Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

By Tom Foster
Minnesota Flyer 

Airport of the Month: Albert Lea


Albert Lea Municipal Airport

Lieutenant Albert Miller Lea was a member of the First U.S. Dragoons based at Fort Des Moines. He was also an engineer and the cartographer for Zebulon Pike. In 1835 Lt. Lea mapped much of southern Minnesota. Pike told him to "name something after yourself". He picked a large lake next to a town site which was originally called "Paradise Prairie" and is now the City of Albert Lea. A native of Tennessee, Lea fought with the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. His son, Lt. Commander Edward Lea, was in the Union Navy and was mortally wounded in the battle of Galveston. Commander Lea was defending his ship against a Confederate boarding party that included his father, then Major Albert Lea.

Dragoons in the early 19th century were mounted soldiers also trained to fight on foot. They were usually equipped with long arms (rifles or muskets) as well as the traditional cavalry swords. Not to be confused with the mythical, fire breathing, flying reptile (dragons) dragoons were distinct from the traditional cavalry who were trained only to fight mounted on horses. So is there any connection to aviation here? By 1861 the distinction had become irrelevant since the cavalry now also carried rifles and the First U.S. Dragoons became the First U.S. Cavalry. Eventually Cavalry units became mechanized and in Vietnam the "dragoons" were mounted on UH-1 helicopters and known as "Air Cavalry".

About the time the "Air Cavalry" was deploying to Vietnam a young soldier named Jim Hanson was assigned to the Army's 61st Aviation Company (helicopters) at Fort Cambell, KY as a medic. Hanson wasn't just any private soldier, he also happened to be the only Certified Flight Instructor on the post. That qualification got him out of medicine and into the job of managing the base flying club, thus launching a long career in aviation. Today Jim is the manager of the Albert Lea Municipal Airport. If there's an aviation "guru" in Minnesota Jim is it. He's done flight instructing, flown corporate jets, and managed FBOs. He's also done soaring, sky diving and flown helicopters. Jim learned to fly at Albert Lea in 1963 and now owns the FBO where he was once a student. The same year he started flight lessons, Jim and his dad bought a Cessna 120. Jim now owns the old 120 too, having repurchased it in 2002 and done a full restoration.

Like a number of other Minnesota airports, Albert Lea Municipal Airport got started as a "flying field". The Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program used the field to train pilots during World War II. The airport site was chosen because it was too sandy to farm, and it was flat. Better yet, the County already owned most of site and donated it to the City. The south half was part of the Fair Grounds, and the north half was part of the "Poor Farm". Airport site selection was not too complicated in the 1940's. By 1953 two turf runways had been designated and in 1955 Runway 17/35 was paved and lighted. The paved runway was 100 feet wide and 3800 feet long, a real luxury for a rural airport. In 1972 the runway was extended to 4500 feet. That's the way Jim found the airport when he came home for keeps in 1982.

In 2002 the City began a program to make some major improvements and Jim Hanson was there to help them along. A series of projects starting in 2008 and ending in 2013 made Albert Lea Municipal Airport a 21st Century facility. An entirely new runway was constructed 5000 feet long and 100 feet wide parallel to the old one. The old runway was reconstructed as a taxiway. New lighting was installed including a system of Omni Directional Approach Lights (ODALs) that aren't seen too often. GPS approaches were established including the ILS like LPV procedures. For those of us still using 20th Century equipment, the state owned VOR was relocated and is still on the airport. The Airport is a pretty "hopping" place. Besides Jim's Cessna 120, Albert Lea is home to 40 airplanes and the FAA statistics show 26,000 annual operations. There's a new aircraft parking apron with plenty of tie down space.

The long runway and multiple approaches take care of business flying. There's also some fun to be had by flying to Albert Lea. A golf course, park, hotel and restaurants are all in walking distance from the Airport. The fun is so close transient pilots have been known to ask if they've landed at a resort! Albert Lea regularly hosts the national soaring championships and has an annual fly-in. Incredibly this City of 18,000 has 27 public parks and bills itself as "The Land Between the Lakes" (there are 5 lakes in or adjacent to the town including the one Lt. Lea named for himself). Actress Marion Ross of "Happy Days" fame was a native of Albert Lea. The local performing arts center is named after her and regularly hosts stage plays and opera. There are rental cars and a taxi service to get you to town, and when the fun's over there's Mogas, Jet Fuel and Aviation gas available at the FBO for the next leg.

Jim Hanson is a literate guy who's authored over 300 magazine articles (many for this magazine) and he's interesting as heck. In 2013 he was named the Minnesota Aviation writer of the year and is a frequent speaker at state wide aviation events. While you're at Albert Lea waiting for fuel or ground transportation you should chat with him. He's a big guy so he's hard to miss. You might ask him to put on the Cessna 120 and show you how it fits.


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