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Connellsville airport taking flight as facility upgrades, expands


Author: John Tremba
Source: Daily Courier
Date: April 15, 2007

The former Connellsville Airport is in the process of undergoing many changes, including to its name.

The airport is now called Joseph A. Hardy Connellsville Airport in recognition of Hardy's support of improving the landing site. That change has not been without controversy.

The Connellsville city council voted last week to "support a grassroots effort by concerned citizens to rename Joseph A. Hardy-Connellsville Airport to its lawfully original name, Connellsville Airport." The measure was approved, 5-0.

Regardless of the outcome of the naming issue, progress continues to improve the infrastructure at the airport.

Work on one runway will extend not only the runway but also the possibilities of the airport with respect to larger planes and onsite tenants.

"Yes, our master strategic plan goes back to 2003," said Sam Cortis, airport manager the last four years. "Our airport here is for general aviation, and we hope to have many more things happen here that have not gone on before. Our new terminal is ready for business, but right now we are still servicing small business planes and local aviators." The terminal is part of the old major hangar that was built back in the 1940s.

"Our parking area is all under roof in that original hangar, while the terminal and offices are in the adjacent buildings that were under the edge of the roof.

"All has been remodeled, and the architect thought it might be a good thing to keep the skeleton of the old hangar and use the wood trim to decorate the terminal. It looks real unique."

The airport has three runways. One runs southwest to northeast, and another is built southeast to northwest. The third runway is closed to flight traffic and serves as both a taxiway and access to hangars for private and business planes. That runway goes basically east to west.

"With the three runways we used to have sports car races here one weekend per summer, and the races raised quite a bit of money for the operation of the airport," Cortis said. "It also raised a lot of noise and large crowds that the local residents didn't like, so the races have been discontinued."

There is no scheduled commuter plane service at the airport. To help make that happen, the five-member board has elected to utilize grants from the state and federal government, along with some financial help from Hardy for the runway extension.

"The project is going to be implemented over a three-year period beginning this fall. The southwest-to-northeast runway is our target," Cortis said. "We will have to fill in a huge valley with fill from some local hillsides and then construct a runway on top of that material.

"Our grants and loans are spread over time, and we will need that time to build the structure. We are following the FAA guidelines that say that 4,500 feet is the target distance needed for larger planes."

Newly appointed board member Todd Radolec, an engineer with McMillen Engineering, looks forward to seeing the progress.

"I am impressed how every board member speaks his mind, and at the end of the day all minds are set in one direction: the good of the airport," he said. "The airport has always been an excellent asset but has been ignored too long. Now the county and aviation will move forward to the benefit of all."

Cortis said infrastructure work has set the stage for expansion. "Since 2002, over $6 million has been spent on needed infrastructure problems that needed to be solved before we can host any type of future expansion. Water service had to be updated. A new sewerage system had to be installed. All sorts of environmental studies and mitigation projects had to be done to lead into any construction projects. "Stormwater drains had to be installed. Snow removal equipment and safety areas had to be bought and constructed. The airport access road had to be improved," Cortis said.

The airport manager said the facility fits into the region's transportation puzzle very well.

"The best fact about the airport is that it is centrally located in the county. That fact has helped us recruit tenants to the airport," he said. "Several businesses use the airport regularly: Sensotech, Argon ST, customers for Paradigm Aeronautics, Nemacolin Woodlands, Rockwell Aviation, and lots of Fallingwater tourists."

Several businesses have hangars at the airport, and Fayette Aviation operates a business there. Fayette Area Coordinated Transportation operates out of its new terminal on airport property; STAT MedEvac helicopter services is stationed at the airport; and the county's hazardous materials accident response team occupies several buildings. Dick Oglevee is one of the hazardous material team leaders.

"We enjoy having Fayette County's hazmat facility at the airport," he said. "Being centrally located, we can respond to any problem in the county with equal timing. We are in the midst of constructing a new mobile command post there, along with the monthly drills we run there. Being at the airport also gives us a chance to help in any emergency that happens at the airport, as well."

Michelle Grant Shumar, the director of FACT, said, "Early on all indicators told us to locate the FACT Transit Center at the centrally located airport to best serve the county. We did so and it works beautifully. We are glad to be here in our new facility, and we are ready to interface with new developments in other areas of transportation related to the airport."

Cortis's job entails taking care of all administration duties at the airport, managing the grants, and overseeing maintenance with four employees.

"I am a flier myself, owning a Cessna 172," he said. "My fun is flying around to all the regional airports, practicing touch-and-go landings, working on my piloting skills.

"Working here at the airport and being an aviator is a great mix for me. My dreams and goals are for the airport to really take off in all aspects," he said.

"With air transportation business being in the rough so much, it is hard to predict when a major airline might organize a shuttle schedule to all our regional airports. But when they do, we will be ready."