-- rich history leads to today's industrial potential

by Jo Ann Eddleman

As far as small town, general purpose airports go, the Coleman Municipal Airport has seen a little bit of everything. The airport started out in 1941 as a base constructed by the Government for the sole purpose of training pilots. According to airport manager Randy Long, Coleman was just one of many such training bases the Government set up in West Texas. "It was just a good area with a lot of open space for these small training bases," Long said. Brady, Brownwood and San Angelo also had similar training camps.

Cecil Day, a local pilot who has used the airport for 48 years, said, "It would look like there were a bunch of flies in the sky," describing the effect of so many aircraft in the air over Coleman. Day said there were as many as 200 aircraft present at the airport, and the trainees and instructors also bunked at the airport.

Once the war was over and the need for newly minted pilots was no longer a priority, the facility reverted to the City.

In the late 40's and early 50's, Trans-Texas Airways provided commercial service to the area at the airport. But, generally, the airport languished in the 50's and into the 60's with only one or two private planes hangared at the facility. In the early 70's, John Elliott had a flying service that operated a small, 3-plane crop-dusting business from the airport, but it was short-lived.

By the late 70's, a flying club consisting of 35 to 40 members began to come together. Some of the names that come up when discussing flying club origins are Robert McHorse, Benny Parsons, Jeff Justice, Cecil Day and Randy Long. The club began using the airport as a fun place to gather and talk planes from the 70's through the early 90's. Vendors would fly in from time to time with their various aviation-related wares and provide snacks and refreshments to the club to make their sales pitch that much more attractive. A good time was had by all in the name of shopping for the latest gadget for the plane!

The club also sponsored annual air shows-twenty-one in all-that were popular, money-making events, according to Long. Insurance issues after an air-show crash brought an end to the air show activities, and the club itself began to die off.

It was when Bill Laws retired back to his home in Coleman County that the airport began to take on the look it has today. Laws began buying and refurbishing World War II and Korean era training planes called warbirds. Laws built the hangars he needed to accommodate the work that he and Randy Long lavished on the old planes. The two restored the planes to flying condition and would then take them to air shows across the country, ably representing Coleman in the process. By 1988, twelve planes were being shown to the public under the name of the Coleman Warbird Museum. The Museum was a popular draw for aviation history buffs from all over the world until it closed in 1993 due to Laws' failing health.

A refurbished and updated terminal building was dedicated to Laws in November 2003 in recognition of all he had done for the airport.

The Bill Laws Terminal and the airport in general receive resounding praise from visiting aviators. Comments include appreciation for the pristine ramps and runways, hassle-free fueling, the spotless passenger terminal with a pilots lounge and snooze room, a weather computer, public telephone, restrooms, and courtesy cars that are available to anyone who needs a ride to town.

Yes, the Coleman Municipal Airport has a rich history, but the best is yet to come according to City Manager Larry Weise and Coleman Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Executive Director Roger Nelson.

Weise is optimistic that the recent improvements at the airport under the leadership of the airport advisory board will lead to the airport becoming a focal point for industrial development and jobs for the Coleman area. The advisory board, appointed by City Council, is currently comprised of Cecil Day, Ross Jones, Randy Turner, John Vance and James Wright.

Under the board's guidance and with the financial assistance of attractive matching grants offered by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDot), the City is now close to finishing a new fuel farm. The larger fuel farm will include jet fuel.

Commenting on the project, Weise said, "I hope this will mean more jets will choose to land in Coleman, even if it is just to refuel." Weise is also hopeful that once jet fuel is available the military will begin to use the airport as a northwestern landing point in a training zone that extends south toward San Antonio.

Referring to the lower volume rate the City can take advantage of and the addition of jet fuel for sale, Weise said he hoped revenue from the fuel farm might be the tipping point needed for the airport to become self-supporting. At the present time the City subsidizes the airport with approximately $20,000 annually.

Another improvement underway is AWOS (Automatic Weather Observing System). AWOS will pinpoint weather information to the exact Coleman location, allowing pilots to precisely plan their landings based on weather conditions at the Coleman airport instead of relying on reports from as far away as Brownwood or Abilene. AWOS is expected to be in place by the end of the year.

Adjoining the airport property is the Coleman Industrial Park where the EDC owns approximately 75,000 square feet of desirable space adjacent to the tarmac, making it ideal for aviation-related businesses.

In discussing plans for the old Selkirk buildings, Nelson said the EDC is not locked into aviation business prospects for the buildings, but the board "is very enthusiastic about the potential of these buildings given their location at the Airport." The EDC actively pursues aviation-related businesses that might be a fit for the Coleman industrial park through advertising in various aviation publications and responding to tips from the State Economic Development office. Nelson is currently presenting proposals to kit manufacturers that could make good use of the proximity to the tarmac while bringing good-paying jobs to Coleman.

Nelson said he also envisions the Coleman airport becoming a destination for the servicing of small planes. Such services would include a radio shop, paint shop, upholstery business, etc. to complement Randy Long's aircraft mechanic business.

In addition to the 75,000 square feet, the EDC is also marketing a 6,000 sq. ft. building across the road from the Selkirk buildings (the old ambulance building). The Filtration Equipment and Supply Company, with its 17 employees, vacated the building in order to lease 25,000 square feet in the larger Selkirk building to accommodate its storage needs. An agreement is in place to relocate Filtration if the entire square footage is needed for another company.

The Coleman Development Corporation owns an additional 50 acres in the Industrial Park and the City owns another 58 acres in the general area.

It would appear that, with all its major improvements and more than enough land for expansion in the general area, the Coleman Municipal Airport is poised to be a major drawing card for Coleman as the City looks forward to attracting jobs to the area.

Regardless of what happens next, or when, the Coleman airport will continue to be home to our local aviators, as well as the outfitters who regularly bring the hunting and fishing enthusiasts to our town. Word spreads fast when you have a showcase airport. The Coleman Municipal Airport is fast becoming first-class!

Pictures courtesy of
James Winstead, Jo Ann Eddleman, ETAL
Coleman County Chamber of Commerce,
Agriculture and Tourist Bureau

218 Commercial Avenue
Coleman, Texas 76834