Sylacauga Airport celebrates 50th anniversary
by Mark Ledbetter
Mar 15, 2013 | 3859 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
SYLACAUGA — The city’s “gateway to the world,” Lee Merkel Field, will celebrate 50 years of aviation March 23 with a celebrating featuring special displays and family fun.

Dedicated by Gov. John Patterson in 1962, the airport has experienced several improvements that have made it valuable not only to Sylacauga but Shelby, Coosa, Clay, Talladega, and Tallapoosa counties, as well as Childersburg, Chelsea, Rockford, and Clanton.

Aviation history in Sylacauga includes pilots using the Hightower Farm and a field near the Brickyard area shortly after World War I.

The first recognized airfield owned by Fred Hagan and George Gothard was the Hagan-Gothard Field just off of Quarry Road which operated in the late 1930s and through the 1940s before the Sylavon airport was built on property near the present Merkel Field by Ed Howard and Dr. John Pruitt. From the air some of the old block hangers can be seen in the woods south of the airfield.

Aviation enthusiast and pilot Theron Kelley said the Hagan-Gothard field was organized for men to take advantage of the GI Bill and learn to fly.

Instrumental in the development of the airfield was a group known as the “Flying Breakfast Group.” A few of the members of this group were Gothard, Hagan, Fred Hagan, Harmon Mims, Ed Bentley, Art Campbell, Ed Howard, Joe Duck, Ralph Hallmark, H.C. Gambrell, Kelley, and others.

Sylacauga Airport Board Chairman Tommy Dobson said the group received its name because they would fly to various destinations, meet and have breakfast at local restaurants in the area to which they flew.

Dobson said he can remember when the landing strip was first built for several years the runway was dirt. The runway was later paved in the 1950s and Nov. 4, 1962, Patterson dedicated the airfield.

Since 1962 the airport has been operated by several people, including Bob Smith, Ann Hardy, Ray Pace, Hank Hendricks, Claude House, Terry Barnett, Bunk Hagan, Wayne Watts, and Paul Williamson.

Present operator is Ray Lett, who moved to Sylacauga in 1989, took over as operator in 1995. Lett brought with him skilled aviation mechanics and restoration skills that created a name throughout the southeast.

“He is an artesian,” Dobson said, “one of the best in the country.”

Lett said he loves to build things, especially with motors. He started as an auto mechanic in a body shop.

“I put a motor on my bicycle at age 14,” Lett said.

Lett said aviation became a hobby in the 1970s and he got into aviation custom work. He spent time building airplanes at home “piece by piece.” A plane he built in 1973 still flies and sits in hanger at the Sylacauga airport.

The airport has had several updates since opening in 1962.

In the 1970s Kimberly Clark needed to access to the southeast and extended the length of the runway to 4,200 feet.

In 1983 Sylacauga Mayor Gene Stewart appointed the airport board, which took over the development of the airport.

The board was responsible for developing a master plan and charted a course using federal grants to lengthen the runway, add to the taxiing area, relocate the apron, move facilities to their present location, relocate fueling facilities and established a helicopter pad.

The present fixed-base operating building was built in the early 1990s. Also hangers have been added, apron area extended, fuel facilities built.

One of the more recent additions has been the establishment of Air Methods which provides LifeSaver services.

LifeSaver pilot Marc Gann said their first patient was flown Jan 4, 2008.

The Sylacauga Life Saver has the largest call volume in the state averaging 38 flights per month. The primary service area is 75 miles, although service is provided outside that perimeter. They serve four hospitals.

Gann said their location is strategic not only for Sylacauga but throughout Alabama.

“Because of where we sit Merkel is centrally located and there is no place that can’t be touched,” Gann said. “We’ve flown from Montgomery to Atlanta, Birmingham to Mobile.”

“We have been treated so well by Sylacauga and surrounding communities,” Gann said.

The Sylacauga Municipal Airport is a city-owned public-use airport located west of the central business district of the city. “This strip of asphalt is a link to the rest of the world,” Dobson said, “and could be a huge economic boost for our area.”

In celebration of its 50th year of operation plans include and “Early Bird FAA Safety Seminar for pilots at 9:30 a.m.; a Remote Control Aerobatic Display with representatives from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi at 1 p.m.

The Gliders from Central Alabama Soaring Association will be present and there will be displays by vintage aircraft, LifeSaver Helicopter, food vendors Sylacauga High School Band Boosters, tractors and funny cars.

The celebration begins at 10:30 a.m. March 23, and ends at 4 p.m.

“We’re hoping to have a lot of folks attend,” Dobson said. “They can fly in, drive in, or walk in to help us celebrate 50 years of aviation at this airport.”

Contact Mark Ledbetter at mledbetter@dailyhome.com