Saturday, October 01, 2011

Rohaley remains at controls. This is the first part of a two-part article about Joe Rohaley, an early aviator and businessman at Rostraver Airport (KFWQ), Monongahela, Pennsylvania.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

At an age when many of his friends were looking forward to getting their driver's license and perhaps their first car, Joseph Eugene (Joe) Rohaley had his sights set much higher.

"I was always fascinated by airplanes," Rohaley, a native of Daisytown now living in Chester, Va., said. "I loved to watch them soar in the sky above the Mon Valley from the time I was just a kid and thought I'd like to do that some day. So I decided, when I was only 15, to pursue that idea. It was safe to hitch-hike in those days and I thumbed my way to the old Thompson Field in Rostraver Township as often as I could, especially on the weekends."

Most of Rohaley's work at the Thompson site involved refueling the planes, washing them and doing general cleanup work around the airport.

"I wasn't concerned about being paid because they compensated me with flying lessons," Rohaley, 70, recalled. "What an education. I was just a kid from Daisytown and here were those seasoned pilots taking time to show me the ABCs about what I knew I wanted to do the rest of my life."

Today, some 55 years after those early adventures at the aviation facility off Route 51 now known as Rostraver Airport, Rohaley is still plying the skills and commitment that have carried him across the skies of the United States and internationally.

Rohaley, one of seven children born to the late Michael and Mary Krilosky Rohaley, of Daisytown, continued to hone his abilities while serving five years in the U.S. Navy as an air crewman. He enlisted after graduating from California Community High School in 1959.

"I thought about going to college but was drawn to the military because it would give me the opportunity to learn even more about airplanes," he said.

And it was during his hitch in the Navy that Rohaley made his first solo flight in 1964.

"I was working on the planes but trying to absorb as much as possible from the instructors and pilots," he said. "I think I drove them crazy with all of my questions, but I couldn't learn enough. Finally, the big day arrived, my chance to go up myself."

Rohaley soloed in a Cessna 150, a two-seat, single-engine general aviation plane.

"Was I nervous? Darn right," he recalled with a knowing smile of the experience at Key West International Airport in Florida. He was assigned to the Naval Air Station at Key West at the time. "We fired up the engine and I started down the runway. But the butterflies got the best of me and I stopped, turned around and taxied back to the starting point. The crew settled me down and encouraged me to give it another shot. I can't begin to tell you the feeling I had when the wheels left the ground and I was in the air piloting that plane by myself. It was truly exhilarating, something I'll never forget. You never get tired of flying, but the first solo flight is special."

Rohaley went to work at the Page Steel and Wire Division plant of American Chain and Cable Company in Monessen following his discharge from the Navy. He also moonlighted pumping gas and washing airplanes at Rostraver Airport "just to be near the aircraft."

In 1966 he founded Rohaley Aviation and opened at Rostraver Airport.

"I started the company after three other companies decided to give it up," Rohaley said in reference to Air Fleet and K&G Aviation of Pittsburgh and Woodard Aviation of Monroeville. "I worked for all three of those companies. The township asked me to keep the airport open. They bought the first load of fuel and said I could keep the profit from the sales and that I could order more fuel from what I made. After a while they said I could start my own business there and keep the airport open. The deal also included the first year's rent free. Federal funding was involved, so the airport had to be operational and that's how Rohaley Aviation came into being.

"I didn't do it all alone," Rohaley said. "I had a lot of help from good friends and relatives."

The firm, based at the airport's main terminal, was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration as an air taxi commercial business and offered sales and service, charter flights, rentals, sightseeing tours, instruction and flight training and aerial photography services. In addition to Rohaley, a commercial rated pilot also certified as a flight instructor, the business had three other pilots available for charter flights.

"Those were difficult times for Rostraver Township in terms of running the airport," Rohaley said. "Thompson Airport was founded in the early 1940s and provided basic aviation services. The township took over the property in the early 1960s with hopes of building it into a well-used facility that would help entice industries to locate in the Mon Valley area. We felt we could be part of those efforts and decided to show our confidence in the future by opening Rohaley Aviation."

A resident and taxpayer in Rostraver Township at the time, Rohaley told reporter Fred Hevia of The Valley Independent in a Dec. 17, 1977, interview the airport "is much too large for the township to absorb the cost."

"The only solution I can see is if all the neighboring communities budget a small amount of money each to help support the township, which would be an advantage to everyone," he told Hevia.

Those concerns notwithstanding, Rohaley continued to advance his business with newer planes to meet the growing demand for the firm's services.

"We were fortunate in that residents of the Mon Valley, particularly businessmen, were interested in flying, for pleasure and work," he said. "We invested in a Beechcraft Baron and a Cessna 412, both twin engine planes and very modern in the 1960s and '70s."

Among those who utilized the charter services of Rostraver Aviation were Cliff McCormick, of H&B Chevrolet-Cadillac in Charleroi, Bud Spesak, of the Pontiac dealership that carried his name in Monongahela, Dan Stern, of Stern's Furniture in Monessen, chiropractor Dr.Glenn Stillwagon, of Monongahela, Fox Grocery in Rostraver Township, Lee-Norse Corp. in Charleroi, Jim Nix of Nix Optical in Charleroi, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel, Monessen Southwestern Railroad and Monessen contractor Henry Rischitelli. Some learned to fly and also purchased their own airplanes.

"I had the opportunity to teach Danny (Stern) to fly," Rohaley recalled. "He became an excellent pilot."

Many of the flights Rohaley provided for the area business leaders were "short hops from Rostraver to Greater Pittsburgh International Airport, but other customers figured in longer journeys.

Among them was the late Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, the longtime United Mineworkers of America leader. Rohaley said he flew Yablonski to many of his rallies when he was running for the UMW presidency.

"We carried many of the Pittsburgh Steelers to speaking engagements and personal appearances in the heydays of their Super Bowl championships," Rohaley said. "Guys like Rocky Bleier, Lynn Swann, Jack Hamm and Franco Harris were frequent flyers with us to events in the tri-state area. They found it much easier to fly than to make those long trips by car."

Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno also was among Rohaley's passengers, as were a number of entertainers.

"(Musicians and singers) chose to fly from a performance in Pittsburgh to their next show," Rohaley said. "Their road crews would take the instruments and equipment via bus or large trucks, but the entertainers wanted to avoid the long haul and opted to travel with us. It was a lot of fun being with them, you never knew what to expect. I remember taking one of the groups to a concert at a college in Ohio and walking into the arena with them. A group of kids was asking for autographs and one young girl asked me to sign the album she was holding. I did and then laughed, because she was probably wondering, 'Who the heck is Joe Rohaley?'"

(Next week: Family, flying foremost for Joe Rohaley.)

Read more: Rohaley remains at controls - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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