Raleigh Exec Prepares for the Future: Expanding for Everyone

ABOUT THE SERIES: We’re taking a look over several weeks at the past, present and future of Raleigh Exec. The first article in this series looked at how Raleigh Exec has been taking off, expanding significantly in recent years to meet its essential and growing role in the Triangle region. The second article looked at where the airport is now headed: How unprecedented regional booms in business and aviation are increasing demands on the airport and how it is preparing now to meet that challenge. This third in the series focuses on how, even as business and aviation demands increase, Raleigh Exec is working to serve the entire community.

SANFORD, N.C. — Fascination. Surprise. Delight. Everyone had their own reaction as they climbed in and out airplane cockpits, chatted with pilots and watched planes zoom over Raleigh Exec in tight formation, trailing smoke for visual effect.

Reactions often depended on age or what guests already knew about aircraft and the general aviation airport that serves the Research Triangle Region. But the joy of Family Day at the Jetport was obvious on the grounds and for weeks later on the airport social media.

“What a glorious day it turned out to be. Looks like it might have been the best community turnout ever,” was one comment by attorney Mark Kolber. “Really awesome event! We enjoyed it so much!,” wrote Kali Carter. And Autumn Cole Schubert, who traveled two hours just so daughter Abby, an aspiring pilot, could have the experience, started sending photos even before they headed back home. “My daughter is loving this!!,” she wrote in a direct message just an hour after the gates opened. “Thank you for having Family Day!”

That’s the kind of reaction airport officials hoped for when they resurrected Family Day after the pandemic. The annual aviation festival actually launched a little more than one decade ago, but fell off the calendar when an extended series of airport expansion projects got underway. Not small projects, but big ones. Like an entirely resurfaced runway. Water and sewer lines. And a brand-new terminal building. Safety is the top priority for any airport, and it was clear that a large public gathering was not a great idea during construction.

Then came the pandemic shutdowns, extending the Family Day hiatus even longer to protect everyone’s health. But at the first opportunity, the festival returned in 2021 with a more modest version that’s been accelerating ever since.

“We knew all along that we wanted to bring Family Day back as soon as we could, because events like these have always been an important part of who we are and what we do,” said airport director Bob Heuts, who spent decades as an economic developer. “Business, regional development and air access to the Triangle are our primary mission, to be sure. But we have this incredible opportunity to connect our community with aviation and help everyone appreciate how important aviation is to our daily lives.”

Out of Sight, But Not Out of Mind

Most airports aren’t dropped in the middle of cities and, when they are, that challenging location brings along all sorts of safety and logistical problems. In fact, Raleigh Exec is now purchasing land to expand its footprint and avoid those kind of complications that have made life more difficult around crowded facilities.

But what that means is that people don’t drive around airports all that often. Even busy general aviation facilities like Raleigh Exec — where large businesses operate and there’s plenty of air traffic moving in and out — are often largely out of sight.

Heuts thinks that isn’t a bad thing for airport operations. It just means that Raleigh Exec needs to be creative to serve the broader community. That’s where Family Day comes in.

“We have this absolutely impressive, growing airport serving the entire Triangle region,” he said. “There are successful, high-tech businesses on the field. The North Carolina Forest Service has a firefighting operation and aircraft maintenance facility here. There are flying clubs. Well over 200 planes are based here at Raleigh Exec and that number is growing every day.

“That’s a lot of expertise that we can share with our entire community — and especially with young people who may have an interest in aviation. There’s an enormous amount of opportunity in all areas of aviation right now and there will be even more in the future.”

One of the other major events that finally resumed after the pandemic is EAA Young Eagles, a series of rallies nationwide that offers free introductory flights for youth ages eight to 17. EAA Chapter 1114 in Apex works with Raleigh Exec to offer flights every spring. When the last one was held in June, more than 100 youth soared high above the Triangle, many on their first flight ever. Before walking out to their planes, some stepped into a virtual cockpit with flight simulators set up in the pilot’s lounge.

Then there are smaller, less-publicized events. On one Saturday morning in late August, meeting rooms in the terminal were packed. Kitty Hawk Ninety-Nines, the eastern North Carolina chapter of an international organization of licensed women pilots, were busy in the large conference room planning their program for an upcoming Girl Scout Day in Lumberton. Across the terminal, in a smaller meeting room, members of Scout Troop 953 from Shallow Well Church in Sanford were working toward their Aviation Merit Badges.

And there was plenty more happening all that week. One day before the Kitty Hawk Ninety-Nines and Scout Troop 953 visited, Raleigh Exec welcomed VIP Maxwell — that would be, “Very Important Puppy” — as he boarded an escort flight to his new, adopted family in New York as part of an animal rescue organized by the national organization, Pilots N Paws. And the 92nd Civil Affairs Battalion used the airport as base for a training mission; after taking off, the soldiers based at Fort Liberty made a jump into Jordan Lake in the kind of exercise that Raleigh Exec usually hosts a few times each year.

Expanding for Everyone

It’s no secret that Raleigh Exec is expanding. It’s been just a few months since a $5.3 million construction project ended south of the terminal, adding new taxiways and essential infrastructure while opening land for more hangars that should ease, though not completely satisfy, a long and longstanding waiting list.

In a corporate hangar development on the other side of the terminal, an initial phase for large hangars is fully leased to accommodate aircraft as large as the Gulfstream 550, one of the largest commercial jets in operation. Phase one should be fully built by the end of next year and phase two is already being designed.

But all of the new expansion doesn’t mean Raleigh Exec will diminish its service to the broader community.

Just this fall, the airport began offering “Behind the Scenes at Raleigh Exec,” a free, hour-long public tour where airport staff take up to 12 guests inside hangars to see aircraft up close, talk with pilots and learn how the airport works. Right now, Heuts said, the tour is being offered quarterly on Saturday mornings — the next one is scheduled for January 13 — but other dates could be added if there’s enough interest. And the airport welcomes all kinds of groups coming to use the meeting facilities or tap into the available expertise.

“It’s true that, day in and day out, we spend most of our time serving companies and pilots,” Heuts said. “But our success isn’t only about business. It’s also about education, service and working together to make our community stronger. We may be expanding, but we’re expanding for everyone.”

FINAL IN THE SERIES: As Raleigh Exec is expands, it’s helping drive sustainability and innovation in aviation, including opening the state’s first charging station for electrical aircraft.

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About Raleigh Exec
Billed as a premier corporate gateway to the Research Triangle, Raleigh Exec Jetport is a general aviation airport serving corporate and recreational flights in a region of central North Carolina that includes Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill, Sanford and the Research Triangle Park. Raleigh Exec operates on 700 acres off of U.S. 1, just 15 miles from the Raleigh Outer Beltline, and is home to corporate aircraft, the North Carolina Forest Service, many aviation-related businesses and one of the nation’s largest and most respected flying clubs. More information is available at raleighexec.com.

For many visitors, one of the big attractions of Family Day is being able to climb into the cockpit of real airplanes and helicopters, touch the equipment and ask the pilot questions about what it’s like to fly. (Photo by Chip Pate)
Family Day isn’t only about exploring planes, helicopters, fire trucks and ambulances. Central Electric Membership Corp. offered aviation-inspired games in October at its education tent, and flying a toy glider through the target was especially popular. (Photo by Chip Pate)
EAA Young Eagles, an annual program offered by Raleigh Exec and EAA Chapter 1114 in Apex, provides free introductory flights for youth ages eight to 17. About 110 participated in June and, for many, it was their first flight. (Photo by Chip Pate)