GREAT BARRINGTON – For Kenneth Krentsa, the manager of the Walter J. Koladza Airport, it is passion – not permits – that keeps him and his airport going.
“I’ll use any excuse to fly,” Krentsa said, pointing to his own plane, a Cessna 180, during a tour of the airport. “I love it. I’m a flying junky.”
Krentsa, rose-tinted aviators adorned, described the Great Barrington Airport – as it is known colloquially – as a “great country airport.”
With two runways, a handful of hangars and 33 planes on sight, the airport is not booming by any account.
“We have about 20 tie downs vacant,” Krentsa said. “No ones knocking at my door to fill them.”
But the airport’s economic downturn is coupled with something worse, he said: Berkshire Aviation Enterprises, the airport’s owner, is currently embroiled in a two-pronged legal battle with the town of Great Barrington, as well as the airport’s neighbors.
Because the airport was built before zoning laws were enacted – it was, according to Krentsa, initially a potato farm whose owner had a knack for aviation – the airport is in a residential zone. So the airport owners are seeking formal recognition after approximately 86 years of operating in the same place.
And Krentsa thinks the flak the airport is receiving for its zoning codification and special permit request is ridiculous.
“Here’s the bottom line: we operate as a pre-existing, non-conforming entity,” he said. “Giving us a special permit, it’s a bit of a moot point.”
The second prong of the airport’s battle, and, arguably, the most visible, is the request to build three new hangars onsite.
Airport neighbors have made it publicly evident that new hangars are a no go. Some neighbors have drawn attention to what they allege is a high-level pollution threat to the Great Barrington aquifer, which the airport was, at the time, unknowingly constructed over.
Other neighbors complain about noise from military helicopters – they have a knack to run 3 a.m. operations at the airport because, as Krentsa described, the lack of light and the hills and valleys of the area “are similar to Afghanistan.”
Other neighbors are worried about the use of leaded fuel onsite, which one neighbor, Marc Fasteau, blames for the “actionable levels” of lead in his well water. Another neighbor, Joseph Krummel, has concurred with Fasteau: he alleges the “higher-than-usual” lead levels in his tap water are from the airport, as well.
Another neighbor, Holly Hamer, has complained that the airport is rapidly evolving, becoming more similar to Pittsfield Municipal Airport, which accepts jets, than the little agricultural airstrip it once was.
Though Krentsa conceded, “Blackhawks are noisy,” he said unleaded fuel was inconvenient and “still experimental” and that the general outcry is brand new.
According to him, airport gloom is all the result of his proposed expansion.
“There was not one word about the aquifer, not one word about fumes and fuels,” Krentsa said, walking around the airport’s fuel pump. “Nobody cared about the noise until I proposed the hangars… suddenly we’re noisier.”
Krentsa also stressed that getting the town’s okay – eventually, as he described it – does not “repeal responsibility” on the airport’s part.
“We try to be responsible,” Krentsa, who voluntarily sought the town’s approval on up-to-date zoning, said. “There’s no oil leaking. There are no planes leaking.”
The hangars Krentsa proposed to the town were initially slated to be along Seekonk Cross Road, where a majority of the angered neighbors live. Those planned hangars would require a road to be constructed and were placed there to be compliant with a now-defunct Conservation Commission ordinance regarding the Green River.
Krentsa did not want to put hangars along Route 71, which is the airport’s southern bound, because it would block a panorama he said is cherished by aviation lovers and passersby.
“I couldn’t put them there. It’d block the view,” he said.
But now, Krentsa’s hangars have been revised and their footprint moved.
The most recent plans place the hangars just north of the main runway, next to one comparatively larger structure and a seashell-shaped standalone hangar. No extra road would be required.
“I want to build the hangars right here,” Krentsa said, motioning to his feet, kicking some gravel. “Having them here does look better, and it does not block the views of Catamount or of the horizon.”
The hangars, neighbors allege, follow a disturbing trend of airport buildup. Krentsa, though, thinks the added hangars are more related to protecting planes and staff.
Currently, each hangar at the airport has anywhere from four to six planes parked inside. So when a pilot wants to take his or her plane out and it is the sixth plane – all the way in the back – Krentsa has to drag all the ones in front of it out, only to reorganize and push them all back when the pilot lands.
“It sucks,” Krentsa, who has 33,000 hours of flight experience, said. “You literally have to drag them out. The planes could be damaged.”
Roman Montano, who keeps his 1947 Stinson 108-3 at the airport, could not agree with or appreciate Krentsa’s proposals more.
“I’ve been flying here since 1988. This place really represents general aviation across America,” Montano said. “Everything requires updating – you have to maintain. I’m lucky to have the plane in a hangar.”
Airplane hangars, essentially, protect planes from the elements: most recently rain and snow. Planes that are tied down along the runway are also subject to muddy conditions and sudden gusts of wind. The hangars, Krentsa said, would put an end to that.
The hangars currently in limbo would also be smaller than all other pre-existing hangars at the airport.
A red flag atop a long stake in the middle of the airfield marked the planned height of Krentsa’s hangars – the top of which does not exceed a couple of feet above a typical single engine plane.
“They wouldn’t be higher than this door,” Krentsa said, standing inside the hangar that bears the airport’s name.
Krentsa promised that he was not trying to become a Pittsfield sister airport or anything of the like with his new hangars.
He said there would be no jets at his airport, no wing-walkers and no touch-and-goes. In fact, he said, he wants to maintain the “see and be seen” rules (PDF) the Great Barrington Airport currently operates under.
“Everybody has this impression of air traffic control and towers and radar,” Krentsa said. “That’s not it.”
Sean McLaughlin, a Richmond resident, took that to heart. McLaughlin was seated on the grass, alongside his wife and young child, watching planes take off and land April 2.
“We were just saying it’s so nice to have this,” McLaughlin said. “We’re so fortunate… It’s super nice. No chain-link fence, no TSA pat down.”
McLaughlin said he and his family come out to the Great Barrington Airport “because of Wes,” their young son. He loves planes.
“You could take up a whole afternoon just doing this,” he added.
For Krentsa, who flew commercially until he aged out, that is what it is all about – a passion for aviation.
“I don’t have to do this,” he said. “But I love it when I’m up in the air.”
Krentsa got his start in Stormville, New York, where he took his first flying lesson. According to him, the Stormville airport was awfully similar to the one he currently manages.
“I loved it,” he said.
The next public hearing regarding the Great Barrington Airport is scheduled for May 15. Krentsa said he hopes the sum of all issues is solved then, but that he is also ready to keep defending the airport he manages and loves.
Calls to airport neighbors were not returned.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Record.