By Candi Hannigan, Guest Contributor

American Made starring Tom Cruise | Film Poster | Source: IMDbAcademy Award-nominated actor Tom Cruise took up residence in the pilot’s lounge of the Cherokee County Regional Airport in Ball Ground during the filming of American Made in 2014. He’s just one of many celebrities—actors, athletes, artists, and politicians—who have used the airport. On average 110 planes and other aircraft fly in and out daily, using the airport’s single runway and twenty-nine hangars.

Although downtown Ball Ground was the movie’s primary setting, the airport was chosen as a location for scenes involving Cruise. In fact, the airport was a key find for the movie’s production team, according to Michael Burmeister, location manager for American Made. Burmeister told Molly Mercer, film project manager for the Cherokee Office of Economic Development, that the crew was able to dress hangars to represent multiple airports that Cruise’s character, pilot Barry Seal, actually would have flown in and out of. Changing the look without changing physical location saved the production significant time and money. Burmeister was nominated for the Outstanding Locations in a Period Film award by the Location Managers Guild International for his work on the film.

Cruise stayed about three days in the lounge while filming a scene in one of the airport hangars. Although the scene didn’t make the final cut, the story is shared often as an example of the many uses of the airport, which is situated on 157 acres.

When singers Kelly Clarkson and Reba McEntire each visited Georgia, their planes landed at the Ball Ground airport. In November 2022, Governor Brian Kemp was in the Ball Ground area and departed in a helicopter to attend the funeral service of former University of Georgia Coach Vince Dooley.

Farmland to Runway

The property fulfills the vision of the late Fred Wilbanks, the original landowner who saw the potential for an airfield when he gave thirty acres to Cherokee County in February 1957. In the 1950s Wilbanks was a farmer who ran a construction business in Ball Ground and a pilot with a small airstrip on his land. As a businessman and pilot, he saw the value an airport would add to the county.

With the help of the late Norman Sosebee of Canton, a friend and aviation enthusiast who served as a secretary of the Cherokee County Airport Authority for more than thirty years, Wilbanks convinced the county that the property would be an ideal location for an airport to serve its growing needs. He declined the offer to have the airport named after him, insisting the name should be Cherokee County Airport.

While the airport’s twenty-nine hangars look like one building, they are separate. B-Hangar and T-Hangar house more than thirteen airplanes. D-Hangar has various-sized spaces and accommodates fifteen aircraft. The hangars are filled with an estimated 120 aircraft, including jets and helicopters.

Cherokee County Regional Airport photos provided to Enjoy Cherokee Magazine by Candi Hannigan

A ramp right outside the terminal building is where airplanes are staged for passengers to board or deplane. The hangars in the distance house the aircraft kept at the airport.

Managing the Airport

Cherokee County Regional Airport stays busy with privately owned jets and smaller aircraft, as well as charter flights. No commercial airlines operate out of this regional facility. Area residents interested in chartering flights can arrange to depart from and return to the Cherokee airport. All arrangements must be made with independent companies.

Cherokee County owns the public-use airport. As the on-site provider of fuel and aircraft maintenance, S&S Aviation pays rent to the county for the land the hangars, maintenance building, and fuel tanks sit on. S&S also rents the hangars and tie-down spaces and sells aviation fuel. The company has provided aircraft maintenance since 1984.

The Cherokee County Airport Authority, established in 1968, oversees the daily operations and functions of the airport, ensures its expansion, and promotes growth in the county. The authority consists of seven volunteers appointed by a grand jury and Cherokee County commissioners. Members serve either two- or four-year terms, depending on the position.

The Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] and the Georgia Department of Transportation inspect the airport periodically to ensure it meets all safety and operating regulations. Federal, state, and county funding provide for runway improvements and expansion. The terminal building was built using SPLOST tax funds.

Keena Pope, the airport’s lead customer-service rvice representative and terminal manager for S&S Aviation, says that the company reports all aircraft on the field to the county once a year for tax purposes. Airport Authority Chair Dick Hall describes the relationship between the county and S&S Aviation as a “quasi-government entity.” The airport brings in business, and the ad valorem tax helps Cherokee County. Appointed chair in 2022, Dick attended the U.S. Air Force Academy and ran special flight operations later in his military career. No longer a practicing pilot, he still loves to fly as a passenger.

Other leading roles at the airport are held by Jimmy Garland, manager of S&S Aviation, and Phil Eberly, president of Lead Edge Design Group, the engineering company that manages updates and expansions to the airport.

