Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…Gulfstream…5…2…2…Bravo…Papa…short final…2..1…
Unicom—Bravo…Papa…winds 230 at 8 knots…no other reported traffic…
The Biggest Plane
The question I’m asked the most at the airport is, “What is the biggest plane that can land here?” I actually don’t know the answer to that, because I don’t know the capabilities of all the different aircraft. I’m sure that a Boeing 737 could land on 5,000 feet of runway, taking back off might be a problem though. That actually happened a few years back at Capitol City Airport in Frankfort. A Boeing 737 commercial jet was talking to Lexington Bluegrass Airport tower and had been cleared to land on runway 4, the plane had just departed Louisville Staniford Field so it would not be getting much altitude for the short flight to Lexington. So, when Bluegrass Field cleared the 737 to land on runway 4 the pilot in command looked down and saw the Capitol City Airport and since Frankfort and Lexington airports have the same runway alignments, 4 and 22, he mistakenly thought he was at Lexington and landed in Frankfort.
I’m sure there were some red faces in that cockpit when they realized what had happened. The passengers had to be taken by bus to Lexington and the plane had to be de-fueled and seats taken out to lighten the load for take-off. I’m sure the plane was repositioned to Lexington and refueled there.
The biggest plane that has landed at Big Sandy is a Gulfstream 550, I have had two different G550’s land here. About 10 years ago billionaire, T. Boone Pickens, from Texas, flew in to meet with Massey Energy. The G550 was a beautiful jet, I don’t know exactly what it cost but I’m sure it was well over 30 million dollars.
The pilots called in advance to let me know they would be spending the night with us and would be taking on fuel, so I was anxiously awaiting their arrival. When the big jet overflew the airport to turn downwind for runway 21 it looked just like a commercial airliner. The G550 has a 93.5 feet wingspan, 96.5 feet from tip to tail and the top of the tail is 37 feet in the air. A jet that size on final looks like it’s barely moving but it’s actually doing about a 120 mph, after touchdown, thrust reversers activated, it was nearly stopped on just over half the runway. As the G550 got to the end of the runway I noticed the undercarriage, the wheels looked so far apart, I was glad we widened the taxiways on each end to accommodate larger jets.
I parked the G550 near the fuel farm because I don’t have a tug capable of moving a jet that size. My brother, Larry Joe Cox, was flying for Massey at the time and he was ready to pick up Mr. Pickens and fly him over to Massey’s office in the Massey helicopter. Mr. Pickens got off the plane, walked over to me and introduced himself. Very nice of him, I thought and we chatted for a few minutes and I introduced him to Larry Joe. Mr. Pickens, making fun of our accents, said, “I feel like I’m back home in Texas talking with you guys.” We had a good laugh about that.
After Larry Joe departed, I brought the pilots their rental car and helped secure the jet. They showed me the inside, it was not arranged for flying a lot of people, it was mostly arranged like a flying office. It had two seats with desks facing forward, about three more luxury seats without desks and two long couches where you could lay down and take a nap. Restroom in the back and a galley in the front for refreshments. It sure was impressive and yes, the leather upholstery had that ‘new car smell’.
The pilots didn’t stay long before going to their hotel but when they returned the next day I got to spend some time finding out about them and Mr. Pickens. Mr. Pickens lived in Pampa, Texas, made his money in the oil, natural gas and the stock market, he was now investing heavily in wind and solar power. On his ranch he had his own 5,000 foot private runway and hangar where he kept his G550. They showed me pictures of his home and some of the barns, his private lake and their hangar. For their return flight to Texas they purchased 1,100 gallons of Jet-A, that’s a good day for me. His jet was painted white with orange and black stripes, the colors of Oklahoma State, where he graduated. He was a big supporter of their sports programs.
One of my friends who lives in Johnson County, Wade Smith, found out about Mr. Pickens’ jet at the airport and told me he had bought the book he wrote about business and investing and asked if I thought he could possibly get it signed by him when he was ready to leave. I asked the pilots and they didn’t know his schedule but didn’t mind asking him when they were ready to depart later in the day. Wade came by with his book and waited for Mr. Pickens to arrive for his return flight to Texas.
When Larry Joe brought him back he just waved at us and went straight to the jet, the pilots told him about Wade wanting his book signed and Mr. Pickens came back to the door of the jet and waved for Wade to come aboard. He said to Wade, “If you think enough of me to buy my book, I’ll be glad to take the time to sign it for you.” He invited Wade onboard and chatted with him for a few minutes. Wade was amazed at how accommodating this Texas billionaire was.
When I saw on the news in 2019 about Mr. Pickens passing away, I thought about how nice he was to me, my brother and Wade. Not everyone on the big jets that land here take the time to speak to me, I totally understand that, most are here on business and when they arrive they have things to do, they’re not here to see me. I try to treat everyone the same though, it doesn’t matter if they are in a Gulfstream 550 jet or a Cessna 150, I try to make myself available to welcome them to Big Sandy and answer any questions they might have about our area. I try to treat everyone who lands here with the same respect. I wasn’t expecting someone with all that wealth and fame, to be so down to earth, he didn’t have to be. It’s hard to know how people really are in such a brief encounter, so after his passing I read more about his life. Turns out in his lifetime he had donated over half of his wealth to charity and education, estimated to be over 700 million dollars.
Mr. Pickens had the biggest jet to ever land here a Big Sandy and as we say here in the mountians, he had a pretty big heart, too.
Aircraft—Big Sandy unicom…5…2…2…Bravo…Papa…rolling on 21…departing to the southwest…
Unicom—Bravo…Papa…winds calm…have a safe trip home…thanks for the fuel sale…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager of Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties.)