Martinsburg man honored for years of service with Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Authority

July 28, 2012|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — When he was a boy, Robert L. “Bob” Burkhart earned money pumping gas — into airplanes, not cars.

At an air field known as North End Airport north of Martinsburg, Burkhart, now 84, recalled selling tickets for airplane rides and pulling props on the weekends to earn money for his own flight training.

Burkhart said he rode his bicycle from his childhood home on Pennsylvania Avenue to the grass airstrip every weekend to work

“I first soloed when I was 16,” said Burkhart, who was recognized last week for his many years of service on the Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Authority.

Burkhart said he was supposed to have eight hours of flight training, but his instructor, Burr Porterfield Jr., told him otherwise after six hours and 15 minutes. Training then cost Burkhart $9 per hour.

“He said I was ready,” said Burkhart, whose solo flight in 1943 was in a 6-horsepower, two-seat, Piper J-3 Cub.

“It’s a great feeling, especially when I was a kid,” said Burkhart of being airborne.

Burkhart said he aspired to fly airplanes like his older brother, Billie, who worked for All American Aviation, picking up mail containers that were suspended from ropes or cables between two poles.

His parents didn’t mind that their sons flew, he said. His mother’s father, James Shepherd, owned the airstrip now known as Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport.

“We used to have a free air show every week,” Burkhart recalled.

His brother, who Burkhart said was an aviation pioneer, died in a plane crash in 1949 in Clarksburg, W.Va. 

After his brother’s death, Burkhart said he didn’t fly much. Then he got married and couldn’t afford it.

The North End Airport closed in the 1950s, according to a historical accounts, but Burkhart’s interest in flying didn’t end.

In 1972, Burkhart became a founding member of the board for Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport Authority, while serving on the Berkeley County Commission.

Burkhart, who served on the county commission for 32 years, was also on the airport authority board for several years. He resigned earlier this year due to health concerns.

At Thursday’s Berkeley County Council meeting, Burkhart said serving on the airport authority board was an honor.

“It’s a pleasure to be here,” said Burkhart, who was saluted by county council and airport authority members for his service.

At the time the airport authority was formed, Burkhart recalled “things were in pretty bad shape” and the board then met weekly for one year.

Subsequent improvements made to the airport over the years have now made it one of Berkeley County’s biggest assets, Burkhart said.

Richard “Rick” Wachtel, who serves as chairman of the airport authority board, said Burkhart’s knowledge and dedication would sorely be missed.

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