Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

Airport of the Month Project Spotlight

Detroit Lakes - a new runway

 

November 1, 2020

Photos courtesy of Mark Hagen, Detroit Lakes/Becker County Airport

The runway at Detroit Lakes Airport.

In the early 1800s a Catholic Priest mistook a lake for a something else and named a place in Minnesota using the French word "detroit" (that means straight or channel). Soon a village had sprung up with that name and was a waypoint on the Red River Ox Cart Trail. Incorporated in 1881, Minnesota's Detroit became the seat of Becker County. Eventually the citizens got tired of their mail ending up in Michigan, organized a referendum in 1926 and corrected the "clerical" error by changing the town's name to Detroit Lakes.

About the time of the referendum, a pasture just west of town became popular as an informal flying field. Aviation's potential was apparent to the newly renamed city. In 1928 they purchased the 210-acre farm including the field used by the pilots and about 1,400 feet of lake shore. The cost was $15,750 and the parcel then became the municipal airport. In 1969, Detroit Lakes and Becker County signed an agreement to jointly operate the facility. Two turf runways had been established in the 1930s. That plus a hangar and office is how the airport greeted the new chiropractor when he came to town in 1952.

Doctor Duane Wething had learned to fly during World War II but ended up in meteorology. He was interested in aviation as well as spinal adjustments and soon was well known for his talents in both arenas. Affectionately called "Doc" he was a member of the airport commission for an amazing 50 years. His advocacy resulted in many improvements which brought the airport to its configuration at the beginning of the millennium when the main runway was 4,500 feet long, paved, lighted and with several instrument approach procedures.

The runway could accommodate 95% of the general aviation fleet, but most insurers of business jets and turboprops want their clients to use runways that are more than 5,000 feet long. Detroit Lakes is a regional economic leader and the airport is viewed as a tool that helps assure local prosperity. Other important concerns included having a major highway in the runway safety area and the part of City's wastewater treatment plant under the opposite approach. The lack of a full parallel taxiway and restricted line of sight from the southeast end of the runway were also safety issues. At the beginning of the new century, the Detroit Lakes/Becker County Airport Commission began studying what could be done. Improving aviation safety and supporting business activity is what the recent project was all about.

It was also a long process, but the new runway 13/31 opened July 30, 2020 after 17 years of planning and a three-year phased construction program. It's now 5,200 feet long and 100 feet wide with state-of-the-art runway lights, Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPI) and guidance signs. A full parallel taxiway eliminates aircraft taxiing on the runway. A precision instrument approach and lighting system (MALSF) will help with landings during low visibility conditions. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Minnesota Department of Transportation both supported this project, and with the city and county invested about $26 million.

Photos courtesy of Mark Hagen, Detroit Lakes/Becker County Airport

Dr. Duane Wething

Often referred to as DL to the locals, the city is central to one of the best recreational areas in North America. Becker County has hundreds of lakes and more than 1,000 miles of trails. Biking, hiking, and snowmobiles are all accommodated. Three dozen county parks offer many other opportunities for fun. DL has a one of the best municipal park systems in the United States including Long Lake Park right next to the airport and a short walk from the aircraft parking area. It has places for picnics, a camping area and the boat ramp doubles as a launch for floatplanes.

In 2001 the Detroit Lakes and Becker County recognized Duane Wething's faithful service by naming the airport in his honor. He was also a 2012 inductee of the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame. The sad part of this story is "Doc" died on Feb. 6 just when completion of the project was finally within reach. The happy ending is the effort he helped lead was one of both perseverance and success. With its new runway Wething Field is truly ready to serve aviation in the 21st century.

 

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