Once an Airbase, Now an Economic Powerhouse
General Claire Chennault

General Claire Chennault, the airport’s namesake

Chennault International Airport is a world-class hub for the maintenance, repair, overhaul and refueling of commercial and military aircraft—providing a $5.5 billion economic impact.

Modern-day Chennault led Southwest Louisiana out of the 1980s oil bust, when unemployment in Lake Charles soared past 16 percent. It provided thousands of jobs for local people, many of whom retrained for new careers. It diversified the Southwest Louisiana economy at a time when any jobs would have sufficed.

Chennault celebrated its first completed project in 1987 with the successful maintenance and overhaul of KC-135 military tankers, planes that refuel military aircraft in mid-flight. The work was done by Boeing, and it came from a multi-year U.S. Defense contract. Over time, it was succeeded by Grumman (today’s Northrop Grumman) and by a unit of EADS.

Chennault remains a central location for aviation work. More importantly, that has meant jobs, and lots of them. 

The total workforce of Chennault-based tenants has seen surges and dips over the past-quarter century, based on the national economy, but the overall picture is perhaps best illustrated in a study by McNeese State University economists. In a sentence: Chennault has had a cumulative economic impact of $5.5 billion over the past 25 years.

The term “Chennault” may variously refer to the huge complex—a former Air Force base— itself, which sprawls east of Interstate 210; the Chennault International Airport Authority, which governs, maintains and markets the facility; and the companies that lease facilities from the CIAA and create the jobs. The interconnectivity is rooted in an extraordinary display of political cooperation that made the creation of modern-day Chennault possible.

A history of the area now called Chennault International Airport exemplifies many instances of adaptive reuse.

In its early years, the facility was a centerpiece of our nation’s defense. The U.S. federal government variously bought and leased Calcasieu Parish property for military use in 1941 for World War II and again in 1958, for the future Strategic Air Command installation. The site was named Lake Charles Air Force Base, and later Chennault Air Force Base in honor of General Claire Chennault, leader of the famed Flying Tigers squadron of World War II. The base brought new people to Lake Charles, many of whom stayed after the facility closed in 1963.

In the early 1970s, Chennault was divided and parceled out. In 1973, several local governmental bodies were given restricted deeds to various parts of the site, creating multiple owners.

By the mid-1980s the locals proposed to re-develop Chennault for economic purposes. The most marketable features were the unusually large runway and extensive property for potential tenants. At 10,700 feet long, 200 feet wide and 17 inches thick, the tarmac is equipped for the largest aircraft in the world.

The reconstituting of Chennault took place in 1986 and 1987, and it was a partnership of unprecedented proportion as local governments agreed to pool their shares of the site for the sake of desperately needed jobs. The effort extended beyond Calcasieu Parish as well. In Baton Rouge, Gov. Edwin Edwards secured more than $40 million from the state legislature for infrastructure work. In Washington, D.C., Lake Charles Mayor Ed Watson and Sen. John Breaux were among those who promoted lifted restrictions, which allowed for economic enterprise at the dormant Chennault site.

By the end of 1986, the facility had re-emerged as Chennault International Airport and featured a governing board, a busy schedule of site improvements, and job training programs at Sowela.

History3Chennault now boasts over 25 years of service to military, aircraft and non-aviation customers alike.

Chennault has an annual economic impact of about $232 million on the local community. Companies like Northrop Grumman, Landlocked Aviation, Million Air, Louisiana Millwork and Habitat for Humanity keep the grounds at Chennault a busy and prosperous hub. Chennault’s skies see more than 3,000 operations each month, including takeoffs, landings and “touch-and-go” operations.

The expansions at Chennault will continue. We are very excited about our current and pending operations and are always looking forward to the future at Chennault.