The late Col. Kenny Cobb’s hangar at the Guntersville Municipal Airport was a pretty special place. He kept two planes inside, including his beloved Sea Rey, but he also had furniture there and even his pet cat Goofy. Among other things, he used it to entertain many guests, including his country music cousin Mel Tillis, intermittently regaling them with recollections of his military days and fuming about contemporary politics. He spent much of his time at the hangar, enjoying the ambiance of the aviation environment and the beauty of nearby Lake Guntersville.
It’s the last hangar before you get to the lake, and the proximity fostered something of a bad habit in Col. Cobb. Fond of wildlife, he habitually fed the geese. As readers can imagine, geese and airports do not mix. But his mischievous nature was part of his charm. Col. Cobb was one of those larger-than-life characters, and Guntersville is poorer for his absence.
After Col. Cobb passed away five years ago at the age of 85, his widow Nancy signed the hangar’s lease over to family friend Joel Polletta. Now that hangar is the source of a dispute that the Guntersville City Council must address.
The lease for Col. Cobb’s hangar—known as Hangar 22—expired on July 18, 2022. On July 7, the City of Guntersville sent Polletta a lease termination notice, but he does not want to give up the hangar because Col. Cobb wanted him to have it. Polletta is not a pilot but plans to become one. While he has sold Col. Cobb’s planes, he intends to purchase two new ones and house them in the hangar. At one point, Polletta had four planes in the hangar, but two of them were fairly small. The hangar can fit three planes comfortably.
City attorney Dan Warnes maintains that the lease is not transferrable and should have reverted back to the city when Col. Cobb died. In essence, he insists that Nancy Cobb had no right to transfer the lease to Polletta.
Col. Cobb’s old hangar, like the others closest to Highway 431, is considered a “legacy hangar.” All were built with 20-year leases and rent of $100 a year. Most of these old leases have expired, and new contracts are on a month-to-month basis. The current price for a hangar lease is $350 a month. These new leases can be terminated at any time, for any reason.
There is a substantial waiting list for hangars at the Guntersville Municipal Airport. It just so happens that Michael Kirkpatrick, chairman of the Airport Advisory Board, is at the top of list and thus in line to get Col. Cobb’s old hangar.
At the City Council meeting on August 1, Council members heard from both sides. When asked if he had anything to say, Polletta at first said no, stating that he had made his position clear in emails to each Councilmember. When Mayor Leigh Dollar asked him to come to microphone, Polletta emphasized that he wants the lease renewed. He also expressed frustration, feeling no other hangars have been targeted like Hangar 22.
In response, Councilman Randy Whitaker asked Polletta if he knew of any other hangars having been transferred to other people. Polletta said that when the late Bill Greenhaw’s hangar came up, it went to Martha West but she transferred it to the city.
At one point, Councilman Carson Ray asked if Polletta had been a good tenant, and the latter responded affirmatively. Like Col. Cobb, Polletta spends a great deal of time at the hangar. Polletta knew Col. Cobb for some 18 years and started working closely with him beginning in 2008.
During the last decade of Col. Cobb’s life, as his health worsened due to poor leg circulation, Polletta took care of both Nancy and him. Polletta stopped by the hangar each morning to check on Col. Cobb while Polletta’s wife came by later in the day to make sure Col. Cobb ate lunch. When Col. Cobb died, Nancy, who had spent the bulk of her time at the Cobb family home in Boaz, moved to Las Vegas, Nevada, to live with their son Steve and passed away about eighteen months later. Before her move, Nancy signed the lease over to Polletta. In addition to taking over Hangar 22, Polletta adopted Col. Cobb’s cat Goofy who is still kicking. Bottom line: Polletta believes he has been a good steward and feels he is being treated unjustly. In his words, “This is the very first time that the city has tried to do something like this.”
Then Michael Kirkpatrick came to the microphone and began by speaking about his years in Guntersville and his time as chairman of the Airport Advisory Board. He said his intentions are to serve the city and the best interests of the airport.
To his mind, the Guntersville Municipal Airport is “first class and serves as a gateway for aviators and business people to see our city.” He explained that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires hangars be used for storing active planes. He said Hangar 22 has been inactive for the past five years, having served instead as something of a storage unit for some of Col. Cobb’s possessions and “an airplane that had not flown in a decade.” Kirkpatrick recommended that the Council view the inactive history of the hangar and note that Polletta has neither pilot’s license nor plane in his possession. Emphatically, Kirkpatrick maintained that he would support eviction even if he wasn’t next in line to have this hangar.
“There are folks who can’t base their planes at Guntersville because they have no hangar,” Kirkpatrick said. “An active person needs this hangar.” He believes that “hangers are the key issue for general aviation around the country. That is why it is so important to offer them to active aviation people.”
Councilman Whitaker asked if Kirkpatrick had a plane. Kirkpatrick responded that he has one in Guntersville Municipal Airport’s community hangar, also known as the Homer Wilson Hangar; a seaplane at his home at Point of Pines; a plane at the Huntsville Executive Airport; and a plane at Huntsville International Airport.
Councilman Ray asked Kirkpatrick how long he had been on the waiting list. Kirkpatrick answered that he had been on that list since July 2018.
When asked by Councilman Larry Wilson if he wanted more than one hangar, Kirkpatrick said no. However, he wants to keep a plane in the Homer Wilson Hangar. While multiple people have more than one hangar, the community hangar is not subject to the waiting list. It is currently managed by Martha West, but the city will take possession of it in December.
Guntersville Municipal Airport Manager Gary McIlquham explained that once the city takes possession of the community hangar, one fourth of it will continue to be a community hangar and three-fourths will be used for maintenance. The one fourth will hold two airplanes.
McIlquham said mechanics are very anxious to have more space to do work. Echoing Kirkpatrick, he said that there are “31 people on the waiting list for hangar space.” He added that this issue with Polletta “isn’t personal, it’s business.” Part of his concern is that an empty hangar means its occupant is not purchasing fuel from the airport.
Once Polletta returned to the microphone, he was asked by Councilman Whitaker why he thinks he has been active when that has been disputed by others. Polletta answered that in the past, he had a plane that was flown by another pilot who later bought it and moved it to another hangar at the Guntersville Municipal Airport. During his time at Hangar 22, he said “planes got started, gas got checked, and the planes were very operable.”
He always made sure Col. Cobb’ Sea Rey received its annual maintenance check. At that, someone asked Polletta how active he had been in the flying department and he replied, “The entire time.” Though he himself has no pilot’s license, he has held study groups with almost 40 aspiring pilots and those who have already passed their written tests. He has led three of these study groups, each being 16 weeks long. Attending is free but participants must purchase their own materials. To this, Councilman Whitaker commented, “Your active and my active are two different things.” Polletta reiterated that he planned to get his pilot’s license in the future.
Councilman Ray asked McIlquham if the Guntersville Municipal Airport requires active leaseholders to have a pilot’s license. He said yes but went on to clarify that if you yourself cannot fly, you can have a pilot fly your plane.
Councilman Wilson asked if a lot of other hangars are inactive and if the city only enforces this point when a lease is up. McIlquham said that has been an issue but as long as they are flying a plane once a year, that counts as activity.
In the end, the City Council tabled making a decision until the Airport Advisory Board meets and makes a recommendation with reasoning. Currently, the Airport Advisory Board is scheduled to meet August 15, but will likely hold a special meeting prior to that date. Whatever the case, given the conflict of interest, Kirkpatrick will recuse himself from the pivotal meeting. Ultimately, final say remains with the Council.