A federal provision that would potentially make way for Air Force-approved partnerships allowing civilian and commercial aircraft to use Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Marietta has been cleared to land on President Donald Trump’s desk.
The provision is part of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2018, which U.S. House members approved Tuesday by a 356-70 vote with all three representatives whose districts include Cobb in support: Rep. Karen Handel, R-Roswell; Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville; and Rep. David Scott, D-Atlanta. It earned Senate approval Thursday by a unanimous voice vote, and now heads to the Oval Office for a potential approval by Trump.
While the overall legislation authorizes funding appropriations and sets forth policies for Department of Defense programs and activities, it includes language that would repeal a clause in the 1989 National Defense Authorization Act that set Lockheed Martin as the sole private entity allowed to use the 10,000-foot runway of Dobbins. The base is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 94th Airlift Wing and host to thousands of guardsmen, reservists and civilians from the Army, Navy and Marines.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, R-Georgia, called the 1989 provision an “outdated law” that had “prevented the base from being utilized to its fullest potential.” He and Georgia’s senior senator, Johnny Isakson, worked together to get the measure that would lift the exclusivity clause into the Senate’s version of the defense bill. Isakson drafted the provision’s language and Perdue worked with the Senate Armed Services Committee and its chairman, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, to get the provision added. The two Georgia senators cast approving votes for the bill Thursday.
In addition to overturning the 1989 clause, the provision would allow Dobbins to enter into joint partnerships under the direction of the secretary of the Air Force.
“Not only would these public-private partnerships help offset operating costs and create jobs at Dobbins, but they also would help create a stronger relationship with the surrounding community,” Perdue said. “Given my seat at the table for the annual defense bill this year, we were able to fight for priorities important to our national security and Georgia’s military community, including this welcome change at Dobbins.”
While in attendance at a Rotary Club luncheon in Marietta on Monday, Isakson told the MDJ that opening the runway for civilian and commercial aircraft could be a good move for the county.
“I’m taking input from the Air Force, the Air Guard and from the community, but I think some limited private use would be a great thing for the economy and the county,” he said, emphasizing that Cobb has everything necessary to be a “first-class attractor of businesses and economic development.”
Though Lockheed Martin had requested the 1989 clause that made it the exclusive commercial partner at Dobbins, officials with the global security and aerospace company are in support of its repeal. The company has had a presence at Dobbins since 1951, taking over the Bell Aircraft Corporation’s B-29 bomber plant that had shuttered after World War II.
“We’ve had a long and successful relationship with Dobbins Air Reserve Base and stand ready to support them in this initiative as well,” said George Shultz, Lockheed Martin site general manager and vice president of Air Mobility and Maritime Missions.
U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Cassville, said he believes the change at Dobbins would open up a lot more possibilities.
“It could very well be used for transport, could be used for research and development, as well as disaster relief. It just opens the realm of possibilities that we do not have now because of the restriction in the use of it,” Loudermilk said.
A freight company could also be a potential partner, Loudermilk added, but he said such a usage may bring with it some challenges, such as the need to add or revamp existing infrastructure such as roads.
“If you’re looking at something like FedEx or UPS, a big hauler like that ... (Dobbins) is positioned to where that could be something, but you’re bordered by Windy Hill (Road) on one side, Atlanta Road on that back side and U.S. 41 (Cobb Parkway) on the front, which all are pretty congested at times, so there’s other factors to look at just other than the runway that I’m sure local officials and state would take into consideration,” he said.
Roger Tutterow, an economics professor and the director of the KSU’s Econometric Center, said an opened up Dobbins is likely to be seen as a potential launching pad for a company’s airborne operations.
“Cobb already has a vibrant, private airport in McCollum (in Kennesaw), but you could envision somewhere down the road perhaps having some industrial or even some commercial traffic coming out of Dobbins at some point. I don’t think that’s in the near-term plans, but I’m not sure it makes sense to have only one company be able to be considered for years to use those resources,” he said. “This opens up possibilities for better utilization of the facility.”
Whatever a potential partnership looks like, Loudermilk said such uses are not uncommon at other bases.
