ND's oil patch airports bombarded with traffic

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Small western North Dakota airfields built decades ago for crop sprayers and single-engine planes are now supporting sleek business jets and freight- and personnel-laden turboprops that have descended on towns with the rise in oil activity.

Most of the small airports were not built to deal with large aircraft or the traffic volume, State Aeronautics Commissioner Larry Taborsky said.

Airplanes larger in size and quantity have taken a toll on airport runways and facilities, said Taborsky, a retired Navy pilot and the former chief pilot for the state Transportation Department.

No crashes have been blamed on inadequate airports to date but there have been some close calls. In Watford City, the runway ramp at the airport is crumbling and a small jet punched through the pavement last winter, damaging the airplane's landing gear, Taborsky said.

At Killdeer's airport — maintained by a retired farmer and mostly with his own money — planes ferrying oilmen, workers and supplies are taking off and landing in record numbers, despite pilots being told by the Federal Aviation Administration to do so at their own risk.

"The airport is going to hell," said Clarence Schollmeyer, the facility's volunteer manager who has sunk some $50,000 of his own money into maintaining the airfield, from runway repairs to snow removal and mowing. "We're seeing Lears and Citations (jets). It takes a nervy pilot to get one of those in here."

State officials estimate more than $300 million is needed in improvements over the next five years to handle the oil patch air traffic at eight small airfields in western North Dakota and at the small regional airports in Dickinson, Williston and Minot. Airline boarding records have been set at the three airports nearly every month for the past four years in response to the region's booming oil industry, Taborsky said.

"We're getting close to gridlock," he said.

Schollmeyer said the Killdeer airport, which has up to a dozen takeoffs and landings a day, currently experiences more activity in a week than it saw annually a few years ago.

"Sunflower crop-dusters might come in here now and then, but months would go by with no movements at all," he said.

Advances in drilling technology have led to North Dakota becoming the No. 2 oil producer in the nation behind Texas.

"There are a lot of people coming out here wanting to get in on this gold rush, so to speak," Schollmeyer said. "Only about 10 percent of them are oil fat cats in fancy jets. The others are coming in planes in support of the industry like contractors building homes."

Schollmeyer, who's also a pilot but doesn't fly commercially, estimated the airport needs a minimum of $8 million in improvements to keep pace with all the activity. He said it's not likely that enough taxpayer money would come in for improvements.

"We can't expect the government to do it all," he said. "A lot of it has to come from local investment."

Schollmeyer and Taborsky said improving airport infrastructure in western North Dakota would spur even more economic development.

"Airports are key things businesses look at when they are trying to decide where to settle," Taborsky said.

One company has promised to build two hotels on Killdeer airport property if the facility is improved, Schollmeyer said.

"It's like the old story: Build it and they will come," he said.

Taborksy said many small airfield managers are volunteers, like Schollmeyer, and run the facilities "out of the goodness of their hearts."

"We do it for the love of aviation," said Chris Norgaard, manager of the Tioga airport. "But there is only so much volunteer time a guy can do."

Norgaard said the airport is increasingly getting "hammered" with air traffic.

"Four years ago, you'd hardly see anything out here," he said. "Now we get business jets, air ambulances and an occasional helicopter."

Norgaard, who owns a construction business in Tioga, said pursuing money for airport improvements has been a difficult task.

In 2010, former airport manager Eugene Knutson was sentenced to three years and one month in prison for stealing more than $300,000 in federal grants intended for a new runway and equipment for the town's volunteer fire department.

"That really hurt the airport," Norgaard said. "We're still cleaning up the negative history. We're jumping through all kinds of hoops because we're in a high-risk category with the FAA right now."

The airport is receiving about $147 a month in restitution that Knutson was ordered to pay at sentencing.

"I think that's what he's making from his prison job," Norgaard said. "It's not enough for runway work."


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