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Geauga County Airport Celebrating 50 Years

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(right, l-r) Pilot Bill Schillig along with Bob Gbur, maintenance officer, and Tyler Kahn, co-pilot of a (above)1954, 40,000-pound C-123 cargo plane affectionately known as the Thunder Pig flew into Middlefield to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Geauga County Airport.

By Kim Breyley

The Geauga County Airport located just south of Middlefield celebrated 50 years in existence on Sept. 29, 2018. Those who are currently involved with the success of the airport held a day-long celebration offering a pancake breakfast, airplane rides for youth and many activities for attending families.  Lunch was provided as a fundraiser by the Maple Leaf Residences, Inc. which provide quality, safe and affordable housing to people with disabilities. 

“On this same day 50 years ago, Governor James Rhodes flew to the airport in a DC3 and a public ceremony was held to commemorate the opening of the airport,” announced Patty Fulop, airport manager. “Guests of honor included the County commissioners, ODOT, Division of Aviation, Chamber of Commerce members and the mayor of Middlefield.”

“The Middlefield Chamber of Commerce, area businessmen and individuals rallied together under the direction of Mayor Glade Harrison to raise $20,000 to purchase the original 42-acre site,” Fulop continued.

Glade “Butch” Harrison Jr., son of the late Glade Harrison, past mayor of Middlefield, past president of the Chamber of Commerce, and instrumental in the initiation of the airport, presented the original shovel used by his dad in the ground-breaking ceremony of the airport to the members of the current Geauga County Airport Authority who were present: Greg Gyllstrom, Ben Nicastro and Tim Randles.

The list of the 40-plus donors hangs in lobby of the airport today. The land was purchased from Malcolm Boorn and had been part of his family’s farmstead for more than 30 years. Later the property was donated to the County. The ground-breaking was on Aug. 31, 1967 and the year-long construction project began.  Upon completion, Geauga County Airport consisted of a paved runway identified as Runway 10 to the west and 28 to the east and was 3,500 feet in length by 65 feet in width. Today, though the length and width are still the same, the runway numbers have changed to 11/29 which directly correlates to the shift in the magnetic compass.  Until 1971, the airport was operated by Richard Gillmore, a franchised Cessna Aircraft dealer and president of Geauga Air Services Inc. It was then operated by Falcon Aviation and later Firebird Aviation. In 1992, the Geauga County Board of Commissioners formed the Geauga County Airport Authority and they are currently the governing body.

Around 1977, the Geauga County Board of Commissioners appointed an Airport Advisory Committee made up of Bill Clark, Ted Lewis, Robert Lindsey, Jim Coonan, Rick Seyer and Bruce Cook. Today the airport consists of 67 acres. Mr. Seyer was on hand at the event to provide some history of the airport.  Over the years, it has been recommended, and it is called for in the master plan, to increase the length of the runway by at least 4,400 feet, safety and usability are the concerns.

“Even though the airport’s day-to-day operations are self-sufficient,” said Fulop, “projects to increase the airport’s economic impact on the County require funding assistance from ODOT, FAA and the County Commissioners. From 1985 to present, the FAA has contributed approximately $4,206,000 for improvements at the airport.” This year’s grants will help with runway lighting and ADA compliant restrooms. The current Airport Authority Board consists of: Bill Meyer, president; Tim Randles, vice president and members: Greg Gyllstrom, Cornelius Halsmer, Chip Hess, David Hostetler and Ben Nicastro. The current Board of County Commissioners are: Ralph Spidalieri, Tim Lennon and Skip Claypool.

Many organizations participated in the day of celebration including “Lake Erie 99s,” a women’s pilot group, “Women’s Air and Space Museum” and “Discovery Aviation from Lorain County.”Tamarak Aerial Services and associates were on hand to display and demonstrate drone flying and generously donated a drone which was raffled off.  Demonstrations were also done by the Middlefield Fire Department, MedEvac and the Cleveland Soaring Society.    

Also visiting for the day were members from the Air Heritage Museum, Beaver County Airport, Beaver Falls, PA. Pilot Bill Schillig along with Bob Gbur, maintenance officer and Tyler Kahn, co-pilot of a 1954, 40,000-pound C-123 cargo plane called the Thunder Pig flew in to join in the fun.

“It’s the last one like it, flying,” said Gbur referring to the Thunder Pig. “I was one of the guys that went to the bone yard in Davis–Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona in 1995 and dug it out for restoration. We (at the museum) are all volunteers, and we dearly love this thing.” It took one year for the team to restore it for flight. This monster plane has been used in several movies over the years including the 2017-production starring Tom Cruise called “American Made.”The aircraft has two engines, 18 cylinders in each; it is noisy and burns 100 gallons of gas per hour. Aviation gasoline retails at $5.25 per gallon. On Airport Day in Middlefield, attendees were invited to enter and explore the aircraft.

Pittsburgh-residing pilots (l-r) Charlie Baker, Bob Baker and David Messersmith flew in for breakfast at the Geauga County Airport’s 50th anniversary celebration in the Baker’s newly-purchased plane.

Pittsburgh resident and professional pilot with American Airlines, David Messersmith, also member of the Air Heritage Museum, with pilots Charlie Baker, Airforce Reserves and Bob Baker, flew in for breakfast at the event in the Baker’s newly-purchased plane. Messersmith is the aircraft commander on a C47 at the Museum. “ The plane, we are working on, looks like a DC3 WWII veteran airplane,” he said. He is the point man on the six-year restoration project for that aircraft. “ We are waiting on (FAA) approval to start flying it again,” he added.

The museum has about 250 members, 12 aircraft, and is free to visitors. It is an aircraft restoration facility with the purpose of restoring planes to make them flyable again, and get them out to where the public can see them, said Messersmith. “ We have no velvet ropes, you can walk up and touch the planes, and we don’t yell at you,” he smiled.

Also, available for viewing on the 50th Anniversary Airport Day was the debut of a sleek, silver small plane owned by Greg Gyllstrom, member of the local Chapter 5 of the EAA (Experimental Aviation Association). About two years ago, Gyllstrom began building from a kit a Vans RV12 at the Geauga County Airport. “We’ve had the initial engine start,” said Gyllstrom. “Next the FAA (Federal Aviation Association) will come out and inspect it and once that passes, we begin the test flights consisting of five to seven accumulated hours.”

Gyllstrom is qualified to perform the test flight and chose local resident and professional pilot, Brian King, who is a 24,000-hour pilot with United Airlines, as well as an RV12 expert to co-pilot. “So I’ve got a good guy with me in the cockpit,” said Gyllstrom. “This has been my retirement project, something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid.” The plane is dedicated to his father, Harold Gyllstrom, 8th Airforce, who passed away a few years ago. “He would have loved to even sit in it, let alone fly in it,” said Gyllstrom. “My dad loved the P51 and the Vans is styled after the P51 Fighter.” Gyllstrom said the plane-build came together easily. “It’s a very complete and modern kit,” he explained. “But without the knowledge of the EAA Chapter 5 members at the airport, I never could have completed it.” Congratulations Greg!

And congratulations on 50 years to all of the contributing founders and keepers of the Geauga County Airport! 

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