Around 1958 Appalachian Power Company began construction of its Clinch River Power Plant at Carbo, Virginia in Russell County, Virginia which is located some 30 miles to the north of Abingdon, Virginia. An employee of the company building the plant wanted to live in the Abingdon, VA area and fly to the construction site at Carbo. At the time there were no nearby landing strips in the area so some farm land was leased from what was know as the St. John farm, located about 2 miles west of Abingdon next to US Highway #11. A small dirt strip was graded out of the pasture field and that was the beginning of the airport. Some other local residents used the small strip throughout the late 1950’s and into the mid-1960’s.
Sometime around 1964 a group of local pilots got together and leased the land for the use as a runway for their recreational flying. At the same time, the interstate highway system was being developed and was opening up not only all of Virginia but the nation as a whole. As a result, industry was beginning to spread throughout Virginia and especially Southwest Virginia and Washington County. It became apparent that in order for continued economic and industrial growth for Washington County and the region that an airport to accommodate industry needed to be constructed. The Town of Abingdon and Washington County joined together and with the help of the state and federal government, acquired additional property and constructed a paved runway.
The runway was 2,800 feet long and 40 feet wide. It soon became apparent because of the rapid development of aviation in the country and of general aviation airplanes, which serve the industries in particular, that the facilities were inadequate to cover the air transportation needs of the area. Because of the runway limitations the airport continued to be primarily a recreational airport.
In 1983 a meeting was held between the Airport Commission, local business people, Congressional Representatives and representatives from the Virginia Department of Aviation and the FAA. Those present expressed concern about the condition of the airport and the airports importance to economic development for the county and Southwest Virginia. As a result of that meeting, state and federal aviation officials realized that the citizens of Washington County and Abingdon were serious in their desire to properly develop the airport.
The next step of development was to obtain the help of the Jacobs Creek Job Corp, which provided the first earth moving necessary for the construction of a new runway. The runway was increased to a more useable length of 3380 feet, but was still only 40 feet wide. The next phase was to then construct an entirely new runway and to convert the old runway into a taxiway. In 1986 a new runway was opened immediately north of the old runway with a width of 75 feet and meeting all of the appropriate safety requirements. However, this new runway was still only 3380 feet long, which left the airport unusable to many corporate and business aircraft.
During the next three years security fences were installed. Helipad construction and a rotating beacon were installed. Also, the State of Virginia installed a localizer approach, which provided for safer landings in bad weather. Also, during this time, plans were being formulated for the construction of a new terminal building.
In 1963 the only terminal building the airport had was an old HUD reject house trailer. A few years later a “lean-to” building was constructed adjacent to the main corporate hanger but this proved to soon be inadequate to meet the growing needs of general aviation.
In 1990 the Airport Commission, Washington County and the Virginia Aviation Board authorized construction of the present terminal building. The building was completed in 1991 and was dedicated along with a new runway extension, which took the runway to its present length of 4470 feet.
Virginia Highlands Airport has continued to grow and expand from these early years. There are presently 39 T-Hangers, 5 corporate hangers, 2 clearspan hangers at the airport. There are 69 aircraft based at the airport representing everything from ultralights to business jets. There is a Virginia State Police Medflight unit based at the airport that serves all of southwest Virginia providing emergency medical flights and aerial law enforcement.
In 2007 the Washington County Board of Supervisors officially changed the name of the governing body of the airport to “Virginia Highlands Airport Authority”. The Board of Directors is appointed by the Washington County Board of Supervisors, one representative from each magisterial district.
The Airport Layout Plan calls for future purchases of 44 more acres of land, the extension of runway 6/24 of 1400 feet with a new parallel taxiway, additional T-Hangers and additional corporate hangers. Currently avigation easements are being obtained for obstruction removal for runway 24 approach. The airport has two published non-precision instrument approaches. The latest GPS systems designed for next-generation use will be available in the future at Virginia Highlands.
Special thanks to Mr. Emmitt F. Yeary who provided information about the history of Virginia Highlands. Emmitt served on the Airport Commission for eleven years and also served on the Virginia Board of Aviation.
NOTE: If you have an interesting story or bit of history about VJI that you would like to share please contact us.