Downtown Island Airport, Rendering by MHM Inc., September 2023
The Downtown Island Airport (DKX) is getting a facelift this year. With a new director, Rob Voyles, and a new nonprofit, Friends of Downtown Island Airport, you can expect to see good things coming. While the airport hosts primarily those involved with aviation, they want the public to feel like this is their space too.
I learned on my first visit to the airport this week that we have a hidden gem on Dickinson Island. Pilots love the ease of the airport and proximity to downtown, bringing new opportunities to the area that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Rob Voyles, the new Director of General Aviation since February, tells me the island is rumored to be named after a relative of Emily Dickinson. There is a ton of history I was unaware of in the airport’s almost 100-year lifetime. We barely scratched the surface in my visit. Here is a glimpse.
The island was the site of Knoxville’s first commercial flight in 1934 on its 4,000 ft runway. It was an American Airlines mail route from Nashville to Knoxville, Washington DC, and New York. By 1936, there were passenger flights from Knoxville to DC twice a day. In 1943, the airport was used for wartime training of 300 Army Air Cadets. I’m told there was no bridge then, and one would have to ferry over to the island, possibly by a hand pulley system.
The City of Knoxville assumed ownership of the airport in 1963. By 1978, the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority (MKAA) was established, and the city transferred ownership and operation of the airport to the new authority that still maintains it today. MKAA also operates McGhee Tyson Airport. About 5,000 airports in the country are considered general aviation airports, like DKX. These airports see medical transports, individual owner flights, puppy rescues, etc. No commercial airlines fly out of DKX.
DXK is home to services like flight schools, aircraft maintenance and repair, charter services, and the Knox County Sheriff’s Department helicopter. They have open-air, covered hangars, three rows of enclosed hangars, and parking for several other aircraft that are not covered. The terminal is small but has restrooms, fresh-baked cookies, popcorn, drinks, and snacks for purchase. There is seating inside and outside the terminal to watch planes land and take off. This is perfect for aviation enthusiasts or parents who need somewhere new to take their kiddos for a unique and fun adventure.
When I arrived at the property, I was greeted by chain-link fencing that didn’t feel all that welcoming. But my next impression was the gorgeous view of downtown and a plane coming in for a landing. I stayed on the outside of the fence, not sure what was “allowed” for a visitor to the airport or where I could safely watch planes come in and out. This is one of the issues the airport addresses in its renovation plans. Rob says they want their facilities to be more inviting to anyone visiting them with clear indications of the areas safe for viewing.
Ivy McIver, the President of Friends of Downtown Island Airport, is a pilot and works for Cirrus. She has a vested interest in DKX’s success and longevity and talked with me about why the nonprofit was developed and some of its goals. There are 10-12 individuals on the board, ranging from other pilots, Island Home residents, and those who want to ensure community connection and utilization of this space.
One of the goals of Friends of Downtown Island Airport is to help the airport to become more community-forward. They are less than three miles from downtown, two miles from Ijams Nature Center and the Urban Wilderness, and the Greenway is visible across the water surrounding the island. One of the items they have discussed is bringing in bikes for pilots or visitors to borrow to visit one of these and tour the small island.
The airport improvements include a new seating area outside, painting, signage, and removal of the chain-link fencing for a sleeker wrought iron-type fence. They will be renovating the entrance to the airport property to become more inviting. The plan includes a new terminal and additional enclosed hangars built to allow for more aircraft storage, as there is a waiting list for storage. Earlier this year, they completed a runway renovation with new surfacing and improved lighting, allowing nighttime flights. The have worked with MHM Inc., who is also doing renovation work for Ijams Nature Center, to plan the updates and renovations at the airport.
While the island is home to the airport, many are unaware there is a put-in area for boats, paddle boards, kayaks, etc., just a walk across the street. Parking at the airport is free, and visitors can leave their vehicles and go for a paddle. An ample green space and a smaller picnic table area with trash receptacles are open to the public. The terminal is also open to the public, and they want visitors to come and see what they have to offer and ask questions. Ivy joked that pilots love to talk and said you’ll always know who the pilot in the room is because they will tell you! I can vouch for the friendliness of everyone I met at the DKX.
They hope to host more community events like food truck days and open houses like the one they hosted in April when the runway reconstruction was completed. What would you like to see at the airport? What community or nature-loving events could they bring to welcome more community members?