“If you look around to a lot of our reserve and National Guard bases, they share runways with private entities or for commercial air traffic. When I was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii ... it’s a key strategic base, but yet it shared the runway and control tower with the Honolulu International Airport, so this is not an unusual thing to do,” Loudermilk said, declining to elaborate on the potential of commercial air travel out of Dobbins.
The metro Atlanta area is already home to Delta Air Lines, which has its headquarters and largest hub out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
IDEA SOUNDS FAMILIAR?
If longtime Cobb residents and MDJ readers are getting a sense of déjà vu over the thought of commercial flights coming to and from Dobbins, there’s a good reason.
Such a concept was floated back in early 2001 by Bill Byrne, then-chairman of the Cobb County commission.
“Byrne proposes Dobbins as Hartsfield alternative” was the headline on a story about Byrne suggesting the idea in an issue of Georgia Trend magazine, believing the idea would become a reality within a decade. His reasoning, the story said, was that the presence of both the military and Lockheed Martin would wane, opening the door for commercial traffic.
“I had met with, at that time, personnel from the Navy who had a facility there at that time, and the Air Force as well, and then they referred me to the management team for overall Dobbins, and I made a proposal to them,” Byrne recalled Wednesday, saying that Dobbins personnel were seemingly receptive to it, with additional meetings held on the idea.
Byrne says he later made the same proposal to Lockheed Martin officials, who told him they would meet with Dobbins leadership to discuss the suggestion.
“I never heard back from them,” he said, adding that the discussions had triggered Georgia Trend to call him, which led to their story on the pitch.
In the end, the idea didn’t seem to take off during Byrne’s time as the head of Cobb’s commission, and he would resign from the chairman’s office the next year to pursue a run for governor.
Now, more than 15 years later, Byrne believes the provision that would open the door to a company other than Lockheed Martin is likely to be approved, but also believes that the push for it is an effort to establish commercial flights out of Dobbins.
Cobb’s neighbor to the west, Paulding County, has sought to establish passenger flights out of Silver Comet Field airport near Dallas. Paulding government and airport leaders, including former county commission chairman David Austin, had publicly charged for three years that Delta had secretly funded attorneys for a group of residents who filed legal challenges to the county airport authority’s effort to commercialize Silver Comet Field after such plans were made public in October 2013.
“I think that’s really the motivation behind this whole activity, and the major opponent of all of this is Delta Air Lines,” Byrne said. “They would see that as competition that they couldn’t compete with. That’s the argument they’ve had for a decade on the alternative airport location in Paulding County that is in the courts right now, and that’s their argument. If you move it closer to Hartsfield, then the competition becomes even worse for those airlines already there — my viewpoint is to hell with that, because competition is good for the consumer.”
But Micky Blackwell, who served as president of the Marietta Lockheed facility in the 1990s as part of his 31 years with the company — he retired in 2000 — said he believes commercial flights into Dobbins would hit a number of snags.
“The first problem is there’s only one (main) runway — it’d be a major expense to put in another runway. No. 2 is the noise, as we’re in a highly populated area and basically you’re flying out over a populated area if you go west, flying over the Braves stadium (SunTrust Park) if you go east. And the more traffic you have, the more potential you have of an airplane having an accident,” Blackwell said.
Dobbins’ main runway, he adds, would be hard for multiple aircraft to share because there are not feeder runways and other features that commercial airports have. And the presence of those aircraft would change the dynamics of the military base. Commercial flight staff coming and going, he said, would pose a significant security risk.
“Today, it’s very hard to get on Dobbins, period, much less if you were a paying customer. If you have a military operation going on, and we were in some kind of issue, having to share it with commercial is tough,” he said. “It’s not that it can’t be done — it’s just going to be difficult to shoehorn it in. But never say never. And it all depends on what the military wants to retain Dobbins to do.”
Blackwell says Dobbins may balk at a heavily commercial partnership, opting to retain its ability to provide emergency response in a variety of areas.
