety, the schools in the flight paths (right hand traffic pattern for runway 27, left hand traffic pattern for runway 9), or anything like those concerns.  It's about UNC-Chapel Hill growing and the economic advantages of building on the land where HWA currently sits.

So, that's why HWA is in the "wrong spot," and not because of any of the opposition in the community.  I think we need to keep this point straight.

I have to say that ever since I moved here many years ago I thought it was somewhat crazy that there was an airport in Chapel Hill. 

The bill says HW can't be closed until another airport is open within 10 nautical miles of HW, which someone pointed out converts to 11.5 statute miles.  When I bring up mapquest and use my fingers as measuring sticks it looks to me that the perimeter of RDU is 12-14 statute miles from the perimeter of HW.  Maybe we could amend the bill to include extending the official perimeter of RDU by a couple miles and then it'd be close enough to HW that HW could be closed even if the bill was passed.

While HW may not be in an appropriate place for a small general aviation airport due to having landing patterns over schools, what is wrong with having one in Chapel Hill or Orange County? Comparing RDU to HW is like comparing an ocean liner to a dingy. Large commercial airports are not the best places for relatively low traffic general aviation, and it would be crazy to have a commercial airport in Chapel Hill.

Last time I drove to RDU it was over 20 miles....

The reason I have a problem with an airport is there is a finite amount of land and we can't have everything and if you made a list of things we could have I'd put about a million things ahead of an airport, which goes unused by almost everyone.  That said, I realize "we" don't get to decide it because the land belongs to UNC.

People are always talking about how it'd be good if people drove less or maybe bused or biked to work and yet we have two golf courses and an airport within a couple miles of UNC while also having a lot of UNC employees living in northern Orange or Chatham or Durham or Cary or Morrrisvile or anywhere except close to UNC and nobody mentions it.

 About 10 years ago UNC completely renovated Finley Golf Course.  Couldn't they have instead put a lot of housing there, where UNC employees could live and have a short commute to work and then used the money from that to build three golf courses 10 miles out of town to accomodate the 5% of the people that actually golf?

It's easy to get swept up into the pro-con arguments about general aviation, about airport locations, and about HWA specifically, but if you think about it, the point of Fred's post and the pivotal issue in general is: who gets to decide?

Is it the University? Is it the legislature? Is it a host town? Voters, residents, taxpayers?

The land and the administration of it is the University's, but history has shown that, when it comes right down to it, the legislature will take the final word away from the University -- at least when we're talking specifically about HWA. And it has been the airport's role in the statewide AHEC MedFlight program that has given bill-writers special clout to rank keep-the-airport interests' priority over University wishes.

Note the last line of yesterday's N&O piece: "Apodaca said the airport is important for patient safety. He called the university's plans a 'land grab' for Carolina to expand an office park."

The reference to "patient safety" is, as I said before, a melodramatic red-herring misrepresentation. AHEC is for education and MedAir rarely gets involved in direct patient care.

The "land grab" comment, as others have pointed out, assumes it's not the University's land to begin with. Logically, you can't grab your own land.

However, what Apodaca and the four other "drafters" of the bill are doing is staking the legislature's claim to be the deciders.

If Apodaca et al are genuinely interested in pursuing a new airport elsewhere (including in Orange County if land can be found and agreements reached), fine, great -- although there will still be the question of who gets to make decisions once a site is settled on.

But there remains the disengenuous and ultimately obstructionist provision to forbid any construction at RDU. If the legislative deciders say that the University can't spend money on that project, the dominoes will fall to stop construction at CN, and the wedge to keep HWA open permanently will be in place.

If you have an interest in who uses HWA, go to:


 I think you have to register to use some features but without registering, you can still see arrivals and departures.  Also, be aware that an owner can block their plane from being included in the database.

Roll your cursor over the ident number and you will see ownership.  For example, N210CH, N212CH, N213CH, and N215CH will read "Medical Air, Inc.

To get more data on ownership, go to:


and enter the desired number.  N210CH shows Medical Air, Inc. is UNC.

This afternoon, a Cessna Skyhawk (single-piston) (C172/T) landed around 4pm.  The FAA shows it belongs to FLYCAROLINA LLC of Charlotte. Google tells you the company is in the air taxi business.

You can learn a lot if you have the time!

You can go back a ways on flightaware if you register (registering doesn't seem to create any spam, etc. and is free). Note that some pilots have their N-numbers blocked from reporting, so the stats there are always going to underestimate the general aviation traffic.

The Talbert & Bright report also has some stats on usage.

Fred, you made me curious about who's up there now, so I cast an eye at yesterday's arrivals: another Skyhawk registered to "Research Aviation and Mapping Science, LLC." Hmmm...... probably just stopping over on the way to research and map something somewhere else, wouldn't you guess?
Fred, I assume these are IFR flights. IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flights have to file flight plans. I am not sure how you would track those flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules).


