"Thank God for Mr. Milliken and Charles Daniel"
MARCH 11, 2011 1:23 p.m. (1)
Greenville and Spartanburg, back then, had their own downtown airports and the Army, four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, told Greenville officials that an airbase would be built south of Greenville to train B-24 and B-25 bomber pilots fighting in World War II. The base was renamed Donaldson Air Force Base in the late 1950s.
As larger aircraft were being built to carry 100 or more passengers, the downtown airports, already 15 years old, were becoming antiquated and unprepared for handling the coming jet age.
The paths of Charlie Daniel of Daniel Construction Co. and Roger Milliken, a textile manufacturer, had crossed before Milliken moved his family and textile headquarters from New York to Spartanburg in 1954. They were the visionaries who would steer the Upstate on the aviation map.
“Thank God for Mr. Milliken and Charles Daniel to have the vision to build an asset like GSP,” said Henry “Hal” Johnson, president and CEO of the Upstate SC Alliance. “It will end up being one of the greatest economic tools in the future.”
Milliken and Daniel, with Alex Couch, head of Piedmont Engineering, took 45 minutes to decide a community locally known as Flatwood had all the elements for a regional airport that bordered Greenville and Spartanburg. At the time Greer was a small town and Pelham was a village.
It was called Greenville-Spartanburg Jetport.
The land was near utilities, next to where the interstate would be built on high terrain with a plateau about 900 feet above sea level. Dave Partridge, who authored “Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, A History,” wrote there were “long stretches of flat land and lay in a southeast to northeast direction that would reduce runway crosswind problems because prevailing winds in this area were usually out of the northeast. The entire area was mostly farmland with scattered homes with wide expanses of underdeveloped acreage and almost no business activity.”
There was controversy acquiring the land. Protests from deacons from Abner Creek Baptist and a committee representing Woods Chapel Methodist churches in Greer killed a plan in 1945.
There was also the thought that with two downtown airports and the Donaldson airfield, there was no need for a fourth airport. Some Greenville leaders pitched the idea of making Donaldson the regional airport. But that was short-lived when the military announced it was closing the airbase.
Milliken, Daniel, Buck Mickel and Robert Ashmore among others were moving forward with the planning, logistics, finances and federal funding. The design would need to be innovative and flexible to accommodate many changes over the years. The idea of a regional airport was unique.
In November 1958 in the Greenville County courthouse the selling of the Piedmont Area Airport began. The highlight among the bullet points was the acquisition of at least 2,000 acres – all but 500 in Spartanburg County. Each county would pay $2 million and $1.5 million in federal funding would be sought.
The presentation proved historic because both Greenville and Spartanburg were partnering equally.
“History is a great example of regional cooperation,” said Bill Barnet, former mayor of Spartanburg. “It sits in the middle of the communities.”
Construction was put on the fast track once federal funding was allocated in January 1961. Milliken, as the first and only chairman of the Airport Commission from 1959 until his death last December, promised a demanding schedule that saw construction begin Aug. 15, 1961, and the opening completed on its targeted date of Oct. 15, 1962 – a 15-month schedule many thought unattainable.
GSP was the first jet-age civilian airport built from ground up in the United States. It had a 7,600-foot runway and among the firsts were the first runway featuring centerline runway lights, the runway had grooves built across it to protect against hydroplaning and it was the first airport built with high-speed, curved runways. The cost was $10 million.
One of the most unique ideas, again from Milliken, was taking the best airplane position at the terminal, which is right in front of the middle gates, and putting a garden in its place. Airlines told Milliken it would be wasted money and others said the plants and flowers would die. Today it is a signature part of GSP.
The drive to the terminal is often likened as a drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“It’s important to us to create an environment that welcomes people here,” said Roslyn Weston, airport spokeswoman. “I’ve often heard the drive up to the terminal as a college campus or country club.”
Four men have served as executive director at GSP: Dave Edwards, the current director preceded by Gary Jackson, Dick Graham and Andy Andrews.
The airport commission includes Minor Mickel Shaw (chair), Hank Ramella (vice chair) and commissioners Wallace Storey, Leland Burch and Valerie Miller. Doug Smith and Bill Barnet have been nominated by the Spartanburg legislative delegation to fill two of its three positions. Gov. Nikki Haley has approved Smith.
Eastern and Southern Airlines were the only carriers when the airport opened. Delta, servicing Greenville’s downtown airport, pulled out of service on the evening of GSP’s opening. It would be two decades before Delta returned.
American Eagle, Continental, Delta, United Express and US Airways Express have been the mainstays.
Independence Air was the first low-cost airline to provide service on a limited basis with routes to Florida, but it went bankrupt.
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