Golden Triangle Regional Airport Executive Director Mike Hainsey spoke to the Starkville Rotary Club Monday about the rapid growth and expansion of the Golden Triangle Regional Airport and unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones.
The GTRA has twice the number of international travelers than other airports of the same size, and Hainsey said Mississippi State University and other industries are the reason behind that.
Flights are full especially during busy months for the GTRA. The airport's busy months are April, May, October and November.
"That includes Saturday morning flights and Sunday morning flights as well," he said.
There are things going on right now that landed the GTRA a big opportunity to work with Delta Airlines.
In downtown Birmingham, I-59/20 closed down for 14 months beginning in January.
"To get to the Birmingham Airport you either have to go through city streets and I did that and trust me you don't want to do some of that at night or you'll get lost, and otherwise you have to go all the way around 459 so it adds about 30 minutes to your travel," Hainsey said. "So it's an opportunity for us to reach out to Tuscaloosa."
The distance between Tuscaloosa and GTRA is the same distance between Tuscaloosa and the Birmingham Airport.
The solution for this problem is that Delta added a fourth flight that will begin in June.
Hainsey said there is a pilot shortage in the industry right now. Within the next 10 years 26,000 pilots will face mandatory retirement. Pilots previously retired at the age of 60, but now the age has increased to 65.
The cost of flying skyrocketed in correlation with the increase in gasoline prices. It costs approximately $10,000 to get a private flying license right now, more than double the cost years ago. Hainsey mentioned the cost of attaining a license and the salary for pilots years ago would put someone in $100,000 debt.
"Columbus Air Force Base is huge for us and they're going to be producing pilots for a long time to come," Hainsey said.
As far as drones, Hainsey said drone experts in this area aren't at the GTRA. They're with the Mississippi State-led Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence (ASSURE).
"ASSURE is officially the lead agent for the Center of Excellence for the FAA. The FAA wanted a research program and kudos to Dr. Shaw and his team that put together the ASSURE team," Hainsey said.
In total, 24 universities across the country are part of this program, but ASSURE is the leading agency.
The goal of the GTRA was to take on the stigma of drones.
More than 10 years ago, GTRA became one of the first commercial service airports in the country to get authorized to fly drones at a commercial service airport.
"The reason this is important to everyone in the room is because you guys can do it," he said.
Drones hold their own position at GPS altitude until the battery gets low. Then it returns within five meters of where it took off and will land there.
"That technology is so simple yet we can pop that up there for an emergency and just swap out batteries and it lasts about 30 minutes at a time," Hainsey said.
GTRA started off by using drones to look at the top of their buildings to see if the roofs needed replacement.
Hainsey said they have also used drones to produce marketing videos.
"The Delta station manager asked me if I could do a video when one of these airplanes came in because she has a fairly high turnover and she wanted to train her people," he said. "I put that thing (drone) up there at 80 feet and filmed this from when it landed to when they were unloading the bags and everything else. So now she can take each person and be like 'You're going to be in this position here's what you do.'"
GTRA have practiced using the drones with staged situations such as active shooters, emergency responses, spills and more.
Hainsey was raised in Titusville, Florida and went to graduate from the United States Air Force Academy after high school. He received a M.B.A. from Webster University and accumulated 6,000 hours in the U.S. Air Force.
At Columbus Air Force Base, he served as an instructive pilot and while doing a training flight in a T38 with a student, a wing broke off. The plane caught on fire and while Hainsey and the student managed to escape, Hainsey sustained severe burns to his neck, back and arms.
Hainsey had parachute problems and couldn't get it to successfully open until moments before he hit a tree. The impact of the tree knocked him in and out of consciousness. Following his recovery, Hainsey was named Deputy Wing Commander at CAFB and named Airport Director in 2008 after he retired from the Air Force.
During his time at the GTRA he has overseen and participated in orderly expansion of the airport such as industrial location and two expansions of the terminal building.