It’s been nearly 90 years since the idea of adding an airport to Beatrice was proposed, and while the Beatrice Municipal Airport may be a staple of the community today, it took decades to get the project off the ground.
In 1928, several months before the Great Depression, a group of local businessmen in the area began to raise money to promote an airport for the city of Beatrice; just decades after the Wright brothers took to the skies.
For 12 years the money they raised remained in the bank until Airport Corporation was founded and stock was sold to more than 40 local businesses at $25 per share. That same year project supporter Wallace Robertson purchased 160 acres of land at $131 per acre. The land would eventually be Beatrice’s first and only airport.
While community support for the airport was crucial, individuals like Wallace Robertson and Fred Lenz, a car dealer who donated cars to the airport that would be used as a courtesy car for passengers and pilots, made sure the Beatrice Municipal Airport became a reality. The airport has been serving the general aviation needs of the town and Gag County, allowing Sunland residents to take to the skies since 1943.
Construction officially began in 1942 on the 162 acres west of U.S. Highway 77 in north Beatrice after a successful bond was passed by voters. When the project was put on hold because of the nation’s involvement in World War II, it took two more years before paced roads could be added in 1945. Six metal hangers were later built in 1949 and a small airline started service to Beatrice.
Don Fitzwater served as the airport manager from 1954 to 2000, helping the airport grow to what it is today. He continued to support the airport as chairman of the Airport Authority until 2014. Since his departure, Diana Smith has been the airport’s manager and has worked at the airport in some capacity for the last 42 years.
She is one of four full-time and three part-time employees who keep the airport running 365 days a year.
“We’re here every single day,” Smith said. “Big companies, people looking to start new businesses, they won’t come to a town without an airport, it’s a huge boom to the economy.”
Smith began working at the airport in 1971 and started out as Fitzwater’s secretary. She now runs the airport’s day to day operations.
“I never imagined I would one day be the airport manager when I started,” she said. “Don was a very sharing boss and through the years taught me what I needed to know.”
Born and raised in Beatrice Smith loves the aviation world and over the years has built relationships with the pilots that come through Beatrice.
“We hear on a daily basis what a great airport Beatrice has and pilots tell us that we have one of the nicest airports they go to,” she said. “Don used to joke about what kind of condition the other airports must be in because of how often we hear it.”
Those making a pit stop at the airport will often stay the night or get a bite to eat so having an airport is very beneficial to the local economy.
“When I started here every employee had to be a certified weather observer and every hour we had to report the weather,” she said. “We had to tell visibility and forecast how high the clouds are, which we did by either eyeballing it or using a weather balloon. Now we have AWOS.”
The Automated Weather Observation System (AWOS) is not the only addition that has been made to the airport over the years. Since 1971, the airport has purchased more land in order to sell jet fuel, a new administration building was completed in 2003 and the runways have been lengthened several times.
In 2015, the Federal Runway project extended the north/south runway 1,800 feet in a construction project that took nearly eight months to complete. The runway is now 5,600 feet to accommodate larger aircrafts, with new paving to replace the concrete that was poured in 1943. The extension has made it the primary runway as the 4,400 feet northwest/southeast runway had previously been the long one of the two.
The airport plans to resurface the diagonal northwest/southeast runway sometime in 2018, which will include new LED lighting similar to what was added to the north/south runway in 2015. The project will also add a 400-foot extension to the north end of the north/south runway to make it 6,000 feet and allow for a future parallel taxiway.
The airport has approximately 38 aircrafts currently based in Beatrice and services around 12,000 operations on an annual basis, Smith said.
“Having an airport really puts Beatrice on the map for Nebraska cities and has been a huge asset to the whole community,” she said.
The airport continue to be an important asset to the community, providing locals with UPS next day delivery, flight instruction to students and adults interested in aviation, and allowing for local businesses to have parts flown in for machinery.
Dean Doyle served as a flight instructor to the airport for 35 years and despite having retired years ago, he still has fond memories of his days at Beatrice Municipal Airport.
“It was a great privilege to fly the skis and get away for a while,” he said. “It was one of my favorite things to do.”
Doyle worked as a dentist in town for years and after teaching hundreds of students how to fly, being able to present his students with flying certificates remains among his greatest accomplishments.
“It was very enjoyable to get away and do something I liked,” he said. “I’ve flown to many airports throughout the country and all over the world and I still take great pride in Beatrice’s. It’s very well run. Diana does a great job and we’re lucky to have her.”