Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

By Tom Foster
Minnesota Flyer 

Airport of the Month: Grand Rapids


Tom Foster

Grand Rapids Airport

One way to get to Grand Rapids might be to "follow the yellow brick road". Judy Garland was born there and became famous for portraying Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz".

Her fully restored birth place is a museum that's opened to the public, and part of a city street is actually paved with yellow bricks. Scare Crow, Lion and Tin Man were good company for Dorothy and Toto, but flying to the Grand Rapids-Itasca County Airport would sure be an easier way to travel. Airport facilities include a primary runway over 5700 feet long, that's equipped with an Instrument Landing System (ILS) and approach lights. There are two secondary runways, one turf and one paved.

Fuel, maintenance and flight instruction are available at the FBO. Hangar space can be had for both long term lease and short term storage. The Grand Rapids VOR is just south of the airport, and both an automated weather station (AWOS) and communications outlet (RCO) are on the field. The airport also has a seaplane base, but it's pretty short so bring your "A" game if you plan to use it. There are rental cars and a courtesy van available for ground transportation. Grand Rapids is home to 65 airplanes and is everything a General Aviation Airport should be.

Grand Rapids is very much a logging town. For many years the mainstay of the local economy has been the Blandin Paper Company. The city's name comes from a series of rapids that are now under the back water of the Paper Company's dam, but once marked the upper limit of navigation on the Mississippi River. The Airport opened in 1933 with a single turf runway. A fellow named Ted Tinquist was the manager and also operated a "flying service."

Another local named Gordon Newstrom was guiding fishing trips during the 1930s, but had ambitions in aviation. In 1942 Newstrom earned his flight instructor certificate and went to work for the Civilian Pilot Training (CPT) program in Albert Lea. After the war he started a flying service just northeast of Grand Rapids near Coloraine.

By then Blandin wanted air transportation for their business, so Newstrom formed Mesaba Aviation to fill that need. In 1950 he bought Tinquist's operation and moved to Grand Rapids. Besides flying for Blandin, Mr. Newstrom became the premiere float flying instructor in Minnesota and for many years was the Airport's manager. He helped get several major developments implemented including paving the runway in 1953 and a multi-year program that brought the Airport to the current configuration in 1991. In 1984 he was honored when the City and County named their Airport "Gordon Newstrom Field". He sold the Mesaba operation which became a regional airline flying as part of the Northwest Airlink system (now the Delta Connection), but continued instructing at Grand Rapids. In 1995 Gordon Newstrom was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame.

The "Yellow Brick Road" is in a downtown park that includes the old Central School. Built in 1895, the building is fully restored and in the National Register of Historic Places. The park also has an amphitheater, picnic area and flower gardens. Duane Elliott is a Central School alumni. He was so fascinated with aviation that people called him "Buzz". Duane was a pilot in the US Army Air Corps during World War II. He flew P-40s, but didn't make it overseas. After the War, Duane's GI Bill benefits helped him get a Civil Engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. With two other veterans he formed a consulting firm of Short-Elliott-Hendrickson and for many years used his flying skills to serve clients in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Now doing business as SEH Inc., Duane's old firm is one of the best known Airport Planning and Engineering companies in the upper Midwest.

Grand Rapids boasts four golf courses, and there's plenty of water around for boating and fishing. Of course there's a Judy Garland Festival that happens every June. The airport hosts a Fly-in on Father's Day sponsored by the Civil Air Patrol. For overnight or longer stays, there's lots of resorts nearby and six hotels are within 2 miles of the Airport. You can camp next to your airplane if you want to. "Road Trips" can be fun, but if you want to maximize your business or recreation time in Grand Rapids use the Airport. You can pass on "seeing the wizard" too. Dorothy and Toto would be OK with that.


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