SPEARFISH | Three miles east of the Queen City’s quaint business district, a turboprop stuck its nose into the wind and rain of a turbulent Tuesday morning, put the throttle to the stops and took off from Black Hills Airport-Clyde Ice Field.
Airport Manager Ray Jilek watched from his modest command center near the runway and considered the growing popularity of Spearfish’s general aviation airfield.
“With 1,000 operations per month, it’s pretty obvious something is going on here,” Jilek said. “That aircraft leaving right now, if they drove to their operations in Montrose, Colo., it would be 12 hours. But they’re taking off this morning, will do a few hours business in Colorado and be back home tonight.”
Jilek’s enthusiasm wasn’t just cheerleading. The airport he runs needs expansion to ignite economic development, he said, and Spearfish and Lawrence County are collaborating to make it happen.
History of aviation
The state’s busiest general-aviation airfield, tucked on the eastern flank of the Northern Black Hills and centered among the burgeoning energy camps of the Niobrara, Powder River Basin and the Bakken, is named for pioneer aviator Clyde Ice.
Ice, who died in 1992 at age 103, is credited with inspiring World War II fighter ace and future South Dakota Gov. Joe Foss to become a pilot and with counseling Charles Lindbergh before his historic flight from New York to Paris in 1927.
That same summer, Ice flew a biplane over the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park so Mount Rushmore sculptor Gutzon Borglum could toss out a wreath to then-vacationing President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace. The overture led to the president’s dedication of the massive mountain memorial and a pledge of federal funding for the project, changing Black Hills history forever.
Now, 95 years after Ice traded two used automobiles for his first airplane, Lawrence County and Spearfish officials want to once again alter the history of Black Hills aviation.
The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing a proposal that would transfer ownership and management of the airport from the county to the city and potentially add a second cross-wind runway, city and airport officials said this week.
“Evidently the city feels they are in a better position to support the operations of the airport financially, as well as with some of their equipment, manpower and expertise,” Jilek, manager for 13 years, said Tuesday. “We’re a lot more active than the average person believes just driving by on the interstate.”
Spearfish Mayor Dana Boke said the move is not just about the city’s ability to support the facility. She contends it is about helping the airport and the city of Spearfish reach their full potential.
“Spearfish is going to be a gateway,” Boke said. “The airport and the new Theodore Roosevelt Expressway leading to western North Dakota are part of that. We’re in the middle of the energy corridor and it’s exciting for this whole area.
“The city is probably in a better position to support it, but it’s not so much about supporting the operations as it is supporting the potential,” she added. “It’s a very well-run airport, a facility that is consistently recognized as among the best in the state. Financially they are in a good position. The county is focused on things other than economic development. We can focus on those things and assist in different ways, and I think it’s a better fit.”
Lawrence County Commission Assistant Bruce Outka, a deputy state’s attorney, said Boke hit the mark.
“I would agree with what the mayor of Spearfish said,” Outka said. “The commission would agree that the city is better suited going into the future to take on the managerial duties associated with the airport. With their economic development activities, and the city’s other efforts, it’s truly a better fit.”
Point of impact
The airport, which employs as many as 18 full-time employees and, according to state studies, has a $12.86 million annual economic impact on the region, is helping fuel an energy boom in surrounding states.
Its operations have increased in recent years due to the Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota, Niobrara developments in Nebraska and increasing production in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, officials said. In addition, mounting business activity in Spearfish and second-home owners who flock to the Northern Hills throughout the year are increasingly using the facility, Jilek explained.
The flight plan
In addition to transfer approval, the city and county have applied to the FAA for funding of the runway. Over the last decade, the FAA has generally funded 90 percent of airport improvements, with state and local governmental entities sharing the remaining 10 percent, according to Spearfish City Administrator Joe Neeb.
Rod Fenn of the Rapid City-based KLJ engineering firm, said a second runway had been in the airport’s master plan for nearly a decade and, if built, likely would be shorter than the facility’s existing 6,400-foot runway to accommodate smaller aircraft. The study required by the FAA would determine the length of configuration of the new runway and no cost estimate has been determined, Fenn said.
“We are hoping for a sense of direction from the FAA by the end of 2015,” Fenn said. “The time-frame for construction remains unknown and would all be dependent on our ability to secure some federal funding.”
“We’ve had aeronautical manufacturers look at Spearfish to relocate their operations to this area,” Jilek said. “Larger corporations these days can’t handle it all without aviation support.”