ST. MARYS — The St. Marys Municipal Airport kicked off the year with new staff members and high-in-the-sky goals for the community.

Joe Kerchinski, who took over as airport manager March 18, has been a private pilot for 20 years. Born in St. Marys, Kerchinski joined the United States Army at 17, then moved to California.

Secretary Mary Lou Geyer also just joined the team in April.

In 2017, Kerchinski returned to Elk County where his daughter and grandchildren live, and built a house a mile away from Airport Road.

The SMMA is about 70 years old. It started when the Kiwanis Club met in 1944 and decided the area needed an aiport, toward the end of World War II, said Faisal El-Awar, certified flight instructor and member of the SMMA authority.

The 4300-by-75-foot runway the SMMA has today was completed in 1950.

There are about 180 airports in Pennsylvania, El-Awar said. The PennDOT Bureau of Aviation, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and local organizations have been essential in receiving airport grants. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf also gave a $75,000 donation for equipment last year.

“We have been lucky to be able to get funding for various improvements,” El-Awar said.

The airport authority consists of seven members, who meet on the second Monday of each month.

It has 15 fixed-wing aircrafts and one rotary plane, says Kerchinski, and 23 lots for sale.

The airport has a large economic impact on the area as a whole, El-Awar said, generating income for local people. Corporate companies fly in to do business in the area, as well as general aviation.

The SMMA also has its “instrument approach,” which guides planes into the airport electronically, hospital transportation, power-line tree trimming and a “KOZ,” Keystone Opportunity Zone, which businesses can use or buy to get tax relief.

The SMMA hosts the “Elk Flyers” group and Civil Air Patrol Cadet Program (CAP), an auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, which focuses on aerospace education and community activities for youth.

Kerchinski has worked as an industrial contractor and has a maintenance background, which comes in handy, since the manager does all the facilities’ duties — fixing things, mowing and plowing, unloading fuel, licensing and grants and others.

He plans to be out and about in the community, Kerchinski said, hosting more fundraisers and making connections.

“We’ve been fortunate to always have good managers,” El-Awar said. “We chose a manager who we think will be helpful in continuing the airport’s strong existence.”

Kerchinski is in the process of developing a business plan, he says. The SMMA needs funding from cooperate businesses and those willing to help improve maintenance facilities, equipment, resurfacing of the runway and more.

“The airport is an important asset to any community,” El-Awar said. “Many people benefit from this airport.”

Denny Caruso, an expert of plan repair, operates a big maintenance facility there as well. People fly their planes in from all over to have them fixed by Caruso. He is currently working on a stearman biplane from World War II.

Four of the authority members are Crystal Fire Department volunteer firefighters as well. El-Awar is retired and has lived in St. Marys for 20 years.

“We have invested interest in making sure the airport continues to thrive and succeed,” he said.

The SMMA’s first drag race will be held June 16 — Father’s Day — then July 28, and the Aviation Festival and car show Aug. 18. The final drag race, a new addition this year, will be Sept. 22.

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