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VOL. 44 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 20, 2020

A new Tune for Music City flyers

Airport rebuilding bigger, better after $90M in tornado damage

By Joe Morris

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Airplane pilots routinely fly above storms to avoid danger and damage. On the ground, however, their craft can suffer the same fate as houses, cars and anything else when bad weather hits.

Such was the case when a tornado roared through Nashville in the early morning of March 3, decimating hangars and other structures at John C. Tune Airport and tossing aircraft like tumbleweeds.

Between hits to the terminal, 17 hangars, the airfield and pavement, signage, fencing, lighting, utilities and more, Tune took around $93 million in damage.

And that doesn’t include the more than 90 privately owned aircraft on-site that were destroyed or heavily damaged.

Aircraft worth tens of millions of dollars lie in a pile at the John C. Tune Airport following the March 3 tornado. The airport itself sustained $93 million in damage.

-- Photographs Provided

Within hours of the storm’s passage, the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority activated its emergency operations center and began to triage the damage at Tune, or JWN, which is the reliever airport for Nashville International Airport, or BNA, and serves the region’s corporate and private aircraft. It is the largest general-aviation airport in the state.

Tune averages around 86,000 takeoffs and landings per year and sold more than 2 million gallons of fuel in 2019 – an increase from 1.1 million in 2016, the Airport Authority reports.

Little time was wasted as dawn broke over the wreckage. The public was asked to stay away, and investigators began the process of what could be salvaged versus what had to be scrapped.

Damage to hangars at John C. Tune Airport left many owners scrambling for space at surrounding airports. There was a waiting list for space even before the tornado.

The airport was reopened for flight operations within the month. And since that time, cleanup and repairs have continued with an eye providing upgrades, says Robert Ramsey, the airport authority’s chief operating officer,

“We cannot just build back to where we were,” Ramsey explains. “Tune had so much growth over the last two or three years, and so we needed to hit the pause button and reevaluate everything from layout to services.

“We know that demand will continue to go up at Tune, and so we have engaged a consultant to help us with the planning. We want to make sure that we have infrastructure in place that meets needs 20 to even 30 years in the future.”

Part of that process involved a survey of all existing tenants, both those who lost planes and hangar space to those who suffered less damage or disruption and have relocated temporarily.

There also is a time factor at play, given the large volume of traffic this airport serves every day and the fact that Tune already had a lengthy waitlist for hangar space, Ramsey notes.

Growing usage

“There are a lot of challenges to running a general aviation airport, including up to now not having a control tower,” Ramsey explains. “We are in the process of building one now; that was planned pre-tornado.

“And given that this is the busiest general aviation airport in the state, we also knew we would need to move quickly once we got information back in from our tenants and the general contractor who handles operations there for us.”

Much of that activity can be pegged to Nashville’s growth on both the business and population fronts. Many Nashville-area businesses have small aircraft, and they want them close by. Likewise, many private owners like Tune’s accessibility.

The airport is in Cockrill Bend, an 8-mile drive west from downtown and an equal distance north from Belle Meade. I-40 and Briley Parkway provide easy access.

And then, as with everything else in 2020, factor in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People don’t want to fly commercial right now, so they are looking into smaller options,” Ramsey explains. “So, during March and April, when national passenger traffic was down, and we were seeing traffic at the Nashville International Airport down by around 95%, Tune was off much less. BNA is still down about 60%, and Tune has already recovered much quicker and is even up over where they were this time last year.”

Owners eager to reclaim space

The damage, short-term shutdown and loss of hangar space was a punch to owners of smaller aircraft. Those whose planes survived the tornado had to find new storage space in an area with little to offer, which led to some scrambling, Ramsey says.

“Every hangar was rented, everything was full, and we had a waitlist of about 28 people,” he notes. “We had plans to build two more sets of hangars on the books, and so we’ll still be doing that along with the replacement ones.

“We’ve had 91 tenants displaced out of the small, private T-hangars, which hold anywhere from eight to 12 planes in a row, and then we also had our larger hangars for the bigger aircrafts destroyed, as well.”

The diaspora has taken aircraft owners and operators to BNA, Smyrna, Springfield, Gallatin, Lebanon and “anywhere they could find a spot or a tiedown position,” he says.

“These people very much want to come back, and so we’re moving quickly,” Ramsey adds. “We hope to begin building in the early part of next year, hopefully during the second quarter. The damage estimates are just under $100 million, and so we’ll be working on many different paths, including private development, to fund and implement a recovery of that magnitude.”

Where’s my plane

Recovery can’t happen fast enough for Bryan Currier, president and CEO of Advantage Technologies, who lost his plane in the storm and was lucky enough to grab one of the last spots available in Smyrna.

“Hangars are in short supply around here, and we got lucky,” Currier says. “Tune is a great airport, and I am looking forward to seeing how they enhance it during this rebuilding period.”

Following the March 3 tornado that leveled whole swaths of John C. Tune Airport, plane owner Currier set a record of sorts.

“I had the distinct honor of owning the last plane they were able to find in the wreckage,” says Currier, whose information technology company is based in Nashville.

“It took 12 days, and it was sandwiched under another plane and all the wreckage from one of the hangars.”

The craft in question was a Cessna Citation Mustang, a light jet he used for work. And unlike other owners who have had to scramble for parts in a COVID-disrupted supply chain, Currier got his wings back pretty quickly.

“We ended up replacing it with the same model, because it was a really great plane,” he continues. “And we got the last spot over at the Smyrna Airport, so we’ve even got a place for it.

“I called [the airport] the morning after the tornado when we didn’t even know what shape our plane was in, so we could begin paying for a hangar, and they were already full for anything jet-sized.”

Had he been in need of parts, rather than not dealing with total destruction, he would have been spared some angst thanks to the particulars of his craft.

“Cessna stopped making this plane in 2019, but I pay Cessna to be in a parts program, kind of like insurance, that taps me into a pool of parts. It’s a fairly modern plane so there are parts, had it been fixable,” he says.

For smaller craft, however especially those with some years on them, Currier says the search for parts — both in the COVID landscape or in general — can be more arduous.

“If you need a piece of wing, or landing gear, then those are not readily available,” he notes of smaller, fixed-wing and propeller-using craft. “They go forever, but now those owners are going to find that those parts just aren’t out there.

“Even so, they may find some planes that have been sold for scrap and get lucky. Then the challenge will be to find a mechanic who’s got the time to do the repairs.”

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