March 19, 2012 BY MARK GILGER JR.
MOUNT PLEASANT – Although a 30,000- to 40,000-ton charter jet descending from the sky and onto the runway will certainly capture the attention of bystanders, much more than that goes on at the Schuylkill County Joe Zerbey Airport.
“This airport has so many attributes that people don’t realize,” Bill Willard, airport manager, said recently.
In addition to being a landing zone and service provider for MedEvac, commercial, business and military aircraft, the business class airport also has a flight school, an aircraft paint shop and is home to the Schuylkill Technology Center.
“I think now people are starting to realize the benefits an airport can offer,” Willard said. “It is a real asset to the county and a showcase facility.”
While charter jets are regular visitors throughout the week, the airport does not currently have a hangar large enough to house the large craft. However, the airport was recently awarded a grant for such a hangar.
Late February, Gov. Tom Corbett announced a $10 million state investment program. As part of it, the Schuylkill County Airport was awarded a $300,000 grant to build a hangar that could house corporate airplanes.
Plans are currently in preliminary stages, but Willard said he is looking to put the hangar close to the office building.
“It’s amazing something that big can land here,” Willard said shortly after the charter plane came to a stop.
Willard said the airport’s ability to store planes in the new hangar will bring in new business, recalling at least three instances of losing business due to the lack of a corporate hangar.
Willard said location is key to attracting new business, and the Schuylkill County Airport has much to offer since it is just off Interstate 81 and across the street from the Highridge Business Park. The airport is also surrounded by county property and is clear of residential areas.
“We work really well with the Highridge Industrial Park,” Willard said. “We will bring in a plane for the guy who wants to build a plant in the area. This really is a point of entry into Schuylkill County and it has big-time potential.”
Some of the corporations that use the airport are Gordon Foods, Ohio; International Paper, Mount Carmel, and Wal-mart. Willard also said Pottsville native John E. Pepper Jr., chairman of the board of The Walt Disney Co., arrived at the airport to attend a high school reunion.
“Representatives from the corporations tell us how nice it is to have a business class airport so close to their facilities,” Willard said. “This airport is not just a club, it really brings in business.”
Willard said one of the benefits of using a business class airport is the convenience, such as the short wait and no cost to park. Also, the airport offers 24/7 service for fuel and an electrical generator, only requiring a credit card.
“Even if a plane comes in at 3 a.m. for service, I don’t mind coming to the airport to fill them up,” Willard said. “Whatever we have to do to provide excellent service. I don’t mind coming back, I love being here.”
The Schuylkill County Airport also earns an income from leasing a few of its hangars to Three in the Green, which attracts aircraft from all over the country to paint and refurbish. The firm has been at the airport since 2007 and currently has three hangars.
The aircraft maintenance and paint shop is owned by Bryan Fedder, Sunbury. In addition to Fedder, there are four other full-time employees plus four part-timers.
“The infrastructure here allows us to work on a large amount of planes,” Fedder said. “It’s a perfect spot for us with all the industry right here.” Fedder said some of his most recent work came from Key West, Chicago and Texas.
“We got a pretty high-quality reputation nationally,” Fedder said. “We’ve done some really high-end work. If we do a good job for one pilot, he spreads the word to others. We were established with really no publicity at all.”
Fedder said there are not many airports that have a shop like his.
“Airports are far and few between that have something like this,” Willard said.
Also not typical of an airport, the Schuylkill County facility has the campus for the Schuylkill Technology Center’s commercial driver’s license and heavy equipment training. Willard said the campus has been at the airport since late 1999 and the airport offers a lot of space for its equipment.
“They’re ideal tenants and we work very well together,” Willard said.
The school offers our classes for CDL training and two for heavy equipment, Willard said.
The airport is also the home to the county’s only flight school, Bright Sky LLC. The school is operated by Greg Solga, a US Airways Express captain, and offers flight instruction, aircraft rentals and air tours.
Solga said after starting off small a few years ago, Bright Sky gives about 1,000 air tours a year and has roughly 15 to 20 students at a time.
“It’s a well-respected education with a federally acquired license that you can put on your resume,” Willard said. “It opens doors. There’s not too many people who have a pilot’s license.”
Solga is a 1996 graduate of Blue Mountain High School and received a biology degree from the University of Colorado before becoming a pilot for US Airways.
“I had a biology degree from college and I didn’t end up using any of that, but I used all of the education I received in flight school,” Solga said. “We are almost a specialized trade school filling a need that was previously left unfilled. This is an airport that attracts both business and recreational use.”
Sam Martin is the only other full-time flight instructor for Bright Sky and Solga said there is a need for at least one more part-time position.
“I’m surprised with how fast business is growing since the three years we were here,” Solga said. “I’m proud to say I was able to create another decent paying job in the county.”
After receiving the grant for an additional hangar, Willard said he is now trying to get the airport to qualify for funds to expand the runway, which is currently 4,594 feet long by 75 feet wide.
“We have a regular amount of jet traffic, but we need the volume of that traffic to increase to qualify for the grant,” Willard said.
Willard also said only specific kinds of jets count towards qualifying for the grant.
With a business class airport and the potential to grow even larger, Willard said that in order to keep people coming back, the county airport offers outstanding customer service and has to think outside the box.
“We are a very customer-orientated airport,” Willard said. “We do anything to have someone say ‘That was a nice business class airport, let’s go back.’ ”