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Some want to continue flying

April 20, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

Franklin County Commissioner Bob Thomas last week echoed the thoughts of those who want to keep the Chambersburg Municipal Airport operating.

"If it goes away today it will never come back tomorrow," Thomas said.

He said he hated to see the airport close.

The 95-acre, 34-year-old airport in Greene Township north of Chambersburg may cease to exist at the end of the year.

The airport is owned by the Borough of Chambersburg. The federal government gave the borough a grant in 1983 to make improvements to the airport with the provision that it be kept in operation for 20 years.

The 20 years ends Dec. 31 and the council voted last month to sell the airport - land and buildings including two large hangars - to the highest bidder. The sale will be conducted by sealed bids.

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The airport's facilities are basic at best. It's paved runway is 3,300 feet long - too short for most corporate jets - and it has no control tower and does not sell airplane fuel.

The borough holds five leases at the airport. The lessees include the Chambersburg Skydiving Center, Mountain Brook Orchards and Brechbill and Helman Construction Co.

In 1989, a consultant hired by the borough determined the airport had no viable impact on the area's economic development, largely because of the proximity of Hagerstown Regional Airport and its ability to handle large aircraft.

Dave Sciamanna, executive director of the Greater Chambersburg Chamber of Commerce, said Chambersburg's airport "will never become an integral part of the economic viability of the community,"

About 100 acres of airport land were sold to a farmer in the late 1980s.

The airport was appraised at $585,000 in 1997.

Thomas said there could be potential for the airport, but he didn't know if its level of use today justifies keeping it open.

"I can understand the borough's concern," he said.

J.R. Sides, owner of the Chambersburg Skydiving Center, produced figures showing the airport turned more than $10,000 in net profits in 2002. His figures showed deficits every year in the decade before that.

The skydiving center, which has been open for 23 years, draws thousands of patrons from the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area and beyond each year who add about $1 million to the local economy, Sides said.

On the minus side, pilots don't like to fly into airports where skydiving takes place because of safety, said Rande L. Walters Sr., owner of Rande's Aircraft Repair Inc. at the airport.

Sides countered saying good radio communications keep pilots informed of where skydivers are at all times.

Walters said he would go out of business if the borough sells the airport unless it's bought by someone who keeps it open.

His hangar looked busy with work one day last week. Five planes were inside waiting for repairs. Two more were parked outside.

Sides said he is the airport manager. The owners of 28 single-engine planes and three twin-engine aircraft pay to keep their planes at the airport, he said.

There is some use of the airport by corporate jets, by Pennsylvania State Police aircraft and by pilots of Mercy Flight planes that transport body parts to hospitals for transplant recipients.

Sides said the borough could apply for federal funds to pay to extend the runway.

"Look at what's happening in the Chambersburg area," he said. "It's growing. There are more and more people coming in. You need a business airport here."

He said a group of pilots and others interested in keeping the airport open are trying to form an airport authority that would have the council's blessings.

Council President William McLaughlin said earlier that the proponents have eight months to persuade the council to keep the airport open.

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