Greene County, Pennsylvania – Greene County Airport (KWAY)
Airport improvement projects taking flight
It’s no secret that an airport serves as a gateway to a community. This is certainly the case for Greene County’s airport. Keeping the goals of revitalization for both the county and the airport centerstage has produced business opportunities, a training ground for the next generation of aviation professionals, and vital general aviation services for Greene County. As airport improvements take flight for the general-purpose airport, work continues to ensure that airport improvements reflect the needs of the county and its valued residents.
“The Greene County Airport is a general use, county owned airport and managed by Bret Moore and the folks at the county recreation department,” explains Mike Belding, Chairman of the Greene County Commissioners. “They take care of the physical property; the mowing, maintenance and upkeep. To be honest, the airport has been on the back burner for 12 or 15 years and just recently we have increasingly focused on opportunities at the airport which would present both economic development and education.”
Belding spent 27 years as a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps. He is passionate about flying – but perhaps even more passionate about Greene County. He sees the airport as a viable way to build the community and provide options to young people growing up in the area and finding it hard to find career opportunities. Franklin Township, home to the airport, is a smaller community with just over 7500 people and was traditionally linked to coal mining and natural gas industries.
“The airport has 3500 feet of asphalt runway with a parallel taxiway and several hangars,” Belding explains. “They are all leased out at this point to private pilots. There are three tenants at the airport. The first is a nonprofit organization, Support Our Aviation Resources (SOAR).”
“SOAR meets monthly and are advocates for activities at the airport and work hand-in-hand with the Greene County Flying Club which is also a nonprofit with certified flight instructors and conducts a ground school class once or twice a year – it’s a great resource for hobbyists,” he adds.
“In terms of promoting aviation, we also have the Pittsburgh Soaring Association that found their airspace near Pittsburgh increasing congested so they came down last fall. Gliders give us diversity in our aviation assets,” Belding describes. “You can solo a non-powered aircraft at age 14 and then you can pilot a powered aircraft at 16, so this is a great way to get young people interested in aviation.”
Belding highlights one of the airport’s most recent initiatives has been its involvement in a program that is facilitated at Carmichaels Area High School. “They have a STEMpilot computer simulator program run out of the library – and it creates a sort of career pipeline, if you will. Students get started in high school in the simulator, then offered a one-week aviation summer camp and at the end of that they visit the Greene County Airport and receive an orientation flight with the Young Eagles program.
Belding outlines that the airport has essentially “started a grow our own pilot program where they [kids] can start in high school by getting into a glider program at 14 and then get into powered flight instruction and solo at 16 years of age. Hopefully, that aviation bug will stick with them and help develop a career path either as commercial or military aviators.”
Emphasizing the flexibility that pilots enjoy in terms of where they are located and where they can be employed, Belding points out that it is important for youth to see these types of advantages and not rule out aviation as a viable career path.
“I talk about aviation as one of these career paths where you can live almost anywhere and commute to work. As a pilot, you could get to Pittsburgh and fly out of an international airfield or if they got hired in Boston or Chicago they could commute from Pittsburgh to those other airports. We are excited about the education opportunities to get pilots started and then let them transform it into a career. For us, it is all about creating opportunities and promoting aviation on the airfield.”
In his current role as a commissioner, Belding is able to work in a position that feeds his love of aviation. He acknowledges, however, that it takes a whole community to make an airport work, and any attention paid to the needs of the airport benefits the county. The relationship is instrumental in ensuring aviation success and extends to potential business opportunities for the county as a whole. The continued attention that is given to airport grounds and maintenance is also a crucial link to ensure both the airport and the county are successful.
“We oversee maintenance and repair in terms of building and landscaping,” explains Bret Moore, Director of Recreation for Greene County, “and we are also responsible for the oversight and planning of any events that happen on the field such as drag races or balloon festivals.”
About a year and a half ago there was a small fire in the administration building which also housed a district magistrate and the airport restaurant. This event prompted repairs and reconstruction of the building which will reopen with the restaurant under new management in January 2023. Belding points out that in the past, the restaurant was invaluable in terms of getting people to the airport. It served as a magnet for the hobbyist who would fly in for a meal. Hopefully, the new restaurant will create an even bigger draw.
Belding is cognizant that growth depends on funding. Fortunately, the county, state, and even the FAA are looking favorably toward growth at the airport. Some of the larger projects include updating their fuel tank to be able to provide Jet-A Fuel as well as Avgas. The perimeter security fence is currently inadequate and needs brought up-to-date. Finally, they are looking to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation for funding to replace and upgrade the runway, taxiway and approach lighting systems.
“We also have grant requests out for a community hanger,” adds Belding, “which includes the specific type of hanger the gliders require with their large wingspan. We have also asked the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) to fund a feasibility study on future opportunities at the airport. We have talked about a light manufacturing industry, a business, or a little bit larger, more formal flight school in addition to the Greene County Flying Club.”
“We anticipate a professional study would steer us in the right direction. We are also looking for that one organization that would be an anchor business on the field – drawing in others and supporting our growth. We just need to find that entity that wants to be first in the door as the Greene County Airport starts revitalizing itself,” Belding outlines.
“The main focus throughout the county,” he continues, “is diversifying the activities that we present to people. Within 60 miles of Greene County, there are 1.1 million people, and we want to provide them new opportunities. The gliders and instruction are key and present a unique opportunity for young folks. Through the STEMpilot program we can get them interested in flight – we have the opportunity to point them in a new direction and see this as a stepping stone. People could solo a glider and be flying a plane before they get their driver’s license.”
Belding points out that development of the airport is of critical importance to this rural community which, like many others, is seeing a decrease in population. Over the last decade, the population of Greene County has shrunk by 7.1%. Although the coal industry is being replaced with natural gas production to some extent, the local economy will continue to be impacted by declining coal production.
“The airport offers opportunities,” Belding concludes. “We want to reverse the trend and diversify the economy so that we do not have to raise property taxes or limit services. The airport can be an economic driver itself, but I think its place as a promoter and educator for our community is key.”
“We want our young folks to be able to learn here and travel outside the county – but we also want to entice them to come back home and raise their family. We want them to find industries that are already moving here or ways to work remotely and live here. Careers in aviation are one of the opportunities we want to present to your young folks. The Greene County Airport has the potential to be at the center of this revitalization,” he concludes.
AT A GLANCE
Greene County, Pennsylvania – Greene County Airport (KWAY)
WHAT: a community-focused general aviation airport
WHERE: Franklin Township, Greene County, Pennsylvania
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