Herrin – HerrinFesta Italiana names Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois as their Corporate Honoree for 2017.“Essential.” That’s the term best used to describe Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois. With its 8,000 foot primary runway; 5,000 foot secondary runway; sophisticated instrument landing systems; air traffic control tower; full service Fixed Base Operator; numerous aircraft hangar facilities; Airport Business Park; and modern airline terminal, today’s facility certainly lives up to its federal designation as an “Essential Air Service” airport. The airport’s growth has been a long story of hard work and dedication by a handful of far-sighted leaders.
In 1930, one of the region’s aviation pioneers, Fred Valentin, opened his 100 acre landing field east of Marion. The airfield had three cinder-surfaced runways arranged in a triangular pattern. Valentin trained an estimated 1,500 pilots during his years in the business, many of which went into the military at the start of World War II. After the war, Valentin had the foresight to take his flying service to a larger field west of Marion and south of Energy. He named the new airfield “Macarin,” using the combined names of Marion, Carterville, and Herrin. The wisdom of this move was made manifest a few years later when a modern four-lane Route 13 was re-located along the south end of the airport, and Interstate 57 was constructed east of the field. Nothing could have made the airport more centralized and accessible for residents of Southern Illinois.
In 1948, Valentin sold his airfield to the Williamson County Airport Authority established by referendum vote a year earlier. Under state statute the Airport Authority serves as an independent municipal organization responsible for the operation, maintenance, and development of the Airport.
Today the Airport Board consists of six members appointed by the leaders of Williamson County cities that have a population of over 5,000, and by the County Board of Commissioners. Current Board members are Bernard Paul, Chairman, Javier Muniz, Vice Chairman, Michael Troop, 2nd Vice Chairman, Robert L. Mees, Secretary, Randall Youngblood, Treasurer and Greg Smothers, Commissioner.
In 1957 another aviation visionary, Charles Stoker, took over the Fixed Base Operator (FBO) services at the airport with the opening of his business, Aeroflite. Over the years Aeroflite’s business grew to offer aircraft fueling , line service, maintenance and repair, aircraft charter, aircraft rental, and flight instruction. Today Midwest Aviation provides these services for private, commercial, and military aircraft alike. Stoker also holds the distinction of being hired by the Authority as its first Airport Manager. He continued in both capacities until his retirement in 1998 . The Authority hired Douglas Kimmel who continues to serve as Airport Director.
The Airport remains the region’s sole provider of commercial airline services. In 1953 Ozark Airlines began service to St. Louis and additional hub airports in the years to follow. After Ozark, other airlines, including Britt Airways, Air Midwest, Northwest Airlink, Trans World Express, American Connection, Mesa Airlines, and Great Lakes Airlines, have provided scheduled airline service for our region. Since 2009 Cape Air has been the provider of daily flights to and from St. Louis serving approximately 20,000 passengers per year, and linking the region to the national air transportation system.
Recognizing the significance of the airport and its benefits to the entire region, the Airport Authority eventually changed the airport name from Macarin to Williamson County Airport, and later to Williamson County Regional Airport. On November 11, 2016 one final change was made to coincide with the opening of the Airport’s long awaited new airline terminal. At the opening ceremony Airport Board Chairman Bernard Paul rededicated the new terminal to World War II Navy fighter pilot ace and former Airport Board Chairman, Captain Robert Duncan.
Chairman Paul also announced that Veterans Airport of Southern Illinois would serve as the Airport’s new name – both of which are grateful acknowledgements of those dedicated to the advancement of aviation in Southern Illinois, and to those who have served the United States of America in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Airport officials will be honored at the Mayor’s HerrinFesta Italiana Honoree Banquet May 23 at the Herrin Civic Center, and airport staffers will ride in the Grand Festa Parade May 27.