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"Small airports struggle to continue operations"



Sunday, August 12, 2007

Small airports struggle to continue operations
The Pittsburgh (PA) Tribune-Review


Let Dick Eyler, of McKeesport, tell you about the freedom. 

"A guy just called me that's coming in tomorrow with a Cessna 172. I forget
from where." 

Do you know what time he's coming? 

"No." 

They just kind of show up? 

"Yeah. There's no tower or anything on a small field like this; they can
come in and land any time they want. Just circle the field in the traffic
pattern and they land." 

Sam Cortis, of Connellsville, also talks about the freedom. 

"We had these guys -- I don't know where they came from -- flying the Beech
18 -- the plane in Casablanca. That's the easiest way to say it; that type
of airplane. It was the luxury corporate airplane of the '40s. 

"These guys were skydivers. They had tires and parts stuffed into the back
of the plane, and that's a fairly large airplane. And they landed here and
oil was just running out of the engine. 

"The weather was bad and it sat here for like a week, and it got better and
they took off." 

Ted Kozar, of Connellsville, fears the freedom is going away. 

"If you've been around any of these airports --I could more or less take you
with me, it's like a graveyard," Kozar says. "You used to see an airplane
flying around every day of the week. 

"I've been, for the last month, going up two, three times a week. When I say
two, three times a week, I go up 30 minutes, shoot me two landings then put
it away, rather than going on long trips. I do it just to keep the feel of
it, to stay sharp." 

General aviation airports -- and the pilots who keep them running -- are
woven in the fabric of Western Pennsylvania. Yet, like many across the
country, increasing fuel costs and regulations from the Federal Aviation
Administration are pressuring small facilities to grow or fade away. 

There are about 30 airports in Southwestern Pennsylvania. The larger
facilities, from Pittsburgh International down to the expanding airport near
Connellsville, provide concrete runways, storage, fuel and customer service
for everything from single-engine, twin-seat private planes to corporate and
commercial jets. Tiny airports like Inter-County near McKeesport and Mt.
Pleasant-Scottdale, near Mt. Pleasant, sport grass runways and open hangars,
where airplanes might take off a few times a week. 

Cortis, the manager of the Joseph A. Hardy-Connellsville Airport in Fayette
County, has seen more than $6 million in state, federal and local revenue
flow into renovations during the past year. 

Eyler, owner of the storied Inter-County Airport started by his father, is
hoping to tear down dilapidated hangars, renovate a few others that might
hold a dozen or so planes and bring the single airstrip back to life. 

Kozar, who helps care for the Mt. Pleasant-Scottdale Airport owned by Jim
Barclay, keeps the grass mowed, maintains his own plane and waits to see
what Barclay will do with the facility. 

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a national organization formed
in 1939 in Philadelphia, has been working for the past 10 years to slow the
closure of community airports. There are 5,200 public-use airports in the
United States, and the association estimates general aviation airports are
closing at the rate of one per month. 

"One of the big reasons is encroachment around the airport," spokeswoman
Kathleen Vasconcelos says. "These airports were built decades ago.
Encroachment threatens them because if it's residential development, there
will be noise complaints. Many communities don't understand the economic
value of the airport." 

That challenge for the 412,000-member owners and pilots association is
coupled with a new issue. The FAA's funding formula for airports is
scheduled for renewal by Sept. 30. Among the proposed changes is a landing
fee for private airplanes. The association is marshalling its membership to
fight the change. 

FAA regulations require pilots to file a flight plan at their origination
point but not at subsequent stops, according to Brian Gearhart, of the
Pennsylvania Bureau of Aviation. 

Gearhart, engineering and planning division manager, says there about 120
active public use airports in the state. That number has remained constant
over the past several years, he says. 

"There's certainly a lot of pressure on airports and, really, any kind of
developable property as folks are moving and there's a need for housing,"
Gearhart says. "One of the things that we have been striving to do is to
make land-use managers recognize the importance of the proper land use
around airports. The pressure's there, but for the most part we've been able
to preserve the airports that we do have." 

Economic impact 

Most airports in Southwestern Pennsylvania opened in the 1930s and '40s.
Excitement generated by Charles A. Lindbergh's flight from New York to Paris
in 1928 combined with a post-World War II economic boom to draw thousands of
men and women to airfields. 

The airport Cortis manages outside Connellsville was one of the first in
Western Pennsylvania, opening in 1938. It was the product of a cooperative
effort between the city of Connellsville, Fayette County and the federal
Works Progress Administration program. 

It had been the site of a Taylorcraft airplane maintenance facility and a
U.S. Marine Corps training base before falling into disrepair in the late
1980s and '90s. 

A new passenger terminal and plans for a runway extension have revived
interest in the facility. The Fayette County Airport Authority has been
criticized by Connellsville residents after it dropped Connellsville from
the name in favor of Joseph A. Hardy Regional Airport early this year.
Hardy, a county commissioner, founder of 84 Lumber and developer of
Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, has given the airport a line of credit and cash
grants for its operations. 

Cortis, who has been manager of the Connellsville airport for four years,
says the $2.4 million terminal building brought credibility to the airport.
"This building was something that we needed. We had a little tiny facility
before." 

The previous facility was "more on the order of an auto-repair garage," he
says. "There was a big hangar that we stored planes in with a little office
area and kind of a little room next to it and some bathrooms." 

He says pilots were willing to go down there, but tourists weren't
comfortable when they were dropped off by a commuter service. 

The county airport authority cites the economic effect the updated facility
will have. Cortis says corporations have come to expect the ability to fly
in and out of their facilities. 

Cortis, who also is a pilot, says he hopes the airport's hangars will be
improved and expanded. He also expects tourism will play a big part in the
airport's future. 

