General aviation is on the rise in Minot.
Suzanne Blessum, co-owner with her husband, Jay, of Minot Aero Center, said the center has had a major increase in the number of flight students, including many female students.
The aero center has also increased its number of flight instructors and rental aircraft, according to Suzanne, who also is the aero center’s marketing director.
Currently, the aero center has a total of 195 active students for flight instructions. She noted, Fargo, with a population in that area about three times larger than Minot, released its numbers for flight instructions. “We punched our numbers and we’re going only 10 percent less,”she said.
“That’s huge,” she said of the Minot center’s numbers. “And for the community of Minot that brings in a lot of people.” She said people fly in for the basketball tournaments, other events such as Norsk Høstfest and the Minot Symphony Orchestra held at Minot State University.
Suzanne, originally from Underwood, and Jay, originally from Rugby, bought Minot Aero Center three years ago. The Blessums took over as owners Jan. 1, 2018, from Warren Pietsch and Brian Sturm.
The work she does now isn’t something she had intended to be doing.
She was still working at Minot State University, finishing up some projects there, when they bought the business. She worked with the housing project at MSU and also did volunteer work with the North Dakota Senior Medicare Patrol.
Initially, Suzanne thought she would help with the website and marketing at the aero center. That grew into doing all the marketing, the drug testing program (she’s one of the three proctors for the testing center) and does the hiring for the aero center. “It’s a lot of hats,” she said. She also manages the flight department. Jay manages the maintenance department.
When they bought the business, she said there were three flight instructors.“We are at 12 right now. That’s the amount of growth we’ve had in the three-plus years,” she said. Three of the flight instructors are full time and the others are part time.
“We went from two airplanes to seven. We’ve got six on the line and have a seventh one coming this summer.
“That one (seventh plane) is an extension of our services. We’re going to start multi-engine instruction. That’s something that hasn’t been done in this side of the state in our type of setting. We’re adding a Seneca to the lineup,” she said. She said the planes are for rental or flight instructions.
The number of people taking flight instructions at Minot Aero Center has increased, but noteworthy is the increasing number of females who are taking flight instructions or are pilots.
“In 2018 we had one female student the whole year. We currently have 42 so that’s quite a growth,” she said. She said only a couple of the 42 females are military members and many of them are teachers, other professionals, and also students.
Those with pilot’s licenses also come to them for their biennial flight review. “Every two years you have to be current and renewed in your skills so some of those that are coming through are female,” Suzanne added.
The number of females who are flight students or pilots has noticeably increased in the past two years, Suzanne said.
“I don’t know if it’s the different avenues that we’re marketing or is it I’m also a student pilot,” she said. She said many who know their daughter, Samantha, a kindergarten teacher at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Minot, have become interested in flying. She said even Samantha’s kindergarten students are excited about their teacher being a pilot. Samantha is close to her checkride – the Federal Aviation Administration practical test a person must take to receive an aircraft pilot’s certification.
Suzanne said there have been barriers they have had to overcome, including the COVID-19 pandemic with the extra precautionary measures, etc.
She said business from customers in the oil field stopped. “They lost their jobs – they’re just gone,” she said.
During the COVID-19 shutdowns, military members who also are instructors with the aero center could not travel off Minot Air Force Base but were still able to continue flight instructions to those in their units at the base.
She said also people in the Minot community who could not go other places stopped in the aero center for flight instruction introductions. “It was something that they could do so we got more of those people who always talked about always wanting to try. They actually took that leap to do that. I think that helped us in 2020 and also our community involvement,” she said.
She said every month the aero center supports a local business by buying lunch for the aero center’s maintenance and flight instructions department. This, she said, is “to get more of that family feel.”
The business is quite family oriented. Samantha also helps at the aero center desk and is one of the test proctors. The Blessums’ son, Connor, a senior at Minot High School, helps in the maintenance hangar, does the mowing and other work. He got his private pilot’s license last May when he was 17.
As far as future plans, Suzanne said, “We definitely want to do multi-engine instruction. That’s the new piece for this year,” she said.
In the future she said she would like them to start doing some charter but on a smaller scale. She said they get many calls for family members to go to Rochester, Minnesota. Offering charter would involve extensive paperwork including approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. “That is down the road,” she said.
“We are trying to get a DPE (Designated Pilot Examiner) on this side of the state,” she also said. “It would be huge for Minot if we could get a DPE.”
Aviation wasn’t a major part of Suzanne’s work until three years ago.
“The airplane thing was always Jay’s wheelhouse and he’s been here since ’90. Even flying an airplane, I didn’t feel the need to do that because I married a pilot who would fly us to where we needed to go. Then, she said, one of the pilots challenged her to fly and she accepted the challenge. She has about 13 hours flight time and needs to have at least 40.
By knowing how to fly, she said it’s “easier to market something that you’ve experienced also,” she said.
There’s plenty of work involved with the business but Suzanne said they’re also having fun. “We are,” she said.