Sunday, January 20, 2013

Business takes off; Family breathes new life into Ortner Airport (I64), Wakeman, Ohio

Courtney and Steve Ortner pose with airplanes in the hangar at Ortner Airport in Florence Township.

Airplanes are parked inside the hangar at Ortner Airport in Florence Township.

Dean Ortner and his converted World War II fighter.

FLORENCE TOWNSHIP — The son of a local legendary flyboy hopes his family’s airport will take off again.

The Ortner Airport, 9620 SR 60, Florence Township, has returned to the fold of the Ortner family. Steve and Courtney Ortner, of rural Wakeman, purchased the 125-acre airport in 2011 and are upgrading the landing strip that Steve’s father and uncles first cleared in the 1940s.

“That’s part of the reason we bought it,” Steve said.

“Nostalgic,” Courtney said.

 “It was once in the family,” Steve said. “I had the opportunity to buy it back. We could do it, so we did.”

Steve is president of Absolute Machine Tools Inc., a company based in Lorain with offices in Mason and in Livonia, Mich. The company has about 50 workers who sell and service industrial metal cutting and turning machinery.

His family’s roots in aviation date back to the 1940s, when brothers Ferd, Andy and Dean Ortner all fell in love with planes. They built a landing strip on the family farm outside Birmingham, according to

The three learned how to fly and Andy Ortner eventually became owner of Ortner Air Service Inc. In the 1950s and 1960s, the company grew as Andy, Dean and their pilots flew parts around the country for companies including Ford Motor Co.

“They flew freight to keep the production lines open and things like that,” Courtney said. “That was their business and they were busy doing it.”

Andy Ortner, who was Steve’s uncle, grew the shipping company to become “one of the nation’s largest private charter airplane fleets,” according to a 1970 profile in The Morning Journal.

Based in rural Birmingham, Andy Ortner had 30 or more planes, with seven DC-7 aircraft flying out of Detroit and Atlanta. His home airport averaged seven or eight flights a day, sometimes with as many as 25 or 30 flights per day.

The Morning Journal profile described him: “Ortner is basically a hard-nosed farmer-mechanic with a big ‘Hello’, a bigger smile and the touch of drama which always surrounds fliers.”

Dean, the father of Steve, also became well known as one of the country’s top stunt pilots. Flying freight was work, but for play he headed into the wild blue yonder to loop and roll World War II vintage fighter planes, such as the Corsair and P-51 Mustang.

“His fun was, he liked doing acrobatics,” Steve Ortner said.

“We have a lot of people tell us a lot of stories about his dad,” Courtney said.

Dean Ortner, 45, died June 17, 1973, when his single-engine FMJ-6 fighter plane crashed while he was performing at the Shelby air show in Richland County.

“He was actually going to hang it up after that,” Courtney Ortner said. “He was going to stop doing airshows and concentrate on the freight company.”

On Sept. 1, 1976, Andy Ortner and another man, George Davidson, of Wellington, were nearing Memphis, Tenn. to collect parts for Ford, according to a report at

They were flying a twin-engine Beechcraft when it exploded in mid-air, crashed and burned, according to There were no survivors.

“That was pretty much the end of this place,” Steve said about the airport. “It sat in limbo for a few years.”

The Ortner family later sold the airport to Don and Karen Paolucci, who kept it alive as a quiet country airfield. Preparing to retire, Paolucci in 2011 sold it back to the new generation of Ortners.

Paolucci has stayed on as operations manager and keeps his airplanes there. “He’s extremely valuable to us,” Courtney said.

The Ortners also have plans for growth.

Last year they invested $315,000 to resurface the 3,800-foot runway, hangar approaches and parking lot. The runway is the longest in Erie County.

“It was severely deteriorated and loose gravel and propellers don’t go together,” Steve said. “To bring people in, it’s got to be nice, so we had to fix it up.”

They are renovating the house that serves as the airport office. The remodeled space will have a handicap-accessible bathroom, pilots lounge, office space and an instruction area.

Steve, 46, and Courtney, 45, are not pilots, but they aim to be.

“As soon as we get the flight school started, we’re going to be the first customers,” Courtney said.

The airport has two hangars; the Ortners are building a new 10-unit hangar that already has its places reserved, and they have a waiting list in case they build a fourth, Courtney said. 

The couple also has experienced the strict regulations that govern American aviation. They have appealed to state officials regarding hangar building and fire control systems.

They also would like to add an instrument landing approach system, which helps guide pilots in to land in bad weather. The Federal Aviation Administration has denied the request because the 55-foot-wide runway is five feet short of regulation size, the Ortners said.

While it may not become a hub of a new Ortner Air Service, the couple said they hope to make enough money to cover taxes, maintain the runway and pay for upgrades from time to time.

“I’m not sure how profitable this will be when everything is calmed down and we’re done with our changes,” Courtney said. “It’s more for the love of doing it.”

“We’re going to give it a helluva’ shot,” Steve said.

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