Hobby Turns Into a Job

Keena’s ties to the airport started when she enrolled as a flight student in the early 2000s. Through her connection with the airport as a student, she joined the S&S Aviation team and still enjoys flying as a hobby.

Keena manages the aircraft waiting list as well as the hangar and tie-down contracts. She issues notices filed with aviation authorities to alert pilots of potential hazards along a flight route or locations that could affect a flight. If military helicopters come in, for example, she closes the taxiway so the choppers can land. When the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board came to investigate and retrieve an airplane that flipped and landed upside down, she closed off portions of the taxiway for the crane and safety equipment to work safely. Keena also manages the terminal building, including maintenance and scheduling of the conference room.

Business for S&S Aviation is consistent, and the most demanded service is aircraft maintenance. “Owning these airplanes costs a lot of money. It’s not just the cost of the airplane; it’s the maintenance of the airplane and where [the owner] is going to store it,” Keena says. “We only have one maintenance shop. The maintenance employees are certified in Airframe & Powerplant (A&P), and some carry an Inspection Authorization (IA) certificate.”

Check In and Check Out

S&S Aviation sells more than fifty thousand gallons of fuel each month, often to pilots who stop in for enough fuel to complete their journey. Keena adds that in addition to pilots in need of fuel, “We experience flights every day that are diverted to our airport because of weather.”

Weather, and even mechanical issues, can lead to unexpected landings. In a review, one pilot wrote, “I couldn’t have broken down at a better and [more] well-equipped airport … I was on my way in hours.”

Many pilots and clients prefer to fly into this airport because of its time-saving convenience. Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport has security lines, baggage claim, and thousands of passengers, so with no terminal checkpoints the pilot or client must go through, S&S Aviation becomes an easy choice for business people. Once an aircraft lands, there is either an arranged pickup on the ramp or immediate assistance from the main office.

Cherokee County Regional Airport photos provided to Enjoy Cherokee Magazine by Candi Hannigan

Military aircraft like these H60 helicopters often stop at the airport. On this day in April 2023, six helicopters with twenty-eight people on board stopped to rest and refuel. S&S employees purchased Chick-fil-A meals for the military personnel, a common practice when any military aircraft stops to refuel or take a longer break.

The FAA does not require the airport to have a control tower. With several dozen planes and other aircraft using the runway daily, S&S Aviation has a UNICOM frequency to allow pilots to communicate with one another and the airport’s front office. The number of planes that use the facility is expected to increase, requiring infrastructure improvements to the airport.

The airport’s consulting engineer, Lead Edge Design Group, is working to widen the runway from seventy-five feet to one hundred feet. The length will increase from 5,003 to 6,000 feet southward. There also are plans to add five hangars to the property. The Airport Authority board oversees these plans. A wider runway and more hangars will allow space for more stationary and active planes.

A Boon to the County

Cherokee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Harry Johnston sees tremendous benefits that the airport brings to our county. “The airport is an important economic engine for Cherokee County. With five thousand feet of runway and a beautiful general aviation terminal, it provides an excellent ‘front door’ to business executives who fly in seeking to do business in Cherokee,” Harry says.

“Over the long run, the ad valorem taxes on the increasing number and value of the airplanes based there more than cover the cost of the airport itself. For instance, a typical five-million-dollar business jet pays about fifty thousand dollars per year in tax, without adding any kids to the schools or cars to the roads. The Airport Authority is in the process now of adding more hangars to accommodate more planes.

“We already have the land necessary to extend the runway to six thousand feet, which will allow substantially any business-class aircraft to take off and land there fully loaded and in most weather conditions. The first half of that expansion can be done relatively inexpensively within the next year or two. The final half will require substantial earth moving and take a few more years. The runway expansion also will add more space for more hangars.

“The county has begun construction on a new road to connect the north end of Bluffs Parkway to the airport. It will open up new economic development opportunities through an area that’s been long planned as a job-creation corridor.”

Joe DiPietro contributed portions of this article. FAA-certified A&P mechanic Matthew Grimes reviewed this article and provided feedback on the use of industry-specific terminology.

 

Cherokee County Regional Airport photos provided to Enjoy Cherokee Magazine by Candi Hannigan

Lead Edge Design Group are the project managers for updates and expansions to the airport, including planned runway extensions.

 

 

Cherokee County Regional Airport

1350 Bishop Road Ball Ground, GA 30107

678-454-2090

SSAviation.us

 

 

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