In 2014, Dobbins played a role in the treatment of three Americans who were infected with the Ebola virus while in Africa. The three were flown into Dobbins due to its secure, 10,000-foot runway that can accommodate any kind of plane, as well as its proximity to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Emory University Hospital, both in Atlanta, where the patients were taken.
The base this past September received medical patients and Department of Health and Human Services care team members from areas affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, including Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. It partnered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide an air and logistics hub for relief efforts.
Dobbins engineers also were dispatched after Irma’s impact, flying to Homestead Air Reserve Base, a location south of Miami near the Florida Keys affected by the severe weather, to assist in base recovery efforts.
“If you start commercializing the base, then they lose that option — where are they going to move them to, do they have a place to move them to?” Blackwell said regarding the emergency response operations offered by Dobbins. “It’s not a straightforward answer, I don’t think.”
Some neighbors of Dobbins say they are not intimidated by today’s talk of the potential for more flights coming and going out Dobbins.
“We’re used to it,” says Jesus Guzman, manager of the Monterrey Mexican Restaurant, of the current level of flights.
The business is located in the Lockheed Village shopping center on Atlanta Road just south of Austell Road. From the front of the shopping center — which also includes a wings restaurant, hair braiding business, and insurance and income tax provider — one can look east across Atlanta Road and see the expansive Dobbins and Lockheed Martin land.
Guzman said he is not worried about the potential for additional air traffic that may come from a potential partnership. He says it may even benefit the business.
“A lot of (people from) Lockheed come here. The more planes here, the more business we may get,” he said.
Just southeast of Dobbins’ property is the Windy Hill West shopping center on Windy Hill Road near its intersection of Village Parkway. Among its establishments is the Ugell Family Chiropractic Center.
“I’ve been in this office 25 years, and basically I’ve seen all the jets go by — it was not much of a nuisance to me,” said Dr. Marc Ugell, who recalls only sporadic visits to Dobbins by the Blue Angels as flights that led to significant amounts of noise. Even when Lockheed Martin had produced the F-22 Raptor fighter plane, Ugell recalled only hearing their test flights two or three times a day at most. The Raptor’s production ceased in 2013.
With most of today’s flights he notices merely circling around the area, Ugell says he rarely hears them.
“I think maybe if (Dobbins) does get a few more planes here and flying, it may cause some problems,” he adds. “If it was a constant disturbance, it would probably hinder business. But now, it’s not really a major concern.”
The air traffic is also not bothersome to Kristi Thames. She and her husband Mike have been in their house off Atlanta Road and Pearl Street on Hill Street for 17 years.
“My husband and I both love hearing the C-130 planes. In fact, almost every evening, we stand outside to watch them fly over. We really miss the jets,” Thames said, adding that while the two may not have the normal reaction as other residential neighbors of the base, the two enjoy the air traffic due to the both of them growing up in the area.
“It wouldn’t bother us one bit to see the base used. (But) maybe not so much as commercial like McCollum” in Kennesaw, she added.
Robert Thompson’s home is on Old Virginia Court in the Salem Ridge subdivision just west of the intersection of Powers Ferry and Terrell Mill roads and east of Dobbins. He said Friday that he was concerned over the lack of specifics of the runway provision and information that had been presented to the public.
The MDJ first reported on the Dobbins runway proposal in September. Thompson said he had only heard about the provision as it earned final congressional approval late last week.
“When we bought (our house) there in 2007, we knew that Dobbins was there. You may go three or four months and not ever really hear anything, but there was an evening recently where there were about 30 or 40 aircraft movements after about 10:30 or 11 p.m.,” Thompson said.
With any addition of flights out of and into Dobbins, Thompson said air traffic will be increased over neighborhoods such as his — a potential danger above the county’s populated areas. The additional air traffic, he says, may also hit residents with more engine noise. When a large cargo plane utilizes the base, he says, “it literally can shake the house, depending on how low it is, and it will set off car alarms.”
Those and other factors, he adds, could have a negative effect on property values.
“I can understand a politician wanting to tout job creation and things of that sort, but there needs to be public input on this and clarity on what this means,” he said. “Does it mean corporate jets, commercial flights? There’s no clarity here.”