Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Roger Olsen beams like a proud father when he talks about the Moorhead Municipal Airport.
“When we started talking about building an airport 30 years ago, people had plenty to say,” he remembers. “ ‘Just a toybox for you rich people’ – that’s what the critics told us.
“They couldn’t have been more wrong. This airport has accomplished something not many can say: It cash-flows now. It pays its own operating costs, without taxpayer subsidies,” he says. “We have the ideal situation for general aviation – for private pilots with their own airplanes and students learning to fly. We’re successful, we’re growing, and the future looks great.”
Both pilots and the earthbound community can get a glimpse of that picture during next week’s Greater Moorhead Days, when the airport hosts its Wings and Wheels Fly-In and Classic Car Show on Saturday, Sept. 8. Dozens of pilots from around the region are expected to arrive for the annual event, along with hundreds who arrive in earthbound vehicles. That morning, youngsters queue up for free rides aloft with pilots from the Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles. Visitors can take a peek inside helicopters and turbine aircraft displayed on the grounds by Sanford Health and the Minnesota Highway Patrol, along with others. Members of the Valley Vintage Car Club will show off their vehicles, too, while guests partake of pancakes flipped by EAA volunteers. Hours are from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Many call Roger, a retired history and economics teacher who’s logged 9,000 hours of air time, the father of the Moorhead Airport. He arrived in Moorhead from the west almost 60 years ago to attend Moorhead State College. He’s lived here ever since, except for a brief detour to graduate school in Iowa – teaching in Fargo high schools, operating his own crop spraying business, and serving as a navigator aboard the North Dakota Air National Guard’s fighter jets.
Roger, who retired from the Guard as a lieutenant colonel in 1990, vividly remembers the tense moments in an F-4 Phantom that convinced him the community needed a separate general aviation field apart from the commercial and military aircraft that dominated the runways of Hector International Airport.
It was back in the ’80s, as he tells it: He was in one of four F-4 Phantom fighters flying in echelon formation just south of the airport. As the jets headed for Hector at 250 knots, they spotted a little “bug smasher” – a much-slower-moving Cessna 150 – crossing into their path. “We broke formation and scattered. If we hadn’t made it, there could have been four jet fighters going down in the middle of NDSU.”
He and fellow pilots had a vision: a separate field where general aviation could flourish and grow with safety and convenience. It would be a place where students pilots learn the basics without the pressure of high traffic and complex communication with air traffic control, and where pilots could simply wheel planes to the taxiway and take off — no long waits and congestion.
The problem, as always, was money. The Minnesota Department of Transportation had plenty of airport funding available from the tax collected from aviation fuel; it hadn’t built a new airport in 25 years. But prospects seemed dim for the necessary matching grant from the Federal Aviation Administration – that is, before Congressman Collin Peterson stepped in. Roger credits the 7th District representative with the breakthrough that built the airport. “He chaired the House Transportation Committee in those days,” he reports. “He added an earmark to the transportation bill specifically for Moorhead … and we got it off the ground.”
The city would build its field with state and federal funds on 150 acres of former farmland southeast of town. When it opened in 1996, Moorhead Municipal Airport consisted of a taxiway and runway plus a reception area, maintenance hangar and T-hangars to accommodate 16 aircraft. “We hoped we’d get 25 planes someday,” he recalls. “We have 65 housed here now, not counting the airplanes on the ground from all over the region.”
Some are traveling to and from the area for business, others for pleasure. Some of those aircraft, though, are drawn to the airport seeking maintenance services from King Air, operated by airport manager Mike Koenig and his wife Cindy, or Moorhead Aviation’s state-of-the-art avionics shop. The latter company also handles the 24-hour fuel operation, offers a high-tech digital flight trainer, and rents heated storage in a large hangar to the west.
The nine blue-roofed tan facilities west of the airport access road are all built and owned by private parties who lease the ground from the city of Moorhead. The civic committee that oversees the airport has just submitted a master plan for FAA approval that sketches out the next 50 years of potential growth to the west of present structures – an area projected to accommodate some 50 to 60 additional private hangars and aviation-related businesses. While the city leases land to those developing facilities, they own and maintain their own structures, on which they also pay property taxes.
According to city planner Kristie Leshovsky, the airport is undergoing its first major renovation since its debut 22 years ago. $1.2 million was invested in recently completed upgrades and maintenance around the city’s T-hangars. Another $1.5 million is being spent on concrete work on the ramp and apron area. The final phase, projected for 2019-2020, will resurface the runways and taxiways.
Much of the funding for the first two phases has come from the FAA – a total of about $1.6 million, along with nearly $500,000 in MnDOT funds and local investment of $600 million in capital investment from the Economic Development Authority, which has long supported the airport as a major asset in growing the city’s economic base.
Roger keeps his own 35-year-old Cessna 172 in one of the city’s T-hangars. Decades ago, he taught his oldest son Dan to fly in that plane, which he obtained through an even trade of a classic ’57 Chevy convertible. After logging 9,000 hours of flight time, often in stressful situations, he says he now limits his personal flights in the C-172 strictly to easy-going pleasure. He stores another of his passions under its wing in the hangar — the 1951 Ford he and his father bought off the lot in Killdeer, N.D.
Roger and his wife Carole have four children: Dan, still a pilot, who’s an executive with Lenovo Computers in Fort Collins, Colo.; Steve, who works with J&J Artificial Joints in Fort Collins; James, who owns an HVAC business in the Twin Cities; and daughter Krista, an obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice there. The Olsens have nine grandchildren. Carole taught elementary school in Moorhead for 13 years before spending another seven at MSUM, where she supervised student teachers.
Roger still serves on the city’s airport committee as he has since the beginning, currently as its vice chairman … and continues to be the leading evangelist of the outstanding value Moorhead Municipal Airport provides to its city. As commercial traffic continues to grow across the river, he says its benefits extend beyond business and even beyond the community of pilots with a passion for flights to every passenger who boards a commercial jet in Fargo. “Every time you fly in or out of Hector airport,” he points out, “you’re a little safer because we moved general aviation to the Moorhead field.”