BREEZEWOOD — Few families dream of opening their own airport, but for Rich and Katrina Ackley, their vision for what would become Greater Breezewood Regional Airport dates back decades.
Located about 12 miles south of Breezewood, the airport is essentially a large grassy field carved into 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 to the public.
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 math and Rich studied civil engineering.
It was there that he first scribbled airport maps 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 align my stars.”
A labor of love
The dream began to come true when a farm sold the Ackleys half of their 117-acre property. They also had to purchase a patch of trees from the state that capped their new property at one end to ensure their planned runway would be long enough.
Finally, the farm neighbor sold the Ackleys their house and an additional 146 acres, although they did not keep the entire plot.
With the issue of land acquisition resolved, the large amount of trees on the property then had to be removed to widen and lengthen the runway.
“We removed thousands of trees to get the runway cleared,” Rich said. “So it was a big business for that to happen – a huge business.”
The Ackleys did the vast majority of the work themselves, using mostly farm equipment. With the hilly terrain of the area, they had to use a tractor to move the dirt and make the track flatter.
To comply with state and FAA regulations, there can be no more than 4% grade, Katrina said. For her, the biggest challenge was to first learn to drive a tractor.
“When people come to see the airport as it is now, they don’t know about the journey we made together and every little detail,” Katrina said. “There were setbacks that made me think it wasn’t going to happen.”
It took them about a year to clean it all up, Rich said. Pointing to the field, he said that every inch of green you could see they were planting grass or timothy.
Then they cut large plastic barrels in half, painted them white, and lined them up in the designated track. From first barrel to last, the track is 3,073 feet long and 100 feet wide.
“We spend a lot of time mowing together” Katrina burst out laughing.
Control and certification
Once the Ackleys had all their ducks in a row – making sure the track was within certain lengths, had proper clearances, making sure there were no obstacles nearby and the lanes of approach were clear – it was time for the PBA and FAA to come in and perform simultaneous inspections.
After the criteria from both agencies were met, the FAA gave its blessing to the new airport, Rich said.
Then, shortly after, in late 2018, they saw their location appear on Google Maps as Greater Breezewood Regional Airport – P17.
“I’m glad it took this long because I grew up in Everett so it’s good for me to come back and hopefully do something for our community here,” Katrina said.
Now their airport is inspected annually and they are expected to maintain the same standards as when it was certified.
The only change was the addition of a hangar to one side of the runway, to store Ackley’s own planes – a 1962 Cessna 182 and a Rich’s “pride and joy” 1946 Piper J3 Cub – plus two gliders.
The Ackleys’ niche dream didn’t come out of nowhere. Originally from Pottstown, Rich’s father was a pilot and owned small planes during his youth. He also worked at Pottstown Airport when he was older.
“It’s just something I’ve 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 would save a lot of money if I could.
Although he holds a degree in civil engineering, Rich never actually worked as a civil engineer. A self-proclaimed die-hard aviation enthusiast, he earned his private pilot’s license in 1989 and his commercial pilot’s license in 1990. He began his flying career at the same Pottstown airport where he worked growing up and as soon as he been qualified to fly charter flights. , he did that.
Today, Rich has 22,000 flight hours, numerous certifications and is even qualified to teach others to fly, including one of his own daughters.
“I use the term ‘I, I, I’ quite often but the reality is it’s ‘we, us, us'” Rich said. “Without my wife, my father, my daughters – without their help, this would never have happened.”
From dream to reality
The Ackleys could have kept their airport private, kept it to themselves and only open it to family and friends. However, they made it a public airport so others could share their love of aviation.
“You can already see the relationships we have forged with drivers that we wouldn’t have known otherwise and who come back again and again. Katrina said.
The airport typically has about two or three planes flying a week, Rich said, with some coming from as far away as Connecticut.
Although pilots don’t have to contact the Ackleys before landing, some call or message them on Facebook to see what the runway conditions are. As she is usually at home, Katrina hears the planes circling above her head and can watch from her kitchen when they come in to land. The first person to fly 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 engage the community and fellow pilots, the Ackleys have held several events since opening. They hosted a taco dinner once and, shortly after Halloween, had two pumpkin drops – a game that had people get rid of their old pumpkins by dropping them from their plane, trying to reach a target.
“The first time we had 56 planes, the second time the weather took us and we were delayed, so we only had 37 planes”, Rich said.
They also hope to hold an on-site 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 where aviation enthusiasts can have fun, talk and participate,” Katrina mentioned the airport. “It’s fun to have this group.”
To look forward
Right now, GBRA and recreational flying are just hobbies for the Ackleys. Rich’s day job remains a commercial pilot, while Katrina works as a housewife for their family. However, the plan is to build the airport, so when Rich retires, that might be his “fun retirement job.”
“We are trying to put everything in place so that one day when I retire we have all the pieces of the puzzle together to have a small flying school and also to give gliding instruction and glider tours ,” Rich said. “Finally – we are building up to this point.”
Before that happens, the Ackleys hope to make some improvements around the airport, such as leveling the runway further and expanding their hangar so they can store other people’s planes and gliders.
“We never want it to be a big airport, just a country airport where a bit of flying instruction takes place, maybe glider flying and airplane flying in general,” Rich said. “For the layman, there are a lot of little intricacies in how aviation works. We’re basically just a little mom and pop bunch of grass and that’s where we want to be.
Mirror Staff Writer Rachel Foor is at 814-946-7458.