Raleigh Exec Prepares for the Future: Expanding With Innovation

ABOUT THE SERIES: We’ve taken a look over recent 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. The third in the series focused on how, even as business and aviation demands increase, Raleigh Exec is working to serve the entire community. And this fourth and final article examines how the airport is focusing on innovation to expand while helping create a more sustainable aviation industry.

SANFORD, N.C. — All eyes were focused on Raleigh Exec in October when aviation leaders walked onto a large outdoor stage to celebrate one huge leap forward for sustainable aviation in the Tar Heel State.

It was a groundbreaking ceremony for the first electric aircraft chargers ever installed in North Carolina, equipment designed to charge electric planes, cars and trucks — any vehicles needed to keep airports running. The two multimodal charging stations designed by BETA Technologies use cutting-edge technology that charge electric aircraft in less than an hour — and the installation at Raleigh Exec will even come with a pilot lounge and business center built using repurposed shipping containers to enhance the project’s environmental sustainability.

The celebration even included a demonstration, with pilots taking off and landing in a BETA-designed Alia plane as part of their 1,500-mile flight down the East Coast from the company’s headquarters in Burlington, Vermont, to Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle. According to the Air Force Research Laboratory, which received the Alia for testing, the electric plane has a 50-foot wingspan, range of 250 miles and top speed of 138 miles per hour. It’s also 90 percent quieter than a helicopter.

And it drew experts and leaders from across the state who were involved in electrifying transportation of any kind. Cars. Trucks. Aircraft. It turned into an exhibition of sorts, with guests looking closely at the new technology and considering how it might help solve their own transportation problems back home.

All of that is quite a step forward for an industry that’s still testing electrical aircraft. Safety tests by the Federal Aviation Administration are underway and aircraft certifications are needed before electric planes are rolled out. But they’re coming soon and will transform aviation — making travel safer, more efficient and, most importantly, more environmentally sustainable.

“The future of transportation is electric, and as we look to make this new technology a widespread reality in aviation, forward-leaning partners and investment in infrastructure will be critical,” BETA Chief Operating Officer Blain Newton said at the groundbreaking. He later continued, “This state has always been a first-mover in aviation, so it’s no surprise that we’ve found support for the next generation of sustainable aviation solutions, too.”

“That’s Who We Are”

For many watching across the nation, it might have been a surprise that all of this was unfolding at a general aviation airport serving the Research Triangle Region. But for local leaders, it was just the latest way Raleigh Exec is expanding with an emphasis on innovation.

“That’s really been our history, that’s who we are,” said Carter Keller, chairman of the Sanford-Lee County Regional Airport Authority, the quasi-governmental organization responsible for operating Raleigh Exec. “Since we built this airport more than two decades ago, technology, innovation and sustainability have been drivers in how we develop for the future.

“Being the first airport in North Carolina to offer electric aircraft chargers is certainly big news. It’s big for aviation, it’s big for the state and it’s big for our airport. But it really is nothing new for Raleigh Exec. It’s how we do business.”

Keller pointed to other sustainability initiatives as well. One was as simple as locating the airport and its potential industrial developments near an existing rail line, so material could be moved in and out by train. Others were a little more on the cutting edge when they were introduced.

When the runway was renovated a decade ago, airport officials used that opportunity to replace all of the lighting with LED technology, which is now used throughout the airport — on runways and taxiways as well as inside the terminal and outdoors to illuminate roads and parking lots. The change not only made airport spaces brighter and cheaper to operate, but they also have environmental advantages. LED lights require less power, have a reduced carbon footprint and contain no hazardous materials.

Then, there are other projects in the planning stages. Airport Director Bob Heuts is hesitant to talk about many of them in detail, because some involve companies considering a move to Raleigh Exec. “That’s always something you’ve got to be careful talking about,” says the former economic developer. “But what I can say is that one project the board recently considered would have used building materials that aren’t very common in the aviation industry.”

In particular: engineered-wood beams for one of the large corporate hangars that are quickly filling the airport’s new North Terminal development. (Phase One of that area is expected to be built-out by the end of this year and Phase Two is already being designed.)

Engineered wood, also known as cross-laminated timber, is rare in an aviation industry that relies almost entirely on metal construction. But engineered wood has been catching on elsewhere in the construction industry because it’s strong, lightweight and has a number of environmental benefits — including a significant reduction in the building’s carbon footprint, from how the building materials are manufactured to how the structure functions on site.

After going through several stages of planning, the company finally decided not to build the hangar right now. But the airport board remains open to that specific proposal, which could come back later, and other similar projects. If that kind of hangar is finally built, Heuts said, it would be the first in North Carolina using wood-beam construction. One was recently built in New Hampshire, but the innovation is just starting to catch on.

Expanding The Right Way

Raleigh Exec has been taking off. In addition to the second phase of the airport’s North Terminal corporate development now being designed, the $5.3 million South Development opened last fall with brand new taxiways and infrastructure that opened portions of the airport for development. Additional hangars will soon be built that should ease, though not completely eliminate, a long waiting list for space to store business and recreational aircraft.

The airport is even enlarging its geographical footprint by purchasing land to expand the facility. Heuts said the obvious goal is to protect the massive current investment already made in Raleigh Exec while providing space to expand and allow for growth as aviation continues to expand nationwide. But that’s not the whole picture. Airport leaders also want to maintain safety in and around the airport as operations expand and land between Raleigh and Sanford continues to develop.

About 600 acres are now being added to Raleigh Exec’s original 700-acre site. The airport already received a $9 million grant and another $28 million is now on the way to help with land acquisition that will allow the airport to approach the size originally planned when it opened almost a quarter century ago.

And now Raleigh Exec has just escorted North Carolina, the state known for being “First in Flight,” into the brand new world of electrical aircraft. Nobody is quite sure exactly where that will lead in years to come, but it surely will continue transforming transportation around the globe.

Keller says some organizations can get deep into that kind of change and lose focus on broader concerns that also matter. Things like serving people, strengthening communities and even finding innovative ways to protect the environment. That’s a pitfall he’s convinced the airport will avoid.

“Raleigh Exec is an economic engine for the entire Research Triangle region, so business drives what we do, and we want to do it well,” he said. “At the same time, we’re committed to offering educational events for families and finding ways to serve our community. We’re expanding, which is exciting, and we want to do it the right way. That’s what will give us all a bright and successful future.”

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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.

Carter Keller, chairman of the quasi-governmental organization that runs Raleigh Exec, welcomed transportation leaders to the airport in October to break ground for the state’s first electric aircraft chargers. Keller says that kind of innovation is how the airport does business. (Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation)
North Carolina Secretary of Transportation Joey Hopkins was one of several speakers at October’s groundbreaking for the state’s first electric aircraft chargers. He told the audience at Raleigh Exec that “investing in sustainable aviation is a clear next step for North Carolina.” (Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation)
Guests attending groundbreaking ceremonies last fall for North Carolina’s first electric aircraft chargers got a chance to see the BETA Technologies Alia aircraft, which was flown in and out of Raleigh Exec as part of the festivities. (Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Transportation)