Even if you haven’t seen the Pixar movie “Toy Story,” you’ve probably heard the phrase “to infinity and beyond,” made famous by cartoon character Buzz Lightyear. While Thief River Falls Regional Airport won’t take you to “infinity,” it will fly you from Thief River Falls to virtually anywhere in the world, albeit with a connecting flight or two.
I recently caught up with Joe Hedrick, Manager of Thief River Falls Regional Airport. Joe grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in aviation management. Now just 31, he has been managing the airport for eight years. “I love the job,” he said. “I love the challenges and learning new things every day. I love the variety, the people, and the quiet pace of life. It’s a whole lot better than the hustle and bustle of Minneapolis.”
Joe enjoys his work managing the airport and is excited about its future.
With six cargo planes flying out every day, Thief River Falls Regional Airport is Minnesota’s second largest cargo airport. Last year 27 million pounds of freight were logged in and out of the airport. The volume continues to increase, thanks to a larger plane and more frequent flights beginning in 2018. If the year finishes on trend it will mean a 50% increase for the year.
But it’s not just about cargo. The passenger service has also been very successful. Now in its third year, they are seeing the average flight booked at 75 percent capacity. About 11,000 people were served over the last 12 months.
In addition, numerous transient aircraft fly in and out of the airport on a regular basis, serving the hospital and various businesses. Joe said a good example of that was seen this summer when department heads of Textron Specialized Vehicles flew in on Citation X jets. “We had five of them (jets) here at once,” Joe said. “They are putting on fuel and these business executives are stepping out into our community.”
Joe talked about a few improvements on the horizon.
Planned improvements include removal and replacement of the apron, which will finish up the airside pavements. Thanks to the availability of some stimulus money, it looks like there will be a new lighting system in place soon. “The FAA says we have a pretty good shot at the new stimulus money,” Joe said. “We are prioritizing our lighting system because it ranks higher on the national priority ranking list. Due to the size of our airport, the $3.5 million lighting project could be 100% funded by the federal government.
Looking out a little further, there is the possibility that the runway will be extended. The FAA is interested in pursuing a runway length study as part of a development plan study. One of the things they are interested in is the runway’s capacity to accommodate the CRJ200 jet, a larger jet that can accommodate 50 passengers. If results indicate the need for additional length, the airport would qualify for federal funding to support the enhancement.
The airport operates as an airport authority. The City of Thief River Falls and Pennington County signed a joint powers agreement in 2010 and set up an independent board to govern operations of the airport. The Thief River Falls Airport Authority has full taxing authority across the county. That means operational costs can be spread over a larger tax base, allowing the airport to keep up with infrastructure and transportation needs of the region’s industries, while facilitating the economic growth of the greater Thief River region.
The economic impact on the regional economy is significant. First of all, the airport provides employment–both directly and indirectly. While Thief River Falls Airport Authority has only four employees, there are many additional jobs that are only possible because the airport exists, jobs such as field mechanics, fixed base operators, and airline staff. Second, the ability to move cargo has enabled area businesses to ship product across the U.S. and around the world. Digi-Key, as an example, is able to make U.S. delivery within 24 hours, delivery to Europe within 48 hours, and to other parts of the world in 72 hours. Without this shipping ability, it is safe to say that the company would not have been able to create the large number of jobs it has become known for.
The airport has also created some unique educational opportunities. Northland Community and Technical College has an aerospace campus co-located at the airport with three distinct aviation programs: Aviation Maintenance Technologies, Imagery & Data Analysis, and Unmanned Aerial Systems. The aerospace training center includes a state-of-the-art 35,000 square foot heated hanger housing over 20 aircraft including a DC9-32, along with specialty areas where students can learn maintenance skills.
For more information on Thief River Falls Regional Airport, visit their website.