Hidden like a secret behind a thick stand of pine trees is an airport 1.2 miles from downtown Chapel Hill that operated for over eighty years. It’s no secret to many, but newcomers might be surprised to learn that the University of North Carolina had one of its own. Now it’s a place where only birds fly, but once upon a time Piper Cubs buzzed just above the tree line.
It opened in 1928 when local contractor Charlie Lee Martindale purchased fifty acres of land from UNC Professor Horace Williams, and built a small airfield that came to be called the Chapel Hill Airport. Throughout the 1930s and early 1940s student pilots were trained there. UNC bought the airport in 1940 when it received 870 adjacent acres through Williams’s will. They renamed it for Horace Williams, who had been a popular Professor of Philosophy at Carolina from 1890 to 1940.
In 1942, Horace Williams Airport became one of five U.S. Navy pre-flight schools. By 1945, more than 18,000 cadets had trained there, including baseball great Ted Williams, Paul “Bear” Bryant, and future presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush. The airport always saw a lot of action around big sporting events.
After the war, the airport was a popular destination for private plane owners and visiting alumni. On the day of the 1948 UNC-Texas football game, ninety-seven planes used the airport.
The airport also celebrates its unique place in African American history. Twenty of the original Tuskegee Airmen called North Carolina home and most did some training here. Warren Wheeler, the founder of the first African American-owned air carrier, Wheeler Airlines, opened his own flying school at Horace Williams in 1962. Unfortunately, due to racial segregation, earning a commercial pilot’s license was not possible for Wheeler in North Carolina. In order to realize his dream, Wheeler had to leave the South for his training.
Since the late 1960s, with the rapidly expanding Raleigh-Durham airport nearby, university administrators and town leaders frequently debated the necessity of having an airport in Chapel Hill. One of the most compelling arguments to leave the airport in place was its use by UNC doctors traveling around the state with the Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) program. But the call to remove the airport became especially strong in the early 2000s as the university began planning for Carolina North, a major expansion of the campus to be built primarily on the land used by and surrounding the airport.
In preparation to carry out that plan, the Chapel Hill Flying Club relocated to the airport in Sanford, North Carolina, and the AHEC air operations moved to RDU. Although those plans still remain on hold, the university finally closed the airport to air traffic in 2018, citing the cost to keep it open. The University has long been in the practice of withdrawing from operations that are not core to its educational mission.
Now the airport is part of the University’s larger Carolina North property, totaling approximately 1,000 acres. Currently the University has support functions located on this site and has plans to install 1 MW of solar panels on the airport property.
So next time you’re idling at the light at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Estes Drive, imagine above you silver birds coming in for a landing, doctors saving lives, football fans in a hurry, and the Tuskegee Airmen changing history. Horace Williams Airport brought the University of North recognition from military, health, and world leaders. Now, taking the natural environment and its biodiversity into account, the University will integrate it into the surrounding wooded paradise, adhering to an economic model that preserves as it creates. Horace Williams Airport has life left in it yet.
Carolina North Forest
Did you know that you can enjoy a visit to 750 acres of woodlands located on the University of North Carolina’s Carolina North campus? For more than thirty years, the Carolina North Forest (also known as the Horace Williams Tract) has offered the communities a tranquil natural oasis in which to recreate, relax, and enjoy a respite from the area’s ever-changing urban landscape.
The Cloudbuster Nine
A largely forgotten story is that of the Cloudbuster Nine, a semi-pro baseball team formed in 1943 among some of the Naval cadets who trained at Horace Williams Airport. The roster included Ted Williams, Johnny Sain, and Johny Pesky. The team’s history and the larger story of those that trained at Chapel Hill is told in The Cloudbuster Nine by Anne R. Keene.
Laurie Paolicelli is executive director for the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau, a position she has held since 2005. Laurie has worked in tourism and marketing for twenty-five years, having served in leadership roles in Houston and California convention and visitor bureaus. She is a native of the Twin Ports of Duluth, MN/Superior Wisconsin. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Business and Communications from the University Wisconsin-Superior and graduate certification in Technology In Marketing from the UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.