Diminishing Number of Pilots Takes Toll on Small Airports in Western Pa.
October 3, 2015
  • Share
  • Tom Riemer’s commute to work at Washington County’s Finleyville Airport takes 45 minutes.

    He lives in Winchester, Va. — three hours and 178 miles away by car.

    “The airplane really cuts down on the amount of time it takes to get back and forth,” said Riemer, 63, a Saxonburg native and retiree who is the unpaid manager of the small pilot-owned airport. “It’s easy and relaxing, especially compared to what it is like on the highways these days.”

    Riemer is among the dwindling ranks of private pilots flying around the country these days, and Finleyville Airport is one of fewer than two dozen small airports still operating across the Pittsburgh region. The airport has no paid employees.

    An interest in general aviation, at first fueled by military pilots returning home from World War II, peaked in 1980, when the number of pilots with private certificates reached 357,000.

    That number has plummeted to 182,500, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Projections say the number of private pilots will fall to 180,400 in 2024.

    Reasons for the decline include the $7,000 to $10,000 cost of obtaining a private pilot license, increased fuel costs and government regulations.

    The nose-diving pilot population has hurt many smaller airports and airfields, public and private.

    “They are closing airports left and right across the country,” said Riemer, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the message: “You live, you die, and in between you fly.”

    About 160 public airports — owned by county or municipal governments, or privately owned but publicly accessible — operated in Pennsylvania 30 years ago, according to PennDOT, which oversees them along with the Federal Aviation Administration. Today, there are 124.

    The decline hasn’t raised alarms in Harrisburg.

    “We don’t see any decline in what their intended roles are. We don’t consider them in plight,” said Anthony McCluskey, acting director of PennDOT’s aviation bureau. “The number of airports have been steady.”

    McCluskey said external pressures might be impacting the financial health of some small airports.

    “I believe we are going to be taking a closer look at just how financially sound are these general-aviation airports,” he said.

    Outside commercial airports of Pittsburgh International in Findlay and Arnold Palmer Regional in Latrobe, 19 airports operate in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

    Gone are Culmerville Airport in West Deer and Kiski Airport near Vandergrift, as are Campbell Airport in South Fayette, Bettis Field in West Mifflin, Mayer Field in Collier and Rodgers Field in O’Hara — Allegheny County’s first municipal airport and one where aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart crash-landed in 1928.

    Pittsburgh-Monroeville Airport could be next to go, owner Emil Bohinski said.

    “Operations are too expensive,” said Bohinski, 84, of Monroeville. “There’s no profit in airports today.”

    Bohinski’s parents in the 1940s opened Pitt-Wilkins Airport when Monroeville was known as Patton Township. That airfield along Tilbrook Road closed in the 1970s.

    His family in 1947 opened what became Pittsburgh-Monroeville Airport, which Bohinski took over from his sister and brother-in-law.

    State records show the airport was home to 11 single-engine aircraft at last count.

    “There was over 100 planes here at one time,” said Bohinski, who is trying to sell the property off Logan’s Ferry Road. “Times have changed.”

    Not all small airports in the region are suffering.

    Tom Kijowski last year reopened McVille Airport in South Buffalo, Armstrong County; it closed in 2007 to permit strip mining. More than $1.2 million in PennDOT grants funded by state jet-fuel taxes helped convert the grass runway at the privately owned airport into a 3,000-foot, paved asphalt strip that can handle multi-engine aircraft.

    Deer Lakes Pilots Club relocated to the property, which is home to a dozen airplanes.

    Kijowski said he hopes to soon build hangars at the airport his father opened in 1949.

    “General aviation is still alive,” said Kijowski, 71, of Lower Burrell, a pilot since 1961. “It will be here for a long time, I think.”

    The 33 pilot-owners of Finleyville Airport are building a pilot lounge and hope to sell two hangars and other tie-down spaces to new members. Fuel sales and maintenance fees help cover the airport’s roughly $100,000 annual operating budget.

    The aiport hopes to land a flight school.

    “This is the best-kept secret in Pittsburgh,” said Riemer, a retired commercial airline mechanic and pilot. “This is where we’ve chosen to spend our money, instead of down at the marina or at the country club.

    “It expands your horizons.”