Aviation Culture
March 28, 2016
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  • Greg Moffet, Kindred, North Dakota, flies for recreation. Since receiving his pilot’s license in March 2013, he’s flown his family’s 1947 Aeronca Champion airplane, affectionately known as “Champ,” into Wahpeton’s Harry Stern Airport several times.

    “This is basic flying at its best,” Moffet said, before meeting with Dan Vigesaa, Fergus Falls, Minnesota, who had been his flight instructor. Vigesaa arrived Thursday afternoon at Harry Stern Airport in his plane, a 1964 Piper PA-28 Cherokee.

    Vigesaa, who’s been flying since 1966, hopes to continue the Twin Towns Area and the state of North Dakota’s culture of aviation, which was honored by the Wahpeton City Council earlier this month.

    “Aviation and the aerospace industry continue to play an increasingly important role as an economic catalyst in North Dakota, creating more than 32,000 jobs and contributing $3.6 billion annually to the state’s economy,” said Mayor Meryl Hansey in a proclamation declaring March Aviation Month in Wahpeton.

    Of that multi-billion dollar industry, Harry Stern Airport contributes $4.4 million annually, according to a recent economic impact study by the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission.

    “This airport is extremely important, for agricultural aircraft and services such as medical flights and business transportation,” said airport manager, NDAC board member and North Dakota state Rep. Cindy Schreiber-Beck. “And then there are the people who just enjoy flying. I could just go on for days about the history and importance of aviation in this region.”

    A highlight of aviation in Wahpeton was February 1929, when the first airplane completely reconditioned and rebuilt in North Dakota was on display at the North Dakota State College of Science, then known as the State School of Science.

    The Richland County Farmer-Globe, which provided news for Wahpeton and Breckenridge, Minnesota, back then, was on the scene, declaring the test flights for students and school officials marked a new era in transportation development.

    “(The plane) will be on display for some time and it is expected to draw the attention of thousands of visitors to the city during the week,” the paper wrote. “This is the first time a plane has ever been used as a display in a showroom in this part of the northwest.”

    According to the paper, at least 15 demonstration flights were made with the plane, which was entirely the work of students at the school, who worked to bring back to life a plane that had been wrecked and was out of commission. Their hard work paid off and the public responded enthusiastically to its viewing.

    Although the reconditioned plane was reported as the first one built in North Dakota, three days later the Farmer-Globe printed a letter from R.G. Thurlow. Thurlow reported having seen Otto Timm, who would go on to teach Charles Lindbergh, the American who successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean by airplane, display one of his crafts during a 1916 county fair in Kenmare, North Dakota.

    “Our county fair management paid Mr. Timm $350 to make two-minute flights, which he did in the face of a cold wet wind, much to the admiration of the crowd,” Thurlow wrote. “The most daring thing Mr. Timm treated us to were several (steep turns), each in view of the stiff wind and low-power (60 horsepower) of his machine (and) very thrilling.”

    A century later, aviation remains as popular as ever in North Dakota. According to the NDAC’s economic impact study, visitors arriving to the state by air have increased from 545,301 in 2009 to 915,289 in 2015.

    “The total annual spending from these visitors has increased from $121.8 million to $679.2 million,” the study states. “Businesses throughout North Dakota rely on both commercial and general aviation to improve their efficiency. Statewide there are an estimated 5,500 jobs that have an annual payroll of $272 million that have improved efficiency as a result of their use of aviation.”

    Harry Stern Airport and the activities it supports, the NDAC continues, contribute $451,737 in annual state and local tax revenues.

    The nearly 3,700 annual visitors to Harry Stern Airport spend an estimated $226,135 for shopping or entertainment.

    In 1971, Harry Stern Airport was known as Breckenridge-Wahpeton Interstate Airport. It was dedicated that October in an event featuring such notables as Breckenridge Mayor Keith Zarling; Wahpeton Mayor Paul Beithon; Dr. Glenn Wiltse, vice chairman of the Airport Authority Board; North Dakota Sen. Quentin Burdick; and Gov. William L. Guy.

    “We are marking a milestone in cooperation between states, between two cities,” Burdick said in his dedication address.

    As the Farmer-Globe reported, “The crowd was treated to some thrilling aerial acrobatics” although cold and wet weather forced attendees to gather in a hangar at the facility.

    Burdick went on to say the airport was a vital link in today’s transportation system.

    Then as now, area politicians continue to praise Harry Stern Airport and what it provides for the Twin Towns Area.

    “Being married to a pilot, I always have my ears peeled to the sky, but I’m amazed. (Harry Stern Airport) is a gem in our community, so important for our local business community,” said city councilwoman Alisa Mitskog in a previous city council meeting.

    Mitskog added she’s “very appreciative” of the efforts of the Federal Aviation Administration and Schreiber-Beck.

    A humble Schreiber-Beck said she and the rest of the Harry Stern Airport staff, including Tri-State Aviation, which manages the facilities, are equally appreciative of the region’s support and enthusiasm.

    For more information about the economic impact of airports, please visit the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission at Harry Stern Airport is located along 11th Street South in Wahpeton.