By Jim Hunt for the News & Journal
My first memory of the North Central West Virginia Airport was a warm summer afternoon when my parents took me to the “Penny a Pound” flights at the airport. About a dozen kids waited on the tarmac, as local pilots volunteered their small planes to give these wide-eyed youngsters the thrill of a lifetime. I remember that we flew over Clarksburg, and I tried to locate my house and other landmarks. When we landed, I looked over at a huge silver plane, with the words, “Lake Central Airlines” and couldn’t imagine that I would ever be so lucky to walk up the long metal steps and fly off to some exotic location.
About fifteen years later, I had completed college and was chosen to attend a youth conference in the Soviet Union. I finally got to walk up those silver steps, to fly to New York City, before flying to Moscow, USSR. This was years before 9/11 and the Benedum Airport, as it was known at that time, was still fairly small and you could walk out to the plane and walk up the steps with your family waving at you from behind the chain link fence, just feet from the plane. The airline that was operating at the airport was named Aeromech Airlines and was owned by Angelo Koukoulis, a fellow that I got to know better later in life. Angelo was a pioneer in the airline business and operated Aeromech until 1983, when they merged with Wright Airlines of Cleveland.
In the years that followed, I flew out of Benedum Airport dozens of times, often going to Pittsburgh International Airport or the Washington National Airport on small, propeller-driven aircraft that would bounce and bump the entire flight. As I flew into other airports, I realized how small the Benedum Airport was and how much it needed to be expanded if we were to ever be competitive with other states. When I served on the Harrison County Development Authority, it would often be discussed that businesses were not considering our area, due to the short runway and the lack of proper facilities to serve business clients. We worked very hard to lobby for the runway extension when the FBI chose Clarksburg for the site of its CJIS Division. The runway was extended but the facilities were woefully lacking, and fewer and fewer passengers were choosing to fly out of Harrison County.
It was about that time that a young man, who lived up the street from me in the Stealey Addition of Clarksburg, was appointed as the director of the airport. I don’t think many people had high hopes that anyone could save the airport, but Rick Rock had other ideas. He set about rebuilding the airport from the ground up. Slowly but surely, the enplanements started to grow, and a few additional flights were scheduled. Rock made pleas to the Harrison and Marion County Commissions and Clarksburg and Bridgeport to provide funding for advertising and flight guarantees, and his positive attitude swayed some skeptical politicians to provide support to the airport.
In the last several years, Rick Rock and the Airport Authority have done something that few believed possible. A new terminal is being designed and earthmoving is preparing the site. Construction cranes are putting steel into place for new businesses that are bringing hundreds of jobs. Funding is coming from the federal government and the new infrastructure funding is going to significantly help the airport. This economic generator will provide our area with untold billions of dollars in the coming years and give stability to our whole region.
Every great project needs a solid foundation, and our airport has a foundation of solid rock, in the person of Rick Rock, an amazing guy!
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