After over half a century of service, Wilgrove Airport – the second largest airport in Mecklenburg county – will be closing for good in April of 2020.
Wilgrove Airport is the former home of the recently-closed Wilgrove Aviation and Flight School. Opened in 1967 or 1968 – there’s some debate on the matter – “The Grove” has trained countless pilots over the years.
One of those pilots is Alan Cobb, who has been managing Wilgrove Airport since 2003 and first took to the skies there twenty-eight years ago. “I’d always wanted to fly,” says Cobb simply. “I drove by here one day, and the parking lot was full; it was a gorgeous Saturday. I’d been in smaller planes, but I’d never had the chance to grab the controls. Thirty minutes later I was in an airplane flying!”
It took Cobb over a year to complete the flight and ground training necessary to earn his private pilot’s license. Although he’d given little thought to what he’d do with it, Cobb found himself flying all over the Northeast and West on consulting business and wound up buying a twin-engine airplane that he flew 1500 hours over thirteen years.
As Cobb counts down the days until Wilgrove Airport closes, he recalls fond memories of flying. “I’d be up at dawn before my wife got up, especially on a pretty Saturday or Sunday, and she knew there was no telling where I’d been, but I’d be home by dark,” laughs Cobb. “One time me and a buddy jumped in my twin and decided, you know? Ramp 66, Grand Strand Airport down in Myrtle Beach. I hear they’ve got some good hot dog chili. So we took off to the beach just to get us a couple of hot dogs!”
But more than just the freedom and thrill of flight, Cobb recalls the good work he and other pilots were able to do over the years at “The Grove.” “I did quite a few Angel Flights, where you take kids and adults with medical issues. One time I got to pick up a guy and fly him home for Thanksgiving, a disabled vet,” recalls Cobb. “You see a lot of that, giving back. There’s a group called Pilots and Paws, folks that pick up dogs and transport them to where they’ll get home, or to a shelter where they’re needing them.”
“When the hurricane hit the coast, you’d be surprised how many GA (General Aviation) airplanes went,” he continues. Cobb himself took the four rear seats out of his twin and flew supplies he had collected down to Kinston, the only airport above water at the time. “We were packed so full you couldn’t lean back or you’d be bumping something!” he recalls.
“So you get Angel Flights, Pilots and Paws, all kinds of stuff like that,” Cobb sums up. “People don’t realize lots of times how much general aviation pilots actually did. It was a big-time relief organization. Flying kids, medical flights, compassion flights.”
More than just a place to take off and land, The Grove was a community. “Used to be on Saturdays there’d be fifteen or twenty people hanging around,” recalls Cobb. “We’d have impromptu cookouts sometimes, say, ‘Okay, I got burgers and dogs, we got a grill here, y’all go get some buns . . . We’d just all get together and serve hot dogs and hamburgers on the grill and eat.”
Nowadays, things at The Grove are quieter. The Flight School shut down at the end of January in preparation for the airport’s eventual closure. “Everybody’s got to be out by the end of April,” says Cobb. “If the flight school was out, there’d be planes zipping in and out of here right now” he says, gesturing to the now-empty runway and few planes still sitting on the field “We’ve created a lot of pilots. I mean, we had right at eighty members of flight school when I closed it down.”
The land on which The Grove sits has been sold for development. What exactly that means remains unclear, but many, including Cobb, think a new or expanded housing development is likely.
As pilots, instructors and planes clear out, evidence of The Grove’s impact remains in the business office, where the walls are covered in photographs of pilots and “First Solo” shirts. “The tradition when a pilot solos were always to cut the back out of a shirt,” says Cobb, explaining the torn white t-shirts covering the walls. “Back in the day when there were tandem seatings, the instructor sat in the back, a student in the front. There was no radio, no intercom, so the instructor would reach up and tug on the student’s shirt to get his attention. Well, the idea was cutting the back out of the shirt means the instructor’s comfortable. He doesn’t need to tug on it anymore.”
It’s traditions like these that will disappear along with The Grove. “It’s the price of progress, I guess,” says Cobb, who stares down the airport’s final days with mixed emotions. While he won’t miss mowing the airport’s 52-acres and looks forward to spending more time with his daughters, grandkids, and great-grandkids, he recognizes that the closure adds to an already tremendous hangar shortage for private pilots.
Moreover, Cobb recognizes that wherever The Grove’s pilots end up, it simply won’t be the same. “It’s a diamond in the rough,” says Cobb. “You don’t see many of these places anymore. When this one goes away, it won’t get replaced. It will be missed.”