Range Regional Airport
Serving Minnesota’s Iron Range region
Business View Magazine interviews Shaun Germolus, Executive Director of the Range Regional Airport, as part of our series on regional American airports.
The Range Regional Airport in Hibbing, Minnesota serves not only the city but the whole Iron Range region, which contains a number of elongated iron-ore mining districts around Lake Superior in the United States and Canada. The Mesabi Iron Range, largest of four major iron ranges in the region, is the chief iron ore mining district in the United States. In fact, the Hull-Rust-Mahoning Open Pit Iron Mine on the edge of Hibbing is the largest mine of its type in the world.
“This region is known for taconite iron mining,” says Shaun Germolus, Executive Director of the Range Regional Airport. “That is, currently, 85 percent of the iron ore that’s produced in the United States. There are eight mining companies that have been on the Iron Range for several years, but there are also a couple of newer companies that are sitting on the largest copper and nickel reserve in North America and, possibly, the world. Starting back in 2006, we recognized that we were under-positioned with air service, and as these developments were going to occur, we wanted to ensure we could meet future demands through improving the Airport over the last decade. And I think we have done that. There was an economic impact study done by the University of Wisconsin-Superior in late 2017, which showed the Airport is responsible for more than $15 million being generated annually for the local economy.”
Credit for the idea of an airport at Hibbing is given to Professor R.F. “Shorty” Davis, who was an automotive instructor at the Hibbing Junior College. In 1927, Mr. Davis purchased a Waco biplane and, after taking a course in flying in Minneapolis, started a flying school using the Fair Grounds as a runway. A year later, he realized they would need more room and bought a 160-acre tract at the current site. Davis soon organized the Minnesota Flying Service which, in addition to providing flight training, offered short sightseeing tours and long-distance charter trips. The Airport was dedicated on the Fourth of July 1931, with the Hibbing Daily Tribune reporting that over 25,000 people – “the biggest crowd to ever participate in a local celebration” – helped dedicate the municipal landing field.
In 1994, Range Regional became a modern airport when state legislature authorized an independent airport authority with members elected from Hibbing and Chisholm. Since then, the Airport has benefited from multi-million dollar grant projects, enhancing the field with a 6,758’ x 150’ primary runway, a 3,075’ x 75’ crosswind runway, and dual opposing instrument landing systems on runway 13/31. “Like most places, Range Regional was used for some military training by the Air Corps in the ’40s,” says Germolus. “Then, we began airline service with Wisconsin Central Airlines and that service continues with Delta Connection through SkyWest Airlines, conducting daily flights on the CRJ200 to Minneapolis-Saint Paul. There are also charter flights through Sun Country Charters to the Riverside Resort and Casino in Laughlin, Nevada on a Boeing 737-800, every four to six weeks.”
The Chisholm-Hibbing Airport Authority is unique in that it is also the Fixed Base Operator, while at the same time running a second facility, the Carey Lake Seaplane Base, located three miles north of the Airport. “We use a large, front-end loader with 20-foot forks to pick up planes and we bring them across the state highway transporting them to and from the Lake,” says Germolus. “So, we provide in-and-out service as well as routine maintenance. We also facilitate the transfer from floats to wheels in the spring and fall seasons. All in all, we are generally seeing about 30-40 aircraft a year in that operation.”
Range Regional Airport Authority has 11 full-time employees. According to Germolus, “We perform all the functions here. That includes all the airfield and building maintenance and we also operate the fixed based operations, so we provide all of the fuelling, de-icing, line services, as well as the fact that we are all certified in aircraft rescue and firefighting. We all wear multiple hats here at this Airport.” Although commercial air traffic accounts for 85 per cent of the business, there are also 42 general aviation planes based at the airport. During the summer there is plenty of space, but in the winter, when the seaplanes are stored, there is a waiting list for hangar space.
The Airport Authority also operates an Industrial Airpark which was opened in 2014 and has 60 acres of shovel-ready land that already has all of the upfront services, like land surveys, geotechnical services, wetland delineation, and utility descriptions provided, in order to save expenses and expedite future development schedules. They are also willing to build to suit. Germolus notes, “There is a company called Detroit Reman; it’s a Detroit Diesel re-manufacturing company, and they refurbish the computers for larger industrial units – large trucks or buses, even locomotives – along with the wiring harness cluster in the engines, as well as some of the instrument panels for Mercedes-Benz. They employ about 120 people, now.”
Another player on the corporate stage of the airport is Midwest Aircraft Refinishing, which recently completed a land-lease build of a $1.4 million hangar. “Cirrus Aircraft is a manufacturing company in Duluth, about 70 miles away,” says Germolus, “and when they were a younger company, they used to fly their planes out to Hibbing to be painted. That was not very cost effective, so they built their own painting facilities. Then, three gentlemen who were working with them at the time, decided to branch out and create their own company, Midwest Aircraft Refinishing, which they located here at the Airport. They perform custom paint jobs and exterior and interior refurbishment of aircraft. Cirrus refers their aftermarket customers here, but Midwest also includes home-builts, singles, twins, light jets, and turboprops – Cirrus, Cessna, Piper, Beechcraft, Lancair, Epic, Eclipse, Vans, practically anything. They literally paint aircraft from all over the world, as far as Europe, and are known for their in-and-out expertise.”
All this economic growth has led to $50 million of improvements over the last decade at the Airport. “We’ve replaced 95 percent of all the pavements,” says Germolus. “We have also replaced the airfield lighting. Then, we had an $18 million terminal expansion, doubling the size of the building. This was necessary because our terminal was a 1974 building and really lacking in terms of our ability to process passengers and luggage. We have added 100 new parking spaces, all of which is the result of a jump in passenger enplanements from 8,000 in 2006 to just shy of 17,000 last year.”
The improvements were done with 90 percent of the funding coming from the Federal Aviation Association as well as a $5 million general obligation bond from the state of Minnesota. Germolus adds, “We have another state organization, here, called The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, which takes the taconite production of the mines and uses a percentage of the income to offset infrastructure costs in our region. They contributed about two and a half percent of the cost of the terminal project and then, locally, we put in two and a half percent from the Airport.” And there is still work to be done. Range Regional is in the process of updating its master plan and has an improvement project list which tops out at $50 million over the next decade. That work will focus, primarily, on land use and additional hangars, as well as a runway extension.
“In regard to air service, we are only 70 miles from Duluth International Airport,” Germolus concludes, “and approximately 180 miles from Minneapolis-Saint Paul. So, over the past 10 years, we had to deal with addressing leakage of passengers going to those two airports. But we have successfully emphasized the cost savings of flying locally. By doing so, passengers recognize the saved expenses of lodging, food, gas, mileage, and extra time lost. We also provide free parking so they begin their trip with money in their pocket. We offer a great alternative with all of the same services for less.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Range Regional Airport
WHAT: A public use airport
WHERE: Hibbing, Minnesota