New runway carries on airport’s legacy

New runway carries on airport’s legacy

[Photo: A skydiver comes in for a landing at Skydive Paraclete XP at P.K. Airpark in Raeford.]

By Catharin Shepard • Staff writer • Skydivers might be at the mercy of the wind and weather when they jump, but they’re assured of a smooth take-off on their way into the sky thanks to a completed runway repaving at P.K. Airpark.

Known worldwide as a hub for parachuting enthusiasts, Skydive Paraclete XP in Hoke County attracts visitors to P.K. Airpark from near and abroad who want to learn to skydive, and people who are already highly skilled in parachuting. Created as a lifetime endeavor of the late Gene Paul Thacker and his wife Billie Jean Thacker, today it’s operated by Paraclete XP and is home base to champion skydivers.

Paraclete XP owner Tim D’Annunzio purchased the airplanes and began leasing the airpark in 2014, with the intent of having the skydiving school be one of the most modern facilities available for people to learn the art of freefall. The airpark is home to the popular P.K.’s Grill and Pub, which offers an air-conditioned sunroom and shaded outdoor patio for watching skydivers zoom in to land after jumping at the Skydive Paraclete XP drop zone. It’s also common to see military planes at the airpark.

It was becoming clear in recent years that the airport’s runway needed some work, Paraclete XP Business Operations Manager Kristine Ward said.

“It’s been repaired a lot, but it really just needed to be completely redone,” she said.

Replacing the runway was a major undertaking and required the airport to temporarily shut down its flights while work was being completed. The workers had to completely remove the runway and lay down the base, Ward explained.

“They worked as fast as they could, because obviously not having a runway is a big deal for us,” she said.

The runway at P.K. Airpark is about 3,400 feet long and can accommodate a variety of aircraft, including military aircraft. On just about any given day, planes can be seen near the end of the runway waiting for parachutists to climb up and take off for their jump. Aircraft operating as part of military contracts also frequent the airpark.

The original runway was first put in back in the 1970s. Thanks to the recent work, the new runway should now be good to last another 40 or 50 years, Ward said.

“It will allow us to continue to operate hopefully at the current level and beyond,” she said.

Attractive for skydivers

The P.K. Airpark is an attractive location for skydivers, whether they’re beginners or people honing their skills at the highest levels of competition. The location has hosted national competitions, such as the U.S. Parachute Association National Skydiving Championships as well as smaller events.

This year the airpark will host the U.S. National Championships in September. Jeana Billings is one of the champion skydivers who jumps as part of a sponsored team at the P.K. Airpark.

“It’s going to pick the team that’s going to represent the United States for all the disciplines that we have,” Billings said. Parachutists compete in events such as wing-suiting, canopy maneuvering and freefall. The competition begins September 1, and spectators are welcome.

The swooping competition is one of the most exciting parts to watch, Billings said.

“As a viewer, that’s what’s exciting to watch. You’ll see a lot of people out there by the pond because you can see it live as they come in,” she said.

The airpark additionally hosts yearly record-setting attempts, and this year’s is set for June 22-25.

“You’ll see all these skydivers jumping out of all these planes, you can watch it unfold…when they deploy their parachutes it sounds like thunder,” Billings said.

Paraclete XP’s indoor wind tunnel a few miles down the road on U.S. 401 has also hosted indoor skydiving championship competitions. Both facilities bring thousands of people to visit Hoke County every year.

Paraclete’s investment into sponsoring the teams has made an impact in bringing more people to the airpark, Billings said.

“What sets this place apart and why it’s become the new hub for international jumpers and everything is how Paraclete has invested in the teams, and people see that,” she said. “One thing they do by sponsoring teams for competitions is take pride in, after the end of the competition, the teams on the podium are XP teams. And so it’s become this long-standing thing of, if you want to win, go and train at XP.”

“Anywhere you look, there’s a world champion,” she added.

That combined experience just stands out, making people want participate in what the P.K. Airpark and Skydive Paraclete XP have to offer. The “winning atmosphere” draws people in.

