Small public airports slowly fading in Western Pennsylvania
Jim Barclay’s life revolved around running Mt. Pleasant-Scottdale Airport, developed by his grandfather just after World War II.
After Barclay died in August at 66, his grown children began quietly reaching out to potential buyers who might be willing to take over the small public airport in Fayette County, said daughter Debra Lejeune of McMurray.
“That’s our preference, for someone to keep it as an airport,” said Lejeune, 40. But no one has expressed interest, and Lejeune said the family is preparing to put the 54-acre property up for sale and “listen to any offer.”
Should a buyer with no interest in maintaining the airport come forward, Mt. Pleasant-Scottdale would be the first public airport in Southwestern Pennsylvania to close and be redeveloped for another use in more than a decade.
PennDOT’s Bureau of Aviation lists 134 public airports and heliports in Pennsylvania, down from 162 just 25 years ago. Twenty-three are in Southwestern Pennsylvania, three fewer than in the mid-1980s, the bureau said. The state has more than 600 private aviation facilities, which are basically used only by their owners.
Many small public airports are holdovers from the early days of aviation and a post-World War II airport building boom. Nearly half of the region’s public airports — 11 — are home to 30 aircraft or fewer. Several of the region’s smallest airports receive little or no public money, relying instead on revenue generated by hangar rent and other fees.
“(Public airports) have closed for a number of different reasons over the years, but we still remain confident that we have sufficient airport coverage around the state,” PennDOT spokesman Steve Chizmar said.
Pennsylvania isn’t alone.
“Public-use airports across the country are closing at a rate of about one per week because of land development issues and simple economics. It’s a shame,” said Paul Freeman of Leesburg, Va., a pilot and aviation history buff.
Freeman began chronicling airport closures online about a decade ago. Today, his website “Abandoned & Little-Known Airports” includes histories and photos of nearly 1,500 public airports that no longer exist. In many cases, remnants of the former airports remain.
Two of the former public airports lost locally in the past 25 years, Culmerville Airport in West Deer and Kiski Airport near Vandergrift, are now private. Culmerville owner Fred Eiler said he opted to go private because the airport, which once had 35 planes, no longer met commercial requirements and declining use didn’t generate enough revenue to warrant making the necessary changes.
The other public airport lost locally in recent years, Campbell Airport in South Fayette, hasn’t had a flight since the mid-1990s and is home to several businesses. A couple of them are based in former hangars, while another stores cranes and other equipment along the former runway, which is riddled with potholes, cracks and weeds.
“The only air traffic they get now is when people come up to fly their remote-controlled airplanes. People love to do that,” said Justin O’Connor, manager of the Growing Seasons landscaping company, which uses a former hangar to store equipment.
O’Connor said aviation buffs and pilots who used to fly into Campbell visit the remote property to see what’s become of the former airport and take photographs.
The site was actually the second Campbell Airport. The first, located in a nearby valley, operated with a 2,500-foot-long runway — half as long as the second Campbell Airport’s — in the 1950s and ’60s before becoming the Pittsburgh International Dragway for about a decade. The property was used this spring during filming of “Riddle,” a thriller starring Val Kilmer.
Remnants of another former public airport, Bettis Field in West Mifflin, can still be seen in aerial photos more than 60 years after it ceased operations. But getting on the property — a stop on Charles Lindbergh’s tour after the pilot made his historic 1927 flight from New York to Paris — is another matter. The site is home to the Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory, which develops nuclear propulsion technology for the Navy. A lab spokesman declined a Trib request to tour the facility.
There is no trace of some notable former airports.
The Great Southern Shopping Center was built on the site of the former Mayer Field in Collier, which operated from 1919 to 1955. “We know the airport showed up on some paperwork when we bought the property five years ago, but we didn’t know what it was called,” said Mary Majcher of Zamias Services Inc. in Johnstown.
Likewise, a housing development was built on the site of the former Rodgers Field in O’Hara, Allegheny County’s first municipal airport. The Aero Club of Pittsburgh said it was applying to get a historic marker placed in the area.
Opened in 1925, Rodgers “was pretty much gone by 1935,” said Tom Powers, a graphic designer who spearheaded production of an O’Hara history book released in 2008. Powers said the airfield wasn’t large enough to accommodate increasing traffic and growing planes, many of which began using Allegheny County Airport after it opened in 1931. Rodgers had issues with dangerous crosswinds and ruts on the airfield, Powers said.
Legendary pilot Amelia Earhart found that out. She landed safely there in 1928 but then struck a ditch, forcing the plane on its nose and damaging its propeller, wing and landing gear.
Owners of several of the region’s smallest airports are trying to avoid a fate to that of Rodgers Field.
“It’s as slow as it’s ever been here, and we don’t see many planes from other airports come in anymore,” said Dick Eyler, who co-owns Inter County Airport in North Huntingdon and lives on the property. Six planes are based at the airport, which last year had a little more than 100 takeoffs and landings on its grass airstrip.
Maintaining the airport is hard work, but hardly lucrative. Plane storage fees barely cover costs.
“From a business perspective, it’s hard to break even,” Eyler said. “But we like to fly and come and go as we please. We like having the place. It is spectacular on a nice summer evening, when you have planes taking off and landing basically out of your front yard.”
Southwestern Pennsylvania has 23 public airports, ranging from Pittsburgh International to small operations that handle fewer than 10 takeoffs and landings a day. Five airports average more than 100 daily. They are:
â¢ Pittsburgh International, 148,036 takeoffs and landings a year
â¢ Allegheny County in West Mifflin, 84,416
â¢ Butler County, 73,636
â¢ Beaver County, 64,066
â¢ Rostraver in Monongahela, 43,542
Source: PennDOT; data is from 2009