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On cloud nine: Family opens own airport near Breezewood

Planes land at the Greater Breezewood Regional Airport, privately owned by Rich and Katrina Ackley, but open to the public for use. Courtesy photo

BREEZEWOOD — Not many families dream of opening their own airport, but for Rich and Katrina Ackley, their vision for what would become the Greater Breezewood Regional Airport goes back decades.

Located about 12 miles south of Breezewood, the airport is essentially a large, grassy field carved out of the surrounding swaths of forest. It was certified by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Aviation and the Federal Aviation Administration in late 2018 and, although privately owned, it is open for public use.

However, the airport’s opening was a long time coming, the Ackleys said. Married now for 28 years, they met in 1991 at Penn State Altoona, where Katrina studied mathematics and Rich studied civil engineering.

It was there that he first doodled the plans for the airport on the back of a piece of paper, Rich said.

“One thing led to the next and it took us until 2017, when we bought this property,” he said. “It just took us a long time to get to this point — it took a long time to get my stars in alignment.”

After years of hard work and effort, Rich and Katrina Ackley have realized a lifelong dream of opening their own airport. “We never want it to be a big airport, but just a country airport where a little bit of flight instruction goes on, maybe some glider rides and airplane rides in general,” Rich said. Courtesy photo

A labor of love

The dream started to come to fruition when a farm sold the Ackleys half its 117-acre property. They also had to buy a plot of trees from the state that capped their new property on one end to ensure their planned runway would be long enough.

Finally, the farm’s neighbor sold the Ackleys their house and an additional 146 acres, although they didn’t keep the entire parcel.

With the issue of land acquisition out of the way, next came removing the large amount of trees from the property to both widen and lengthen the runway.

“We removed thousands of trees to get the clearance from the runway,” Rich said. “So it was a big undertaking to make that happen — a huge undertaking.”

The Ackleys did the vast majority of the work themselves, using mostly farming equipment. With the area’s hilly terrain, they had to use a tractor to move dirt around and make the runway more level.

To be in line with state and FAA regulations, there couldn’t be more than a 4% slope, Katrina said. For her, the biggest challenge was learning how to drive a tractor in the first place.

“When people come and see the airport the way it is now, they don’t know the journey that we’ve been on together and every little detail,” Katrina said. “There were setbacks that made me think it wasn’t going to happen.”

It took about a year for them to clear everything out, Rich said. Pointing around the field, he said that every green inch that could be seen, they planted grass or timothy hay.

Next, they cut large plastic barrels in half, painted them white, and lined the designated runway with them. From the first barrel to the last, the runway measures 3,073 feet long and 100 feet wide.

The Greater Breezewood Regional Airport has held several events since its opening, including pumpkin drops — a game that allows people to get rid of their old pumpkins by dropping them out of their plane, trying to hit a target. Courtesy photo

“We spend a lot of time together mowing,” Katrina laughed.

Inspection and certification

Once the Ackleys had all their ducks in a row — making sure the runway met certain lengths, had proper clearways, ensuring there were no obstacles nearby and approach corridors were clear — it was time to have the PBA and FAA come perform simultaneous inspections.

After both agencies’ criteria were met, the FAA gave the new airport its blessing, Rich said.

Then, shortly afterward in late 2018, they saw their location show up on Google maps as the Greater Breezewood Regional Airport – P17.

Airport co-owner Rich Ackley has logged more than 22,000 flight hours, holds numerous certifications and is qualified to teach others how to fly. Courtesy photo

“I’m glad it took as long as it did because I grew up in Everett so it’s nice for me to come back and hopefully make something for our community here,” Katrina said.

Now their airport gets inspected every year, and they are expected to maintain the same standards as when it was certified.

The only change was the addition of a hangar off to one side of the runway, to store the Ackley’s own planes — a 1962 Cessna 182 and Rich’s “pride and joy” 1946 Piper J3 Cub — as well as two gliders.

Starting young

The Ackleys’ niche dream didn’t come from nowhere. Originally from Pottstown, Rich’s father was a pilot and had small airplanes while he was growing up. He also worked at the Pottstown airport when he was older.

“It’s just something I always wanted to do, and I kind of have airplanes in my blood,” Rich said. “I grew up with it, I always wanted to do it and I can’t get it out of my system. I’d save a lot of money if I could.”

Although he holds a degree in civil engineering, Rich has never actually worked as a civil engineer. A self-described diehard aviation enthusiast, he earned his private pilot license in 1989 and his commercial pilot license in 1990. He began his piloting career at the same Pottstown airport he worked at growing up and as soon as he was qualified to pilot chartered flights, he did that.

Today, Rich has 22,000 flight hours, numerous certifications and is even qualified to teach others how to fly — including one of his own daughters.

“I quite often use the term ‘I, I, I’ but the reality is it’s ‘we, we, we,'” Rich said. “Without my wife, my father, my daughters — without their help, this never would have happened.”

From dream to reality

The Ackleys could have kept their airport private, keeping it to themselves and only opening it to family and friends. However, they made it a public airport so others could take part in their love of aviation.

“Already you can see the relationships we’ve forged with pilots that we wouldn’t have known otherwise who come back repeatedly,” Katrina said.

The airport usually has about two or three planes fly in a week, Rich said, with some coming as far away as Connecticut.

While pilots don’t have to contact the Ackleys prior to landing, some call or Facebook message them to see what the runway conditions are. As she’s usually home, Katrina hears the planes circling overhead and can watch from her kitchen as they come in to land. The first person to fly in was a man from Ohio, she said.

“That was our first indication that this is going to be bigger than we thought,” Katrina said.

To further involve the community and other pilots, the Ackleys have held several events since opening. They held a taco dinner once and, shortly after Halloween, had two pumpkin drops — a game that allowed people to get rid of their old pumpkins by dropping them out of their plane, trying to hit a target.

“The first time we had 56 airplanes, the second time the weather got us and we were delayed so we only had 37 airplanes,” Rich said.

They also hope to have a spot landing contest, where a line is drawn on the runway and pilots can show off their skills by landing on it.

“It’s for fun, but it’s become a place for aviation enthusiasts to enjoy and talk and join in,” Katrina said about the airport. “It’s fun to have that group.”

Looking to the future

Right now, the GBRA and recreational flying are just hobbies for the Ackleys. Rich’s day job remains being a commercial pilot, while Katrina works as a homemaker for their family. However, the plan is on building up the airport so when Rich retires, it can be his “fun retirement job.”

“We’re trying to get everything in place so that someday when I do retire, we have all the pieces of the puzzle together to have a little flight school and also to do glider instruction and glider rides,” Rich said. “Eventually — we’re building up to that point.”

Before that happens, there are a few improvements the Ackleys hope to make around the airport, such as leveling out the runway more and expanding their hangar so they can store other people’s planes and gliders.

“We never want it to be a big airport, but just a country airport where a little bit of flight instruction goes on, maybe some glider rides and airplane rides in general,” Rich said. “To the layperson, there’s a lot of little intricacies of how aviation works. We’re basically just a mom and pop little grass strip and that’s where we want to be.”

Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.

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