“If you want to get really good and becoming a professional golfer, you’re not going to just get Joe Blow off the street. You’re going to find someone of like Tiger Woods status and say hey, teach me how to be better, and that’s something XP’s been associated with everywhere,” Billings said.

The close proximity of the Paraclete XP wind tunnel for indoor skydiving practice is another draw for parachutists. If the weather isn’t cooperating for a traditional skydive from a plane, teams have another option: going just down the road to practice their freefall regardless of the forecast.

Having the wind tunnel nearby can also be a time-saver. An average parachuting practice day is 12 jumps, which is a lot of work for anywhere from 35-50 seconds of freefall per jump. The giant fans at the wind tunnel mean teams can get in an hour of practice without having to deal with all the prep work a traditional skydive requires.

“We’re busy all the time, and that’s about 35 percent military, 35 percent civilian, and then the rest are first-time flyers who come in for entertainment,” Ward said. “To have the tunnel here by this airport, the larger aircraft, and then on top of that, once we got the champions in here coaching – it’s kind of an unbeatable combination.”

While there are many drop zones throughout the country, many don’t have the kind of amenities that P.K. Airpark offers. P.K.’s Grill and Pub is another of the things that makes the location attractive for skydivers, and pilots passing through the area.

The restaurant and bar started as a snack bar and has since grown into a popular eatery both for people frequenting the airport for business or sport, and for locals in Hoke County looking for a place to grab a bite or hang out with friends.

About 20 years ago, the grill added a glassed-in sitting area with big windows allowing for patrons to relax in air conditioning while watching the skydiving action going on outside. Outdoor seating on a shaded patio offers an even closer look at the happenings at the airport.

The P.K.’s Grill and Pub menu includes bar food favorites like chips, onion rings, fried pickles and quesadillas, plus chicken wings and jalapeno poppers. Salads, fries, burgers and entrees like a Philly cheesesteak and club sandwich are also favorites. For people who are popping in late or just want to grab a soda, there are also a variety of well-stocked vending machines in the sun room.

A lifetime legacy

The airport began as a family business – a dream that Gene Paul Thacker, an Army Golden Knight, had for the future of skydiving. The airport is named “P.K.” for Paul Keith Thacker, the Thackers’ son who died in 1973 in a parachuting accident at the National Parachute Champion Meet.

Thacker’s wife, Billie Jean Thacker, recalled what it took to get the airpark up and running decades ago.

“Me and my husband, we worked together. There was nothing here. It’s amazing how it’s developed. This was all just pine trees and everything,” she said. “He worked a little bit on the side and I did too. We took our savings and we bought this.”

Thacker had just gotten out of the military and was flying planes, and happened to cross through Hoke County.

“He was flying and he flew up in this area and he saw the little dirt strip, and that’s when he started checking into everything,” Mrs. Thacker said. At the time, a Mr. Singletary out of Red Springs owned it, she said.

There was a dirt airstrip on the property when the Thackers bought it, but much of the property was grown over and hard to access. Over the years, the Thackers bought parcels of land and added on to the airport, and worked to improve the facilities. The airport paved the runway around 1972, with support from grant funds that Gene and Paul Thacker worked to secure.

“They worked hard to get a grant to get money to get the runway paved the first time,” Mrs. Thacker said.

Thacker’s skills as a skydiver soon had people coming to him at the airport to improve their own parachuting abilities, his wife said.

“They came from everywhere, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany,” she said. “They came here to train, because my husband was good in style and accuracy, and it grew from that.”

Over time, word of mouth spread of what Raeford’s local airport had to offer. Thacker’s work at the airport put Raeford on the map.

“Some people would come, and they would just go back to their country and say hey, you’ve got to go to Raeford,” Mrs. Thacker said.

Besides its aviation offerings, the airpark is home to the local veterans’ organizations posts where military veterans hold their meetings.

P.K. Airpark hosts Skydive Paraclete XP’s Fourth of July fireworks every year. This year the fireworks are set for 9 p.m. July 1, with food trucks beginning at 6 p.m. There is a free parking area, no cover charge, and there are restrooms available.

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