Flying High: Airpark going strong

WINTERSVILLE – Pilots in the 1950s using a landing strip that would eventually become the Jefferson County Airpark would never have dreamed that corporate jets someday would be landing there.

Jets are landing and there will be more in the future when the runway is expanded to 5,000 feet long and 75 feet wide, a far cry from the 3,200-feet-long-by-32-feet wide decades ago.

The county purchased the land for the airport in 1985 for $225,000. Millions of dollars in grants were obtained from the Federal Aviation Administration over the years to expand the runway, build a modern terminal and construct hangars.

The Ralph Freshwater Terminal was opened in 2008.

The county has received $1.5 million in state grants, with the county contributing $500,000, to expand the runway to 5,000 feet long and 75 feet wide, with turnarounds at either end. The existing runway also will receive an overlay of asphalt. Work is expected to be completed by summer. Completing the taxiway beside the runway is next on the drawing board.

Gary Folden, county airport authority secretary, said the runway extension was needed because aviation insurance requires larger business planes and jets to have a 5,000-foot runway.

“Hopefully, with the opening of the runway, business-sized jets will be coming in with the gas and oil industry. It will create more opportunity for fuel sales. It will bring in more people to the airport who will stay overnight at hotels and motels in the area,” Folden said.

The extended runway also will allow fully loaded jets to take off.

“We are trying to add another dimension of bringing in people who need to get here quicker than a car,” Folden said.

The oil and gas industry in the region has boosted flights in and out of the airport, and traffic at the airport has increased in the last two years as a result.

Jefferson County Commissioner Tom Gentile said the increased traffic is associated with the oil and gas industry.

When the runway is extended to 5,000 feet, it will be the best, longest runway in the five-to-six-county area, he said. The next longest runway is in Zanesville but that is close to being outside the gas and oil drilling area. Belmont, Columbiana, Carroll, Harrison, Jefferson and Monroe counties are currently seeing the most activity in the oil and gas drilling.

“North to south, Jefferson County is in the middle,” Gentile said.

Most of the planes landing at the airport are related to services to the oil and gas industry.

“They are bringing in executives and technical people and supplies,” Gentile said.

He said it isn’t the Chesapeake or Hess people flying in.

Gentile learned to fly while in high school at the airport and did his first solo flight in 1974. He finished his flight training at Ohio State Airport. After college he was the co-owner of a plane.

Jason Whanger, airport manager, said there were 6,000 observed landings and takeoffs at the airport last year. The number is higher when factoring in after-hours operations.

Fuel sales increased from 15,000 gallons to 20,000 gallons in the last two years.

The airport provides many services to pilots and passengers landing at the facility, including arrangements for ground transportation and overnight lodging. A courtesy vehicle also is available. Pilots can use a lounge with a recliner, TV and kitchen and can make flight arrangements.

“Pilots think this airport is pretty impressive for a smaller airport. The facilities here are state of the art compared to other places,” Whanger said.

The airport was named the 2013 airport of the year by the Ohio Aviation Association.

Phil Bender, a local pilot co-operating Pier Aviation, learned to fly at the county airport in 1991, prior to having an aviation career with the Ohio State Highway Patrol. He currently co-pilots a commercial jet out of Cleveland.

“The running lights on the side of the runway used to be mason jars with wires above ground. It was very basic,” Bender said.

He said there were mostly World War II and Korean war veterans flying out of the airport at that time. Those men learned to fly during the war or were on planes during their service.

“They flew for the pure enjoyment. They loved flying,” Bender said. “They were everyday people. They were part of a generation that saw flight evolving. They flew older planes they purchased for $6,000. People today have more money tied up in an ATV.

“Through the 1990s, we lost a lot of that generation,” he said.

The airport didn’t see business flights then.

“Aviation is no longer a novelty. Society’s view of flight has changed,” he said.

