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General Aviation Flies High At ILM

By Laura Moore, posted Mar 1, 2024
Richard Formo, general manager of Modern Aviation Wilmington, stands inside a hangar at Wilmington International Airport. Modern Aviation is one of two FBOs at the airport that service a growing general aviation base. (Photo BY MADELINE GRAY)
Jeff Bourk explains how general aviation works at Wilmington International Airport in marina terms. 

ILM airport has two “marinas” or fixed base operators (FBO), Modern Aviation and Aero Center Wilmington. These FBOs offer various services for aircraft and crews, including aircraft maintenance, fueling and storage.

“People understand marinas more than airports. General aviation is like the boat docks that everybody keeps their boats at,” said Bourk, the airport’s director. “You can compare the ferry to Southport to commercial air travel and the marina at Wrightsville Beach to general aviation.”

He said many single-engine airplane owners come and go through the FBOs.

“Many basically own a ‘slip’ there, and others are transient and ‘dock’ for a day, buy gas or get other services like catering or maintenance,” Bourk said.

Richard Formo, general manager of Modern Aviation, said FBOs serve as facilitators for the general aviation community. 

“There will always be a need within general aviation, and with that need come the services we provide, whether that be to fuel the aircraft or the maintenance needed to keep the aircraft running,” Formo said.   

According to Bourk, general aviation business is tracked in three categories: airlines, general aviation and military. 

Among those three categories in 2023, ILM reported about 91,000 flights. Airlines make up “roughly 30% of the total operations,” while general aviation reported about 54,000 flights. 

Over the past five years, general aviation traffic at ILM has grown significantly. In 2019, more than 35,000 flights were reported, compared to more than 54,000 in 2023. 

“Every category went up significantly with the exception of the military. While we do not track the number of people on each aircraft, operations are occurring for a lot of different reasons,” Bourk said. “Trends continue to grow and expand within this market.”

General aviation flights operate for various purposes, including private commerce and business and leisure travel. Many of these have a significant impact on the local economy. 

Bourk said small business owners fly to various locations to broaden their reach while big corporations fly to Wilmington on private jets planning to do business in the area, reflecting the broad economic impact of general aviation.  

“General aviation is an important part of the aviation system, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon,” Bourk said. “General aviation is the most significant to the airport’s operations. Though they do not serve as many people as the airline operations, [general aviation] is an important part of the industry and the economic impact it has on the region.” 

Investments at ILM reflect growth. Plans are underway for expansions and improvements to the general aviation operations as well as to the terminal and taxiway.

One question that often makes Bourk flinch is why ILM is designated as Wilmington International Airport when there are no direct international flights. 

“On average, 4.5 flights a day utilize ILM’s international airport status,” Bourk said. “General aviation international flights come to ILM because we are a port of entry with customs. We serve about 1,500 flights a year for flights coming in from outside of the country. That is a big commerce feature, and it is important for what we offer our general aviation user.” 

Flight training is another aspect of general aviation that occurs at ILM. Bourk pointed out a grant recently awarded to Cape Fear Community College for a flight school and an aircraft maintenance training program.

As a part of the $5.5 million workforce development grant from the New Hanover Community Endowment, CFCC has partnered with the airport, Modern Aviation and Cape Fear Aviation Flight Training. CFCC officials have said they hope to have this training up and running this fall to support ILM’s growth and offer students career pathways in this industry. 

“This will be a huge benefit to the local industry as we need more pilots and more mechanics. For those in the CFCC region, this will be huge for them to be offering programs for students, especially military personnel who are looking to convert their skills to the civilian world,” Bourk said.

Formo emphasized the need for new pilots. He said he hopes to remedy that need by his FBO working closely with area organizations such as Cape Fear Coastal Aviation and the Cape Fear Flying Club, as well as CFCC and various local nonprofits to promote aviation. Cape Fear Coastal Aviation, which offers training and aircraft rentals and is based at ILM, is separate from Cape Fear Aviation Flight Training in Fayetteville. 

“We work with these organizations to help in that light general aviation and to develop avenues from childhood to adulthood to make it easier for people to acquire their pilot licensing,” Formo said. 

Formo said that general aviation and its need for more pilots will continue to grow. 
“Wilmington Business Development is doing a great job of bringing big business to the area, and with that, so will the need for jet aircraft for business and corporate travel,” Formo said. “As we grow as a city, that business travel will grow as well.”

Bourk said he expects some ups and downs over the years, but overall, he predicts the current trend of increased travel in and out of Wilmington to continue over the long run.
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