Driving snow and icy weather recently forced American country music artist Aaron Tippin to stay in the county for a few days while his plane was at the Somerset County Airport.
“It’s the Somerset County weather,” airport manager Dave Wright said with a shake of his head.
When Wright was asked if he got an autograph of the country music great, he smiled and said, “Yes, I did.” Then he showed the log where the pilot signed in and out as proof.
“He is the same as anyone using the airport,” he added with a shrug.
Tippin is among many notable people who have used the airport, including former President Bill Clinton and former first lady Laura Bush. If those famous people ever return to the airport, they might notice some improvements.
A terminal building has been added at the airport near Friedens and its runways have been paved and extended. This year new hangars will be constructed to accommodate bigger planes.
Somerset County commissioners have stressed the importance of the airport in economic development. For years they sought funds to improve the facility’s aging hangars and update navigational aids.
In 2012 the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration released hundreds of thousands of dollars to update the airport master plan and rehabilitate navigational aids. The county will be responsible for about $7,400.
The grant money also will be used to replace the airport’s beacon tower with a more efficient lighting unit. The bulk of the money will be spent on replacing the airport’s automated weather observation system, which dates to the 1980s, Wright said.
The automated weather station will be updated with Internet and aviation radio frequency communication tools. A pilot can access information about the weather conditions at the county airport from anywhere in the country, Wright said. Under the current system, a pilot can pick up information by radio signal such as wind direction and strength, the temperature and the height of cloud cover when he is 50 miles from the airport, Wright said.
The hangar construction project will also take place this year, Wright said.
County commissioners awarded a $754,826 contract to Darr Construction of Berlin to construct four 1,920-square-foot hangars to accommodate twin-engine aircraft. The money will also be used to renovate some of the first hangars built at the airport that are used for single-engine airplanes, Wright said.
Half of the funding comes from the state capital budget and the other half comes from the county. The county will provide funds for the project from a $7.3 million bond issued in 2010.
The four new hangars are spoken for, said Commissioner Joe Betta. And there is a need for three more, he said.
Betta is trying to work with an emergency medical helicopter company that is interested in having a hangar at the airport. On a recent wintry day, Betta was out with his tape measure taking another look at a hangar door to make sure one of the company’s birds could fit if the deal goes through.