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Building Rural Airports

The Cherokee County Regional Airport runway expansion was completed in 2010, lenthening the runway from 3,414 feet to 5,002 feet.

When Georgia Governor Carl Sanders took office in 1963, the state had only thirty airports with paved runways. A veteran B-17 pilot from World War II, the new governor believed Georgia’s future economic growth would depend in large part on convenient aviation options for business.

Gov. Sanders asked county commissioners across the state to support airport development, and they told him they were more interested in spending local money paving roads than runways. So the governor sought other funding sources, and he learned that federal matching funds would pay 50 percent of the money to develop municipal airports for counties. He identified additional money in the state budget and then went back to the county commissioners with a new offer: 100 percent funding for airport development if they would provide the land.

N. J. Wilbanks, founder of N. J. Wilbanks Contractor Inc. in Canton, understood the need for Cherokee County to have an airport, and he suggested that his father donate land from the family farm, six miles northeast of Canton. Fred Wilbanks, himself a former state representative, agreed, and gave forty acres for the new airport—one of seventy that would be developed statewide during Carl Sanders’ four-year term as governor.

Nearly half a century later, Chris Wilbanks is pleased to have earned several contracts in recent years to help enhance or expand the airport that sits on his grandfather’s farm and has his father’s name on the terminal.

“Dad’s company was primarily in trucking when the airport was built,” Chris says, “so somebody else did the original grading. But in the last ten years we’ve moved a lot of dirt for them.”

For example, Wilbanks used Cat® 345 Mass Excavators along with D5N and D6M dozers to lower a hill adjacent to the runway that was partially blocking crosswinds. Now crosswinds are consistent down the length of the runway, allowing for safer takeoffs and landings. Though municipal airports make up only a small percentage of Wilbanks’ work, the company has also completed contracts at airports in Cobb, Pickens, and Whitfield counties.

“Pop Wilbanks was always drawn to airplanes,” Chris says, “and Dad was on the county airport authority before there was even an airport.”

Their vision, and Gov. Sanders’, made a tremendous impact on Cherokee County.

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