Jack Black | Smyrna / Rutherford County Airport Authority
In 2022, John Black—Executive Director of the Smyrna/Rutherford Country Airport Authority—received the Airport Executive Partnership Award, recognizing outstanding service to the aviation business community.
Read the following excerpt from the Aviation Business Journal to learn more about how John got his start in aviation and how he works to inspire the next generation of aviation professionals.
John Black has led the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority since its inception, transforming the Tennessee airport from a surplus WWII-era training field into a vibrant economic hub for the area and attracting more than $250 million in investment in the airport over 31 years of development.
Still, he says he was caught off guard when he learned of his NATA Award: “I was very surprised and honored at the same time.”
Black says his love of aviation dates back to early childhood. Partly inspired by an uncle who was a pilot, he remembers doing a report on the Wright brothers in 3rd grade, then starting a model airplane club at his school. “It’s been aviation ever since,” he says.
His role at the airport has now spanned three decades.
“I go way back,” he jokes. “This airport was constructed in 1942 as Smyrna Army Airfield. I came on board in 1991, just as a new, locally-formed airport authority shared by the county and the city was taking over. We had a lot of work to do! There hadn’t been much done on the airport in many, many years, but we started laying the groundwork for the future. A lot of money and a lot of hard work by a lot of great people has made the airport what it is today. Between the airport authority, the local community, and private investment, we’ve put over $250 million into the airport over the last 31 years. We’re now the third largest airport by size in the state of Tennessee, with 1,700 acres and room to expand.”
Ten years ago, when Black and his team commissioned their own economic impact study of the airport, it was measured at $74 billion. A more recent economic impact study produced by the State of Tennessee estimated it at $232 billion.
“So, it’s actually tripled in 10 years, which feels very validating of all the work that’s been done here,” Black says. “A lot of it is the growth of the airport business park: we’ve placed a lot of focus on diversifying our base, just like a stock portfolio. We have a one-megawatt solar farm here to generate electricity and return it to the grid, thanks to an agreement with the Tennessee Valley Authority. The National Guard is here, as well as two FBOs, three avionics shops, a blimp operation, and three flight schools that stay pretty busy. Stevens Aerospace does a lot of maintenance work here. We have several large hangars leftover from the military which we’ve converted and brought up to modern standards, and recently we added several new hangars. We also have some non-aviation development here in our business park with Hillwood, a Ross Perot company out of Texas. And we own a golf course, which we lease to the town of Smyrna. A little bit of everything is really our intent because aviation – like everything else – goes in cycles. The diversification helps to flatten out the curves.”
In light of the nod from NATA for the Executive Partnership Award, Black says partnership is the name of the game.
“We actually have 53 different leases here in our lease file,” Black says, “but I don’t like the words landlord and tenant, because really we’re all business partners. That’s how I see all the businesses here: when they’re successful, the airport is successful. So, we take a business minded, rather than bureaucratic, approach and we walk hand-in-hand with people as they go through a development process.”
Black credits his team for the many successes.
“There is never just one person that earns an award like this: there’s always a team behind it, and we have a great team here. A long list of people over those 31 years helped make this airport what it is, from our first chairman, Jack Weatherford, to our current chairman, Mike Woods. The fact that we’ve only had two chairmen in 31 years says a lot about our consistency, and everyone on our staff holds themselves to a very high level of customer service at this airport. I think that’s super important to the people that come in and out of here: when you set the bar high for yourself, they notice. I don’t want to leave out the Chamber of Commerce, the state economic development arm: we work so closely with them to bring business not only to the airport, but also to the local community because we’re part of that community.”
Black says he’s just getting started.
“We just finished three major projects extending more roads and utilities into another section of the airport business park and laying the groundwork for the next development area,” he says. “At the same time, in 2023 we’re kicking off a big project to completely rehabilitate one of our runways, and we’re taking delivery of a new aircraft rescue and firefighting vehicle. Next June, we have the Great Tennessee Air Show, featuring the U.S. Navy Blue Angels. After that, we’ll probably do a realignment of a few of our taxiways to increase efficiency, and we have several parties interested in building new corporate hangars. So, it’s all still very exciting.”
Black says he’s proudest of hosting community events, like the Smyrna Rotary Wings of Freedom fish fry, which raised $200,000 last year for veterans groups.
Other recent community projects include an all-inclusive aviation-themed playground for kids in the park on the airport property.
Black says he hopes the playground inspires future careers in aviation, just as his 3rd grade experiences inspired his.
“You never know! I say the same thing every time we host the air show,” he says. “When we’re all neck deep in the details, I tell our team, ‘Just take some time this weekend to stop and look at the faces of the kids, because that’s the payoff for all this hard work that you’ve done over the past year: kids looking to the sky and dreaming.”