All in the (Skypark) Family
WADSWORTH — To get to Dan Weltzien’s office, you must pass by the Wall of Photographs. Airplanes tie together an otherwise themeless montage of men in uniform, Hooters girls and wild animals. To “get” Dan Weltzien, you have to get this family photo album.
Just after 8 a.m. on a Sunday, he’s having pancakes with some of the people on the wall. They’re not blood relatives, nor Hooters girls (not today anyway). They’re men and women, young and old, experienced pilots and inexperienced ones. They’re connected by a consuming passion for flight.
Weltzien’s dog, Jenny, licks a bit of sausage off his plastic fork as he greets a Continental Airlines executive who’s here for the poker flight. For $5,
participants get a sheet of paper and a card. They have to fly to four other airports then back to Skypark by 3 p.m. to complete their hands. The best hands win cash prizes.
All I wanted was an airport in my backyard.
The poker flight is just one event drawing people to this narrow airstrip in Wadsworth, Ohio. They come from all over for the cheap fees – you can get all the training you need for a pilot’s license for $2,397, and you can rent one of Weltzien’s C-150’s for less than $50 an hour. They stay for the poker flights, the pig roasts, the gun shoots, the Halloween parties and the craft shows.
“All I wanted,” the septuagenarian pilot says, “was an airport in my backyard.” He bought the property, a former black angus farm, in 1965.
With mostly volunteer labor, he built the main building, on which his house and office are attached, and he’s been trying to give back ever since.
Skypark has a booster club, a flight school and regular movie nights Weltzien holds in the theater in his house. Then there are the parties in his tiki bar, the pancake breakfasts and the trips to places like Kelley’s Island and Johnson City, Tennessee.
If you fly out of Skypark, you’re more than welcome to any of these events. You’re family.
“I’ve got friends who are my age and friends who are 80,” says 19-year-old Alan Parke. “We’re all pilots. . . . There have been times when we all go out to eat and then come back and play hide and seek.”
If you can fly out of here, you can fly out of anywhere.
Weltzien says there are more than 700 people involved with Skypark but only 20 airplanes. Astronauts, Navy commanders and FedEx pilots have learned how to fly on this narrow strip. “If you can fly out of here, you can fly out of anywhere,” says Kerry Chuey, a retail manager who is learning how to fly at Skypark.
Among the students earning their pilot’s licenses last summer were European clients of a Japanese-based company attracted by the cheap fees and 15-year-old Shannon Smith, daughter of astronaut Steve Smith, veteran of four space shuttle missions.
At the pancake breakfast, Colleen Nerlich, who owns a pet-grooming business in Akron, includes a little jolt of enthusiasm with every card she deals. Although she’s loved airplanes her whole life, she became a pilot just three years ago, when she was in her 40s. Since then, she’s merged her passion for aviation with her love of organizing. She’s the president of the booster club and the person in charge of many social events.
“This little place has touched so many people’s lives,” she says, long blond curls bouncing. She tells a young pilot hurrying out the door to call her if he needs anything while he’s picking up a card in Carroll County,
“You have my cell!” He’s not her son, just one of the young people who look to her as a mother figure. She happily serves as Skypark’s chief hug-giver.
Every family needs one.
Copyright © 2008 Jacquie Marino, Grass roots. Blue Sky. Stories That Fly. Photographer: Shaye Painter.
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