"I've seen a big jump in tourism the last couple of years," he says. "I
can't believe that people would come from Florida and Canada to go to
Fallingwater. We get that." 

Hanging on 

Jim Barclay grew up along the grass runways outside Mt. Pleasant that his
grandfather developed in 1946. He bought the airport from his father in 1978
and became a flight instructor and successful owner despite having cerebral
palsy. 

"In the 1980s, it was super-profitable," Barclay says. "Instructors were
making more than steelworkers were. But we were working a lot harder,
putting in long days." 

Barclay, 64, says he no longer sells fuel at the airport, and post-9/11
restrictions on when, where and how pilots use their airplanes have taken a
lot of the joy out of flying. 

"Back in the 1950s and '60s, those were the golden years," he says. "You
could get out and really enjoy yourself without worrying about getting
smacked in the fingers every time you do something wrong." 

Barclay's wife of 40 years, Carol, died in May, and he says he's lost his
passion for the airport. Carol paid the bills, he says, and he's not sure
what he wants to do with the operation now. 

Barclay's friend, Kozar, 75, a licensed airplane mechanic and owner of a
Cessna 150, keeps the 14 acres of runways cut and helps with maintenance of
the buildings. 

"I don't know what (Barclay) is going to do," Kozar says. "The one time he
says he's gonna sell it, and the next time he says he doesn't know. I hope
it stays an airport." 

Keeping the faith 

Dick Eyler stays in a home just a few steps from the 2,000-foot runway at
Inter-County Airport that can accommodate single-engine recreation and sport
airplanes. Just a few planes are stored there, including Eyler's, a 1946
Aeronca Chief. 

His brother, Robert "Buzz" Eyler, is a flight instructor, and the Eyler boys
inherited their love of flying from their dad, Frank Eyler, a stunt pilot
who opened the airport. 

"My parents are gone now; my brother and I have inherited the place," Dick
Eyler says. "We're trying to build it back up a little bit and get a little
business back here. It was never a money-maker. My dad built it in the
1940s. It was just a way where he could fly his own airplane. He got a
commercial license on it so he could take in a few fellas to keep their own
airplanes here and just help pay expenses." 

Eyler says there have been fewer than 10 landings this summer at the
airport. A tank that stored fuel for 30 years was taken out in the face of
new Environmental Protection Agency regulations, he says. One of the hangars
where the family stored its planes was damaged in a winter storm and will be
torn down. 

"We're doing this pretty much ourselves. Everybody in the family was
determined to keep it. I knew my brother and I did, but my sisters also
consider this home. Everybody comes here for Thanksgiving and Christmas
dinner and the Fourth of July. 

"It's never going to be a big operation because there's not room here. A
little airport like this, the simple fact is we love this or we wouldn't be
here." 

History of flight in Western Pennsylvania 

1793 

Jan. 9, 1793, marked the beginning of aviation history in America, when
Francois Jean Pierre Blanchard launched his hot air balloon from the
exercise yard of the Walnut Street Gaol in Philadelphia. Present to witness
the event were President George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson,
James Madison, James Monroe, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Mifflin, then
governor of Pennsylvania. 

1925 

Contract Air Mail Act (referred to as the Kelley Act after its chief
sponsor, Rep. Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania) was the first major legislative
step toward the creation of a private airline industry. 

1927 

Gov. Gifford Pinchot created a State Bureau of Aeronautics. 

1929
Sept. 27 

Dedication of the Butler County Airport. 

Oct, 7 

Opening of the Grube Airport, now known as the Punxsutawney Airport. 

1930 

Watres Act, named after one of its chief sponsors, Rep. Laurence H. Watres
of Pennsylvania, authorized the Post Office to enter into long-term
contracts for air mail. 

1931
Sept. 11 

Opening of the Allegheny County Airport. 

1938
May 15 

The first U.S. Airmail flight in Pennsylvania -- from Ebensburg to Johnstown
-- is completed. 

Oct. 1 

Opening of the Connellsville Airport. 

Oct. 22 

Formal dedication at Martinsburg Airport (Altoona-Blair County Airport). 

1939 

All American Aviation, a Pennsylvania company, was licensed to carry mail to
54 communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware and West Viriginia. All
American entered a period of rapid expansion and became Allegheny Airline. 

1946
July 4 

Dedication of the Mt. Pleasant-Scottdale Airport. 

Dec. 16 

The Johnstown-Cambria County Airport opens. 

1949
April 7 

Opening of the Washington County Airport. 

1952
May 31 

Opening of Pittsburgh International Airport. 

1953
May 2 

Dedication of the Beaver County Airport. 

June 22 

Dedication of the Somerset County Airport. 

1955
May 15 

Opening of the Zelienople Municipal Airport. 

1960
June 1 

Dedication of the Dubois-Jefferson County Airport. 

Aug. 12 

Opening of the Butler Farm Show Airport. 

Oct. 31 

Opening of the Ebensburg Airport. 

1961
March 9 

The Pittsburgh Air Terminal, now known as the Pittsburgh Monroeville
Airport, is licensed as a commercial facility. 

1967
April 10 

Rostraver Airport is licensed to Rostraver Township. 

1969
Nov. 19 

Opening of the Pittsburgh Bouquet Airpark (now known as the
Greensburg-Jeannette Regional Airport). 

1972
June 19 

Opening of the Inter County Airport. 

Sept. 25 

Opening of the Seven Springs Airport. 

1994
May 20 

Opening of the Bedford County Airport. 

1998
Sept. 1 

Opening of the Rock Airport in Tarentum. This facility first opened in the
1960s as the Remich Airport and then later as West Penn Airport. 


1999
Sept. 10 

Dedication of the Arnold Palmer Regional Airport, which originally was
established in 1924 as the Longview Flying Field. 

Source: Pennsylvania Bureau of Aviation

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