By Sonny Jones
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Phillip “Slim” Thompson went on a monthslong reconnaissance mission, if you will. His version of the former TV show “Undercover Boss,” he says, to learn more about Bladen County and its people.
Elizabethtown Town Manager Dane Rideout, an Army veteran, believed Bladen County was sitting on a gold mine with an underutlized Curtis L. Brown Jr. Field Airport. He cited a report that found the local airport is fourth from the bottom among least utilized in the state.
Tuesday morning, inside the Mac Campbell Sr. Terminal Building, the two men were joined by about 35 people, including county and city officials and economic and education leaders, for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially welcome Sovereign Aerospace.
The Moore County-based military veteran-owned and operated organization has become the fixed base operator for the airfield. Sovereign Aerospace, a faith-based company, will offer flight instruction, general aviation maintenance and training and management training. The company also will be working with Bladen County Schools to offer students an opportunity to learn about the aerospace industry. Bladen Community College will be involved with instruction. The company said its plan calls for 75 jobs at the airport within five years.
“I’m so impressed with their integrity and the way they use their faith in all of their business decisions,” Elizabethtown Mayor Sylvia Campbell said. “I was very impressed with the very first meeting we had with them when they expressed interest in getting involved in our school system and making all of our kids aware of the possibilities that are here as far as aviation.”
The joint venture between Bladen County, Elizabethtown, Bladen’s Bloomin’ Agri-Industrial Inc., Bladen Community College and the Elizabethtown Airport and Economic Development Commission began about six months ago when Thompson, Rideout and McQueen Campbell first met in Moore County.
“We were looking at a place in the western part of the state,” Thompson said, “and then we met McQueen Campbell and found out a little more about Elizabethtown. We made several trips here. I brought my (twin) daughters here. We’ve been doing kind of an ‘Undercover Boss’ in your community for the last several months. We haven’t been in one restaurant, one store, at one event or any one thing where we were not greeted with extreme kindness, love and joy. It’s been awesome to be around. It just feels like home.”
Rideout said he told Thompson during that meeting that “we’re sitting on a gold mine. We have one of the most underutilized pieces of real estate on the aviation side in the state. We have a beautiful state of the art facility. Come over and take a look.”
That began the journey that ended last week when Sovereign Aerospace became the fixed based operator for the airport. The next journey began this week with visions of expansion and a busier local airport.
“This is just the beginning of something new and exciting,” Bladen County Commissioner’s Chairman Rodney Hester said. “It’s a beautiful day to take off in Bladen County, both metaphorically and literally.”
Hester mentioned a part of the county’s long-term strategic plan among its goals is to develop small businesses and high demand fields and to attract veterans to work and live in the community. Sovereign “meets the criteria. They’re also a faith-based business, which is wonderful for our communities.”
Curtis L. Brown Jr. Field is a town owned, public use airport located two nautical miles southeast of downtown Elizabethtown. It has one runway designated 15/33 with an asphalt surface measuring 5,006 feet by 75 feet. It’s home to 23 general aviation-based aircraft and three corporate aircraft.
Brown, who was raised in Elizabethtown and has a mural downtown, is a retired Air Force colonel, who flew six NASA missions about the space shuttle. He logged nearly 1,400 hours in space. Brown was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2013.