Thinking about our upcoming Granite City Days, I was reminded of our old city celebration, the Wheels, Wings and Water festival. I got the gist of the festival: Wheels — Pan Motor Co.; Water — our Mighty Mississippi and many surrounding lakes; but what was the deal with the Wings? I decided to find out.
Turns out the St. Cloud area has a rich history in general aviation. The first flight in St. Cloud was in October 1912. To put this in perspective, the Wright Brothers made their historic first engine powered airplane flights in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in December 1903. Their longest was 59 seconds and 852 feet. And less than ten years later, St. Cloud had its first flight.
By the 1920s, U.S. Mail was being couriered by airplane and Charles Lindbergh made his solo non-stop flight from New York City to Paris in 1927. He flew 3,600 miles and flew 331/2 hours.
Back in St. Cloud, Barnstormers were flying into the city where they performed daredevil stunts at fairs and other events. Aviation was new and exciting and the public loved its sense of adventure as they watched the skies in amazement.
In 1935, land donated by Alice Whitney, widow of Albert Whitney, a land developer, civic leader and businessman, became “Whitney Memorial Airport.” It was St. Cloud’s first airport.
In 1957, St. Cloud Flying Service, the airport’s first fixed-base operation opened, which allowed a “home” for Central Minnesota aviators.
In 1970, the new St. Cloud Municipal Airport opened and the Whitney Airport closed due to land constraints. The former airport was then donated by the Wheelock Whitney Family to the city of St. Cloud to be used for parks and recreation, thus creating the Whitney complex we see today.
With the opening of the new airport, it gave way to new general aviation growth. Leaders Flying Service, Clear Lake, has been an important aviation business serving Central Minnesota, started by Bob Leaders in 1970. Now 82 and still flying, Leaders eyes sparkle as he speaks of flying and aviation. He and two sons operate the business and work together rebuilding engines, renting and selling planes, and doing all things aviation.
After an article in the St. Cloud Times, a producer asked if they could do a movie based on his career. That 2013 animated Disney movie became “Planes.” Leaders is humble about the project, noting that his grandchildren think it’s kind of cool. The characters are based on real Central Minnesota pilots. Bob is the boss, Mr. Leadbottom.
I told you aviation in Central Minnesota is a big deal.
The “new” airport, now called the St. Cloud Regional Airport has seen many changes — good and bad — since its opening.
Since the 1990s:
Commercial air service came to St. Cloud. Northwest Airlink/Mesaba has come and gone. The terminal was built and there have been improvements and expansions, as well as improved runways. An air traffic control tower was built and the St. Cloud Fire Department opened a station house. The Transportation Security Administration came to St. Cloud, as Allegiant begins service to Mesa, Arizona, and Florida. United begins daily flights to Chicago and suspends service months later.
One of the biggest losses to our airport was when Earl H. Potter III closed the St. Cloud State University Aviation Department, without any discussions with the city. That single event cut the airport’s activity in half and has had a major financial impact for the city. The more takeoffs and landings at an airport, the more federal funding becomes available. The airport has lost hangar rental and fuel tax income, and that doesn’t even count the economic trickledown effect to Wright Aero Flight School and St. Cloud Aviation. Where has the additional funding for the airport come from? Us.
That aside, there are some awesome things going on, too. The local Experimental Aircraft Association, the Granite City Flyers — a group of aviation enthusiasts who help promote safety, education and offer camaraderie. Young Eagles, an EAA program that offers kids ages 8-17 the opportunity for a free half-hour airplane ride.
The airport hosts its Fly-in Breakfast and Classic Car Show on June 28, which is sponsored by the Civil Air Patrol.
The St. Cloud area has been a hub for aviation for over 100 years. It’s an exciting time for aviation. I challenge you to get out to our airport and see what’s happening.
This is the opinion of St. Cloud resident Lori Long, who champions the greater good and is willing to use humor, a soap box or whatever it takes to get you to think similarly. (Or at least think.) You may email her at email@example.com. Her column is published the third Wednesday of the month.