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Enthusiasm for air travel predated airport

The Bemidji Regional Airport, established in 1931, has seen a number of upgrades in recent years and more are coming this year. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

The Bemidji airport, established in 1931, was the culmination of the community's enthusiasm for air transportation.

The airport was established then by the Bemidji Civic and Commerce Association with land purchased from the O.K. Titus estate, according to the "Chronological History of Bemidji" by Erwin F. Mittelholtz at the Bemidji History Center.

The Civic and Commerce Association paid $500 for the land and $250 in taxes. Tom Smart was paid $800 to clear the 36 acres of land for the airport.

The land was given to the city on May 18, 1931, for use as a municipal airport.

Despite the new airport, air travel was not a new concept in town.

In fact, the first airplane showed up in town Sept. 15-18, 1915, according to "Early Aviation Activities in Bemidji" by John H. Harris of Michigan. The plane then had come from Chicago by train.

The first person to fly an airplane in Bemidji, according to Harris, did so on July 3, 1919.

It was, surprisingly, a woman. Katherine Stinson, 19, of Chicago, was part of the Stinson family, which was affectionately known as the "Flying Family," Harris writes. She flew in Bemidji a Model Curtis J airplane with a Gnome 80 horsepower, air-cooled engine.

The first airplane crash in Bemidji happened in September 1921, Harris recalled.

The St. Paul Dispatch back then would put on an aerial show if people in the city subscribed to specified number of subscriptions, Harris wrote. Bemidji reached that mark and the show was set.

The airplane, piloted by a Lt. Fox, reached 2,800 feet, but did not have enough power to go back into a loop - and it hit the ground, Harris recalled.

It crashed into the ground outside a farm house referred to as the Ritchie farm house. A woman at the home ran out to help, despite her child's insistence that no one could have survived the crash.

Fox was bleeding badly. A passenger in the plane, who may have been Harris himself - but the paper did not make that clear - remained unconscious for three days. He had seven broken ribs with 12 total breaks.

Eventually, air travel became more popular and dependable and the airport was established in 1931.

The airport and its property were officially given to the city of Bemidji on May 18, 1932, and began operating with an all-way field.

"By 1941, the airport included (more than) 150 cleared acres and a hangar," states a written history of the airport. "The land comprising the airport at that time (was) located in what is now the southeast corner of the airport."

In just three years, the airport had grown "significantly" to the northwest. The airport then covered nearly 1,600 acres.

The U.S. Government designated the field as a "secondary defense airport" and began a series of improvements. The all-way field was removed. In its place were two paved runways each 5,700 feet long and lit. Also added were a 4,000-foot turf runway and a 2,500-foot turf runway.

North Central Airlines brought commercial air service to Bemidji in 1952.

The two turf runways were abandoned in the late 1970s. What is now the main runway -Runway 13/31 - was extended to 6,598 feet in 1980.

In December 1981, the facility officially became the Bemidji/Beltrami County Airport - and then became the Bemidji Regional Airport in 2005.

"To better reflect its role in serving the entire region," the history states.

In 1993, more than $3 million was spent at the Bemidji/Beltrami County Airport, including $1.97 million for a new terminal, according to an article in the Pioneer. The 13,000-square-foot terminal opened in '92.

Also added in 1992 was a maintenance hangar for general aviation use, the Pioneer reported.

"The new hangar offers a two-story building with about 10,200 square feet of aircraft storage space and 5,600 square feet of office, classroom and lounge space," the Pioneer wrote in 1993.

The master plan for the airport was updated around the same time, something that had not been previously done since 1974, the Pioneer reported. The report included an inventory of the airport, forecasts, facility requirements, concepts, layout plan and zoning regulations for those areas surrounding the facility.

In recent years, the airport has undergone a complete removal and replacement of all runways and taxiways.

Runway 13/31 was extended to 7,002 feet. This allows the runway to accommodate aircraft up to the B-737/900 and Airbus 319/320 series.

The weather reporting system also has been upgraded. An additional instrument landing system was installed for Runway 25. Additionally, a VOR (VHF Omni-directional Radio Range, a type of radio navigation system for aircraft) replaced a decommissioned federal system.

This year, the airport is undergoing a complete replacement of all airfield electrical systems; new back-up generation systems also are being installed.

The airport has historically been supported by funds provided by the city of Bemidji and Beltrami County.

However, the airport in 2009 entered a new age upon the creation of the Bemidji Regional Airport Authority. The authority, consisting of city and county representatives, has the ability to levy its own taxes for the operations and maintenance of the airport.