Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport celebrates 50 years. Here’s a look at its history and contributions

The terminal of the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport, located off of Marclay Drive. (WYDaily/ Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

When Larry Waltrip joined the Air National Guard, he was able to fly under the military flying club at Fort Eustis.

He was driving back and forth to Richmond nearly everyday at the time, a mode of transportation he did not enjoy. 

Born and raised in Williamsburg, Waltrip thought of the 200 acres his parents owned off Lake Powell Road. His father, Dudley C. Waltrip, owned a dirt hauling business there at the time. The acres behind that business later became the home of the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport. 

The airport opened on Sept. 20, 1970 and this year marks its 50th anniversary.

Getting started

Central Airport, owned by William & Mary, was the only airport in the immediate Williamsburg area back in 1960s, according to an archived Daily Press story. After the airport closed in February of 1967, Waltrip saw a need to fill and decided to build his own airport. 

Construction of the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport began in 1967, but it was met with opposition from the Board of Supervisors and residents of nearby neighborhoods. Waltrip said many people thought the airport would be a “mom and pop operation” and have a negative impact on the community. 

The case for the airport then went to the State Corporation Commission, and then to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“Many people who filed that lawsuit against us, all those years ago, some of them actually keep planes here,” he said. “They came back and apologized, saying ‘we were wrong.’”

It was also during that time Waltrip met his wife and partner, Jean Taylor Waltrip.

Jean Taylor Waltrip

Jean and Larry were married in January of 1968 while going through proceedings at the state Supreme Court for the airport. 

They were married for 40 years when she died in 2008. She was 72 years old. 

Several photos of Jean Taylor Waltrip sits on a shelf adjacent to the restaurant where she used to bake her famous carrot cake. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

Waltrip described his wife as a vital part of the airport’s success. She excelled in public relations, bringing new faces to the airport and welcoming some famous ones as well. 

The Waltrips were the first husband-wife team to be inducted into the Virginia Aeronautical Historical Society Hall of Fame in 2001. That same year, the Williamsburg Chamber of Commerce voted to crown Jean the “Queen of Williamsburg.” 

Later in 2005, the Waltrips received the Captain John Smith Award, given by the James City County Economic Development Division for top businesses in James City County.

Aside from her charming personality and warm spirit, Jean was also known for her baking skills at the airport restaurant. Her carrot cake drew pilots in from all over the East Coast. 

Charly’s Airport Restaurant

About 25 years ago the terminal was a welcomed addition to the airport, and with it came Charly’s Airport Restaurant

The restaurant, though small, shows a lot of heart through its cultivated menu of fresh-baked breads, hot sandwiches, and pies.

Although Jean is no longer there to bake the cakes and pies herself, the staff continues her legacy by providing fresh baked goods. 

Another unique aspect of the restaurant is its stunning view of the runway. Customers sit in the blue booths under model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, while outside the large windows, planes of similar look pull up to the terminal for lunch. 

Bruce Wilkinson, a frequent face around the airport, said he tries to stop by at least once a week to grab lunch and go flying in his 1962 Piper Colt. 

Not only can people eat lunch and watch planes take off, but there is also a conference room upstairs the airport rents out for events like club meetings and birthday parties.

Running an airport

Waltrip said even though the airport is small, it runs under the same regulations as a larger airport. He said this while scrolling through an iPad, where he could pull up security footage from all over the airport. He added the devices helped him run the airport without physically being there. 

At least 60 planes are based at the airport at a time. It also has 18 hangars and is looking to add a few more. 

Bill Gough, line operator at the airport, is often found sitting in the control room monitoring the runway. Because there is no commercial traffic, he said, “there’s no wait. It’s easy to go flying out of here.”

A map outside of the control room shows not only all of the airports in Virginia but also provides a general overview of weather patterns in the state. (WYDaily/Photo by Gabrielle Rente)

In fact, so easy that many famous visitors have flown into the airport in the last 50 years. Some of those visitors include Bill Clinton, Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gábor, the Beach Boys, Mickey Gilley, Lexi Thompson, and many more. 

Waltrip added six astronauts have been based at the airport in the past.

“David Brown, the astronaut, learned to fly here, actually,” he said. 

The Williamsburg Flight Center also calls the airport home. The center helps maintain the runway, offers air tours of the historic triangle, and provides a flight school as well. 

Community contributions

In 2014, the Williamsburg Aviation Scholarship Program was incorporated in Virginia as a 501c(3) tax exempt organization. The program, run out of the Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport, offers local high school students to get their aviation license from volunteer retired military and commercial pilots. 

Each year six local students graduate from the pilot program with new career opportunities and the ability to contribute to national pilot shortages. Because the program is supported by donated funds, the airport hosts a golf tournament at Kingsmill Resort and fall gala to raise money. 

The Williamsburg-Jamestown Airport also prides itself in cultivating a family-friendly atmosphere. On the left side of the terminal is a small playground. Waltrip said it was one of the best investments he made, since parents can eat at the restaurant and watch their children play. 

Occasionally, staff will also invite kids to come up to the planes parked on the tarmac and have them sit in the cockpit.

“It makes a big impression on the little ones,” Waltrip said, adding it shows kids they can be whatever they want.

Waltrip added he is proud of what the airport has become and said he hopes it continues to provide a friendly environment for all the community to enjoy.

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