LAKE CHARLES, La. (KPLC) - It’s no secret that Chennault International Airport is known as a leader in aviation in Southwest Louisiana.
A unique Centauri private aircraft now stands on display at the airport in hopes of not only bringing more business to the community but inspiring a new generation of aviators.
The plane was donated by longtime Southwest Louisiana restaurateur, philanthropist, and aviation enthusiast Doug Gehrig.
“This plane happens to be a prototype that retired, and the owner was just going to put it in a shed," Gehrig said. "I told him I wanted it, he said for what...I said I don’t know, but I’m going to find a place.”
The plane is a retired Centauri private aircraft. It’s a four-seater that features sleek 21st-century design and speedy rear propulsion. It was built by Centauri of San Francisco.
Although, it won’t take to the skies anytime soon...In Southwest Louisiana, the aircraft will play a much bigger role.
“The mission behind this plane is to show that Chennault is here," Gehrig said. "You could drive by before--amongst Sowela and everything else, and they have a sign but you really don’t get that [aviation] feeling.”
“It’s a dream and foresight to enhance the threshold of this airport and aviation is the premise of Chennault. That’s the whole reason that Chennault was originally here back in the early days,” said Randy Liprie, Owner of Liprie Engineering and Consultant for Chennault.
Originally constructed as a WWII-era airbase, the facility now functions as a pillar for non-commercial business, military operations, disaster relief, aircraft maintenance, and amongst all things--education.
“As people come into this airport, to this complex that also supports Sowela Community College..they can come in and see that we are a center of excellence...that we focus on engineering, that we focus on aerospace and that’s what we aspire to do," said Chennault Executive Director Kevin Melton.
Though there may not be any rich history behind the plane, it’s about what it symbolizes... A message of hope for future pilots or maybe just an aviation enthusiast.
“I like airplanes, I think the industry is terrific, it has great paying jobs, it’s really interesting stuff," Gehrig said. "Yes, we’ve got some great tenants but it’s also a great airpark for expansion.”
With the aircraft now serving as a major focal point for travelers from near and far, Melton said it will serve as a symbol of Chennault’s place in the community.
“It speaks excellence, it speaks future," Melton said. "For anybody that comes through this area...whether out of state or from right here, some people may have never driven out to Chennault or driven through the Sowela Complex ..so this airplane will be simply a marker and an optic to show that we are a center of excellence and education excellence as well.”
The aircraft is now mounted on a support pole outside the Chennault International Airport administration building at the corner of Sen. J. Bennett Johnston Avenue and Merganser Street.
The actual exterior light on the plane will flash at night, once installed.
Administrators said the next improvement project will be centered around expanding the entrance to the airport on Merganser Street from two lanes to four.
“It is advertising now with an anticipated start date mid to late July with 6 months to complete the project. The purpose of the project is to grow the road to a four-lane. This is important because it is our only access to the airport and other businesses where we see 1500 airport/tenant employees, nearly 3000 SOWELA students, the Sherriff’s Office Training Academy, and others who will benefit from this Chennault funded improvement,” Melton said.