MOORHEAD - The Moorhead Municipal Airport is the city’s best-kept secret, Mike Koenig says.

“You would be surprised by how many people in Moorhead don't even know Moorhead has an airport,” said Koenig, who took over managing the airport at the first of the year.

Koening hopes that will change. His company, Moorhead Aviation Services, co-owned by Marvin Fletcher, was awarded a five-year contract to manage the airport, which is embarking on its most significant upgrade since it was built more than two decades ago.

A new hangar is under construction. The airport just added an avionics shop and a flight simulator. And $6 million in repairs are planned over the next five years. It’s all part of an effort to increase business at Moorhead’s airport.

Major renovation
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The 180-acre airport, 4 miles southeast of the city, is split between public and privately owned hangars. The lobby and terminal, recently updated with new furniture and amenities, is city-owned and managed by Koenig’s wife, Cindy.

“We want to promote the airport,” she said. “There is a need for this and we hope to see it grow.”

The largest investment since the airport’s inception will get underway later this year: a $6 million, five-year project to repair pavement on roads and the runway, Moorhead Finance Director Wanda Wagner said. Most of this funding is from federal and state grants, with the city matching more than $1 million for the project.

Just this year, the airport’s annual operating grant from the state increased by 16 percent, Wagner said, and is budgeted at $28,700. She said the grant, in addition to farmland and hangar rentals, is adequate funding for the annual operating budget of about $100,000.

The airport “has developed into a favored small, private plane choice for a number of metrowide small businesses,” said Moorhead Mayor Del Rae Williams. “Growth has been a direct result of partnership with businesses and individuals in our community that saw it as a great place to establish their hangars.”  

A 12,000-square-foot heated hangar now under construction should be complete within a few weeks. That will give the airport eight private and 33 public hangars.

Shop, simulator added

Imagine a pilot from here who wants to fly to Phoenix for the first time and, without ever landing there, already has experience with the approach.

Or a student in training who can practice landing four different approaches in South Dakota and North Dakota in varying weather conditions, all within an hour.

Moorhead’s new flight simulator is making such training possible for pilots.

Avionics technician Ryan Paulson said the simulator is the only one of its kind in the region. The Fargo Jet Center, Paulson’s previous place of work, sold its simulator a few years ago when the flight school transitioned to new Cessna airplanes with glass cockpits, said Darren Hall, vice president of marketing for the Fargo Jet Center.

Moorhead’s simulator operates in a closet-sized room on a personal computer-based system. The setup includes a projector screen and three flat-screen TVs that surround a desk equipped with a yoke and instrument panel. The simulator is so life-like that the sun casts shadows across the cockpit as the flight path shifts. It can imitate any type of aircraft to virtually fly in any scenario based on the weather, location and time of day. It can even give pilots experience in emergency procedures.

Last Thanksgiving, an aircraft crashed just east of the Moorhead airport runway. The seven men on board walked away with only slight injuries. Creating safer flights is the ultimate goal of the simulator, which Paulson said will “absolutely” help prevent those types of situations from occurring.

The simulator is awaiting certification from the Federal Aviation Administration and will be used by pilots to increase experience and log flight time. There is also an FAA-certified simulator at the Fargo Jet Center, the general aviation facility adjacent to Hector International Airport in Fargo.

At $60 an hour, Moorhead’s simulator costs less than half of what an airplane does, so the savings can add up in a hurry, Paulson said.  

Moorhead Aviation Services invested more than $20,000 in the custom-built simulator, and other new technology in the avionics shop cost about $80,000.

“It’s kind of unique for Moorhead. This is by far the nicest hangar I’ve ever worked in,” Paulson said.

The FAA certified the avionics shop last month, and Paulson said he has been busy updating aircrafts with state-of-the-art equipment and testing various flight components, from communication and navigation to automated flight control systems. The air data test set, for example, verifies altimeter accuracy within 1 foot, Paulson said.

“Nobody else has anything near advanced,” he said.

All these recent investments are spurred by the FAA’s “NextGen,” or next generation infrastructure. By 2020, all airplanes flying above 10,000 feet need to be equipped with automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast (ADS–B), which uses GPS satellites to determine aircraft location and ground speed, and provides traffic and weather information.

When the mandate was announced several years ago, Paulson said the minimum cost for equipment in one aircraft was $5,000 plus labor at rates around $80 per hour. The “government’s carrot to get people to do this,” he said, was free satellite weather.

In order to adhere to the mandate, Paulson said aviation specialists like him are installing new equipment in aircrafts. The problem is there are only 900 shops in the country to accommodate as many as 150,000 airplanes that need the upgrade, he said.

North Dakota has only eight avionic technicians among the state’s three shops, including one at the Fargo Jet Center.

“I saw a huge need for an avionics shop,” Mike Koenig said, adding that they are now kicking around the idea of adding a paint shop because there are also so few of them out there.

There are some avionics shops nearby in Minnesota, including in Park Rapids, Brainerd and Minneapolis, but the closest shop north of here is in Winnipeg and a pilot would have to go to Sioux Falls, S.D., for the closest shop south.

Paulson said they are looking into adding two more technicians at Moorhead to meet the demand.

Finding a niche

With the simulator and avionics shops, Cindy Koenig said she has seen increased interest in the airport since she and her husband took over a month ago in the middle of an ice storm.

Mike Koenig said he hopes the investments will get pilots to move to Moorhead from other nearby areas and the Fargo airport, “with the idea that there’s less traffic, so it’s easier to get in and out.”

“We’re pretty much getting all the service you get at the larger airports like Fargo, just on a smaller scale with less hassles and typically a lot less cost,” he said.

From fuel to storage, maintenance, avionics, training and even a courtesy car for customers, “the biggest thing we’re trying to do is to give customers service that they're not going to get anywhere else,” he said. “We’re never going to be Fargo, but Moorhead has its niche.”

Hall of the Fargo Jet Center said Fargo’s full-service airport with 24-hour facilities is no stranger to competition as it competes with airports in the Upper Midwest. However, he said there is room and a purpose for smaller airports in Moorhead, West Fargo and predominantly rural areas. They provide access to numerous businesses and other health care and emergency medical services, he said, but Fargo’s equipment is better able to handle severe weather conditions.

Cindy Koenig said service at the Moorhead airport is more personal. She often bakes treats for the pilots, and during the warmer months they offer pancake breakfasts and grill out every Saturday.

The Koenigs said unlike larger airports where people have to watch take-offs and landings from behind a fence, at Moorhead there’s no barrier. They have plans this summer to build a gazebo, in fact, so people can sit and watch all the aviation action.

“We have a vision for Moorhead,” Cindy Koenig said.