North Carolina's most fascinating airport is in the middle of nowhere
Want paramilitary training? A jetliner graveyard? People trying to break land speed records? Then fella, the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport is for you.
You see that? DO YOU SEE THAT? Big ol’ planes just lying around at an airport that’s at least two hours away from any major city. And before you say it, no, Laurinburg is not a major city (YET).
I don’t know how I first stumbled across this, but I know that years ago, I found a Google Earth image of the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport. The facility is in Scotland County, which is smack dab in the middle of Charlotte and Wilmington, and is a two-hour drive from each. The airport itself is fairly large, and once had three functioning runways. Today, it’s the home of an airplane boneyard, where old jets are scrapped for parts. Hence, if you can get near it, it’s a great place where you can take apocalyptic, Con Air-style photographs.
I’d made a few attempts to see some of those planes up close and in person over the years, but the salvage company, Charlotte Aircraft, politely said no. The woman I talked to made it sound like there was no news value in letting me in. I can see that. I can’t imagine how many requests they get from people who just want to go there and poke around.
All of which is to say that I’d forgotten about it until I saw a Twitter thread that included these two tweets:
The story that follows has it all: Brass knuckles at an abandoned hospital, an anti-terrorist training facility, and some dudes (mostly dudes) trying to go really really fast just … because. It all happened at a place that was built for a very important purpose, a purpose that only lasted about three years.
Glide, Glide, Glippidy Glide
The reason why there’s a very large airport in a very rural area? The Army wanted it there. Back in 1941, the military was looking to build an air training facility close to Fort Bragg. So, the locals bought up about a square mile’s worth of land, leased it to the feds, who then built a $10 million air base that could hold 10,000 men. For a time, it was Scotland County’s largest de facto city.
What kind of training happened there? You guessed it, GLIDER TRAINING.
Yes, combat gliders were once A Thing. They were an important part of D-Day, but were also fairly easy targets, giving them the mortifying nickname of “flying coffins.”
Anyhow, after World War II ended, the Army didn’t really need that air base anymore, and turned it back over to the locals, who now had a very large open space on their hands. So, they used it for more than just flying. Hence, the North Carolina Highway Patrol put its cadets through car chase training there from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Also during that time, the airport turned into a jetliner cadaver lab.
The Airline That Went All Frankenstein On Us
In 1953, a guy named Jenks Caldwell Sr. started the Charlotte Aircraft Corporation. He’d flown during World War II, and had also been a mechanic and instructor. In one telling, he initially started the company to put planes back together, not to rip them apart:
As the story goes, the founder Harold Jenkins “Jenks” Caldwell Sr. was in a restaurant and noticed that a portion of the building was constructed of the fuselage of an old Army C-54 transport aircraft. He purchased the airframe, pulled it out of the concrete, obtained more parts, and built himself a fully fly-able aircraft for commercial service.
His intention was not to sell it, but to also start his own small airline – which he did. Over the years, the small airline grew to include DC-8s and 707s. Eventually, the company transformed into a salvage operation, selling parts of the various aircraft to commercial and private companies.
The was based in Charlotte, but took apart airplanes at Laurinburg-Maxton. There, the company would buy up old, worn out jetliners, remove their old doors, rudders, engines, and more, and sell those parts back to airlines. There are a bunch of old Northwest Airlines planes out there, including a 747 that, in technical terms, was decapitated and had its head sent to the Smithsonian for mounting.
Caldwell’s granddaughter, in a comment on an article from a few years back, recounted playing hide and seek on the planes as a child. Which, um, sounds AWESOME. Wouldn’t you like to do the same thing? Well guess what? You can’t! As of 2017, Charlotte Aircraft was no longer allowing visitors on site because some folks were breaking in to steal parts or vandalize the planes. So, you’ll just have to enjoy the plethora of creepy pictures that already exist online. Or, you can just drive around the outside of the place and see what you can see through the fence.
And yet, cutting apart giant airplanes is somehow not the wildest thing going on out there.
Fightin’ fake terrorists, racin’ crotch rockets, jumpin’ outta planes
Back in the 1990s, a couple of guys who tried to break speed records out at the Bonneville Salt Flats wanted to see if they could do the same thing out East. So, they formed the East Coast Timing Association, and set out to find a permanent home to race. They got it in 1996 at the Laurinburg-Maxton Airport. Volunteers went to work brush-hogging and clearing an old two-mile-long runway. They removed three fully-grown trees, installed guard rails, and repaved it. Then, they held time trials there five weekends a year with souped up hot rods, trucks, and motorcycles. Here’s what that looked like, from the front render of a car barreling down the runway at 167 miles per hour:
That seems fast, except… it’s not. The speed record at the “Maxton Mile” was 272.374 MPH, set in 2010 by a guy named Bill Warner, who did it ON A MOTORCYCLE. That speed, at the time, was a world record. (Warner would go on to reach an even higher speed, 311 miles per hour, but died in 2013 while trying to set yet another record).
Meanwhile, some other folks were looking to make a home at the airport. Michael Vaden, a man with 30 years of service in the Marines and Special Forces, formed Gryphon Group in 2001. Basically, it’s a civilian company that does military style training, often with the military itself. Here’s a succinct summary from a Reddit post:
Others on the post said that the training was “fun as shit,” and pretty effective.
Gryphon signed a 20-year lease at the airport in 2009, and two years later, said it had expanded to the point where it really needed as much space as it could get. Hence, the racers had to go. The drivers grumbled about it being the end of speed records being set on the east coast, but they eventually moved to a new race course at an abandoned air base in Arkansas. The drama was very big in land speed circles, but didn’t seem to register outside of Maxton. In fact, it didn’t seem to register much inside Maxton. “What do the local folk think about all this?” one article asked. “Most don’t even know it is happening.”
The ECTA is gone, but Gryphon and Charlotte Aircraft are still there, and the airport is now the home of the Golden Knights, the Army’s parachute team. And just last year, the authority that runs the airport announced that it’s extending a 2,000 foot runway to 8,500 feet to attract larger planes and, ostensibly, more business to the industrial park that’s sprung up nearby. Even so, most of the original buildings from the base have vanished. One exception: the old base church, which exists today as Skyway Baptist Church.
Brass Knuckles at the Abandoned Hospital
All of this would make for an interesting place to visit, but what’s it like to live there? For that, I tracked down the guy whose tweets got me to take a second look at Laurinburg-Maxton. “So from what I could gather it was pretty heavily secured,” Chad Floyd, now a real estate agent, wrote to me in an email. “Most of my experience was riding by it (I moved from Laurinburg before I was driving age) and marveling at the vastness of what an empty plane looked like (they were faced angling the road).” Chad always asked his dad if he could get inside the fence to get a better look. Every time, his dad said no.
I’ll be honest, though, I was a little more interested in asking Chad about the abandoned hospital where, as a 10-year-old, he dug up a pair of brass knuckes. “Man, that place was just CREEEEEEPY and situated between my childhood church and elementary school, so us brave lads would try to sneak around in there as much as possible,” he said. “Legends of kids falling through the stairs kept us on the first floor, but holy shit I get goosebumps thinking about that.” I thought there might be a connection to the old air base and the crumbling four-story hospital, since Scotland Memorial’s first facility was in the Army’s old medical center at the airport. I thought wrong: The hospital moved to McLean Street in Laurinburg in the 1950s but closed in the 1980s, and has since been demolished. So, dear reader, while you can visit Scotland County to see aircraft skeletons, I am sorry to report that your chances of finding crude fistfighting implements there are now considerably lower.