Bender said the majority of planes based at the airport now are associated with a business. He noted he also operates a flight-instruction school and said many of his students are looking at careers in aviation.

The operations at the airport changed when jet fuel became available.

He sees the airport in five years having more light jets landing with the increased runway.

“It was never a goal to see us as a reliever of Pittsburgh-area landings,” Bender said.

The airport used to get one load of jet fuel a year. Now the airport is getting eight to nine tanker trucks of jet fuel a year.

Whanger said the planes are fueling with hundreds of gallons of jet fuel.

“They go into the community, stay at a hotel, eat out and buy supplies,” Whanger said.

“We don’t ask why they are here but we know,” Gentile said.

Bender said the county made an investment to get access to businesses coming into the community.

“How much money does Lovers Lane bring in? If Lovers Lane is shut down, how will that impact business? The community is getting an awful lot of money back from the investment made (at the airport).” Bender said.

Gentile said having a runway that can accommodate small jets will give a company a reason to locate here in Jefferson County. Executives can have a 10-minute drive instead of an hour from Pittsburgh.

Bender said he landed at every paved runway in the state during his career at the highway patrol.

He talks of a business owner looking to expand his business operations landing at the Zanesville airport. An airport employee there took the executive around the area and talked very positive about the community. The executive ended his search for a new plant location and built it near Zanesville because of how the airport worker thought about living there.

“We are always selling ourselves,” Gentile said.

Parents and board members at the Franciscan University of Steubenville regularly use the airport to fly into the community.

Bender said the community lost its steel mills and needs to look to diversifying with smaller businesses.

“We need to open our minds up to other possibilities,” Bender said.

There is a waiting list to rent T-hangars at the airport. The two new hangars at the airport have three bays that can accommodate transient plants and house other planes.

Gentile said T-hangars four to five years ago were being used for non-aviation purposes, including the storage of RVs and other vehicles.

He noted there was a focus to get aviation related rentals of the T-hangars.

STAT MedEvac has had a medical helicopter based at the airport for about five years, and Gentile said the airport can put that helicopter in a hangar when bad weather is approaching.

Evan Scurti, Jefferson County Port Authority executive director, said the extended runway will be included in a new countywide comprehensive marketing brochure. The marketing tool will highlight the strong infrastructure available in the county, including railroads, the Ohio River, roads and highways.

“The runway will be featured,” Scurti said. “It is just one more piece of infrastructure that makes us even stronger.”

Scurti said it is sometimes difficult to determine what asset tipped a company into relocating in one area as opposed to others. He said he often sees the question about a county airport and the length of the runway on questionnaires from companies interested in expanding or relocating. He said company executives want the option of flying into an area on a company jet as opposed to landing elsewhere and driving.

Jefferson County Commissioner Thomas Graham said economic development experts talk about the big three in attracting investors -water, rails and runway.

“We already have the water and rail, now we will have the air capability,” Graham said.

He said corporate executives want to quickly get in and quickly get out of a place they are visiting.

“They don’t want to waste time,” Graham said.

He noted the improvements at the airport in the past and the amenities offered are turning the airport into a “very nice facility.”

Jefferson County Commissioner David Maple said the continued expansion of the airport is directly related to its use. He said the airport is becoming a spot where corporations can have access to their businesses, quicker and easier than using other facilities.

“It makes the county a better site (for economic development) as compared to other areas not having (an airport). We will see more corporate traffic, which makes Jefferson County a better site for potential employers,” Maple said.

He added the airport is attracting businesses that quickly need to move parts and equipment into the region, especially with the oil and gas industry. He said businesses in the not-so-distant past had to rely on flying parts and equipment into Pittsburgh, resulting in a drive to and from Pittsburgh and a longer down time for the business.

“Now they can use the county airport,” he said.

Maple said it may be difficult and not tangible for a lot of taxpayers to see the direct economic results of the county airport.

“As far as economic development, it is a great asset to have a useful airport. We need to continue to grow it,” Maple said.