The FlightAware Q&A explains that VFR is largely unreliable.
Losing the airport would be a big blow to Chapel Hill. Those private citizens that use the airport all signifcantly contribute to the tax base, and some of those people will undoubtedly no longer choose to live in a town without an airport.
Would HWA be allowed to open today in its current location under Federal guidelines about distance from key structures, etc etc?  


I read through as much as I could, and the answer to your specific question appears to be 'yes.' There aren't any technical reasons, such as hazards to air navigation that are not addressed properly, which would preclude the opening of this airport today. It also appears that the airport is well above minimum standards for ongoing operational safety (as they would apply to an existing facility). Deficiencies, if any, seem to be related to provisions for handicap access, and current standards for tie-down areas (where planes park). A new airport would have to do a lot to comply with these rules.

Official use policies (put in place by the owner) for this airport preclude jets except under tight conditions, parachuting, training flights, gliders, recreational flights ... there is a long list. While I'm no expert, comparing this list to that of other similar airports (I checked seven) pretty much says that this airport is VERY tightly restricted in uses. The rules don't come out and say so directly, but for all practical purposes, you effectively must be a highly trained pilot and be flying in only a small and very air-worthy type plane, and only during certain hours, to even come here.

I am glad I took the time to look all of this stuff up (and it's taken me the better part of two hours just to read all of it). From the looks of things, it appears that our local airport is an exceptionally well-run "tight ship" type operation.

Here are guidelines, developed by the Washington State Department of Transportation, that use accident-zone statistics and size of airport as basis for guidelines regarding land-use around airports. HWA's runway started at less than 4000', was extended to accommodate jet traffic, may have been changed again since then (perhaps with the threshhold length in these guidelines in mind).  Also a long document, but diagrams and charts toward the end tell the story:


Since 1991, I have served on many committees and attended many meetings that relate to the airport and to the development of Carolina North and the Horace Williams Tract.   From all the the information presented and discussions among the stakeholders, I concluded that the airport would eventually be closed, not because of schoolkids' safety or aviation-related issues, rather because its land is far too valuable to be used as a general-aviation airport.  That's what we're seeing finally, that its use as Carolina North is more valuable than its use as an airport, including the various customers that the airport serves.

Here, to stimulate some more discussion, are some personal opinions of  related smaller issues:

First, the 1990s attempts by neighborhood groups to close the airport were narrow and misguided attempts to save their neighborhoods from a small nuisance.  Since I conducted a small-time political career based on neighborhood protection, why do I feel this way?  Because if the airport were closed, it wouldn't be converted into a nature preserve; it would become a major commercial and/or office site whose impact would far, far exceed the impact of the airport, private jets and all.   After all the HWA has always generated negligible auto traffic.

Second, Chancellor Moeser, though he was looking for any excuse to evict the Chapel Hill Flying Club, was correct to do so.  What the club's leadership did in attempting to cover up a plane crash was, to quote David Brooks, stupidity on stilts, and worse, dangerous to the men and women of the CH Fire Department

Third, while AHEC is the obvious way to sell the concept of a Chapel Hill airport to state-wide interests and legislators, and while AHEC is an important organization for our state, its air services are a minor part.  How much impact on a state whose population is now 9 million could up to six flights per day, each carrying about two health educators have?   In this regard, the AHEC air services sells about an equal number of seats to university administrators and athletics personnel who simply use the service as a convenient airlines for pay.  Flicka, who got her PhD at Duke, once asked how Duke Univ Med Center could be so good without an airport?

Finally, please ignore the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.  They spin the value of HWA, cherry pick facts, and  s--t--r--e--t--c--h  every argument to its breaking point.  Why if HWA is closed, the town's economy will tank and health care in NC will suffer severe consequences.  Come on AOPA, we may live in NC, but we didn't just fall off the turnip truck.  I'm surprised that AOPA didn't describe the absolute necessity for wealthy CEOs to fly in for b-ball games.




Appreciate and agree with most everything you've said, Joe, except the "small nuisance" comment regarding neighborhood opposition.

At least two of my neighbors moved away soon after, and directly because of, the crash on the Phillips athletic field. It was a small experimental plane, and in that sense perhaps a "small nuisance" -- but what concerned them, and all of us, was the prospect that next time it wouldn't be so small, that children might be on the field -- which, by the way, is quite close to several houses -- and the scene might look considerably worse than that at the intersection of (then)Airport Rd. and Estes that engulfed the trees in flames.

Know that particular worry has had little part in any of the subsequent decisions about the tract and CN, but it's still somewhat unfair to belittle genuine concern (beyond annoyance at noise and curfew violations) on the part of residents.

I've been reading for years how concerned people are with their safety around HWA.  I've always thought it was curious that no one has ever expressed the same concern over the helicopter that seems noisier, and lands on the rooftop of a densely populated area several times a day.  I'm not personally losing sleep over either one, but I really don't understand the inconsistency.

Anonymous, do you really think you have an analogy here?  Are you proposing that the MedEvac helicopter land elsewhere? 

Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.