Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Hot Springs Municipal Airport (KHSR) a valuable asset: It may be out of sight, but it’s not out of everyone’s mind

Ed Jensen has served as Hot Springs Municipal Airport manager for the last four years. He’d like to see more hangars built and the city airport developed to produce more income from the facility.



HOT SPRINGS – Ed Jensen of Hot Springs laughs when he realizes he has come full circle when it comes to his love of airplanes.

Jensen says he developed an interest in airplanes by mowing grass on an airfield as a kid back in Michigan. His dad had a summer job at the airfield and he was paid $1.50 per hour for the gargantuan chore of keeping the airfield’s grass clipped.

How did Ed spend his money? He said $1 went to pay for flying lessons, 50 cents Jensen took home in cash.

Today, he’s doing basically the same thing at the Hot Springs Municipal Airport, the city-run airport located off Hwy. 79, between Oral and Hot Springs. Jensen is the airport’s Manager, by job title.

“I’ve always liked flying,” he said, recalling how he helped a cousin rebuild a damaged plane, and how it didn’t cost much back then to get flying lessons.

Jensen has been manager of the Hot Springs Municipal Airport for the last four years.

He finally earned his pilot’s license in 2011, when Steve Hill, Justin Printz and Tracy Bastian all got their pilots licenses within about six months of each other and had their shirttails cut off, an old pilot tradition. Those shirttails still adorn the walls of the reception area of the Hot Springs airport.

Hot Springs’ first airport was built in 1950, Jensen said, at another location, but when planes couldn’t take off on the short runway (due to the nearby hills) the airport was moved to its present location after the city bought 500 acres of land on which to site the facility.

The first airplane to take off from the original airport, Jensen said was a Western Airlines flight, in April of 1952. California-based Western, begun in 1925, during the 1950s and 60s served the western states, including Alaska and Hawaii, with more than 40 airports – but Hot Springs was simply a stop along the route, not a major flight center. Later, Frontier Airlines included Hot Springs as a stop. But today the airport is strictly a private operation, run by the city.

The largest planes taking off from Hot Springs, Jensen said, were Douglas DC-3s, a fixed wing propeller -driven airplane that seated more than 20 people. The DC-3 revolutionized air travel in their hey-day, the 1940s. A testament to the durability of the plane is that even today some 400 DC-3-style planes are still flying. The planes are used for aerial spraying, freight transport, passenger service, military transport, missionary flying, skydiver shuttling and sightseeing.

Today, the largest planes that land at Hot Springs airport are actually jets – Leer jets, like business tycoons have, Jensen said.

The airport sports two runways: a 100-foot wide, 4,500-foot long paved runway; and a 250-foot wide, 3,950 foot long grass runway.

Jensen said he uses a Vibra-pak asphalt roller every spring after the ground collects a little moisture to roll the grass runway twice annually, to make it smoother for the pilots who land there. He joked about how he showed one pilot the runway with his “Cadillac” – a hand-me-down black Dodge pickup the airport uses from the city, and how smooth the ride was in the pickup over the grass runway. “The faster you go,” the pilot said smiling, “the smoother it gets.”

“Out of sight, out of mind,” is sometimes how Jensen feels, working his 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. daily shift at the airfield, because most Hot Springs residents don’t realize what a valuable yet largely unseen asset to the community the airfield is.

Who uses the airport?

According to Jensen there are 8,000 flights in and out of Hot Springs annually.

Private pilots make up one large group of users, Jensen said. While about a dozen local pilots – including Jensen -- house their airplanes in rental hangars ($150 per month per space for a heated hangar, $100 per month for unheated) on the airfield, more pilots from the region including Hermosa and Rapid City call the airport home base.

Jensen points out that in 2009, there were 19 Hot Springs-based aircraft using the airfield. Currently, 38 planes call Hot Springs home.

Other pilots are flying in and out. These are people who own planes and want to visit Hot Springs make up a large contingent of airport users, Jensen said. Some are vacationers who want to tour the city or spend time in the Black Hills. Some fly in to play on Hot Springs’ golf course, visit Evans Plunge or hunt in the area. Jensen even knew of one flight to pick up rescued dogs. The airport has a courtesy car for pilots who stay in town, he said, and the fueling station, run by HSR Fuels, is always available. (The per gallon cost was $4.25 per gallon, which was down some from recent prices, he said.)

•A commercial airplane exhaust system, Oral-based Vetterman Exhaust, has a shop at the airfield, which brings in business.

•State planes often fly in and out of the airport. Jensen said Governor Dennis Daugaard and Lt. Gov. Matt Michels use the airport frequently, as do some state representatives and other officials coming to take care of business in Hot Springs.

•The regional SEAT (single engine air tanker) firefighting plane is based in Hot Springs in the summer, with a two-man crew that is always on call throughout the season. The SEAT plane can carry a mix of 600 gallons of water and fire retardant to hit fires. The SEAT plane can be dispatched and a hit a small fire before it grows larger, or hit a fire and return for another load of retardant and water within less time than it takes for a fire-fighting vehicle to reach a remote scene, Jensen said.

•The National Guard firefighting helicopter uses the field two to three times a week in the summer for practicing take offs and landings with a fire-extinguishing unit.

•There’s also a two-person crew from the South Dakota Wildlands Fire Protection Aviation Support group. They use radio –equipped camper to dispatch units like the SEAT plane to fires.

•Life Flight planes use the airport to ferry patients between regional hospitals and larger hospitals with more advanced care facilities.

•Two Rapid City groups – a glider club and a skydiving club – have hangars at the airport. Jensen said the unlimited air space in Hot Springs attracts them: Rapid City’s commercial airport means private planes towing gliders or hauling skydivers up into the air must compete with constant commercial flights for runway space, a hassle. Also, with Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City and a recently expanded military flight zone that extends into Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, means air space is even more limited. At Hot Springs, the sky is literally the limit.

Jensen, reflecting the wishes of many pilots he deals with, would love to see more hangars built at the airport. Currently, there are 11 hangars, he said, all rented out, either the whole hangar or for plane space within a hangar. The city owns and rents out three of these hangars.

The waiting list for hangar space is very long, Jensen said.

More hangars could up the commercial value of the airport, help it bring in more money. Building a single 10 – 12 plane nested T-style hangar would cost about $300,000, but federal and state monies cover all but 6 percent ($18,000) of this, the city’s share, he said. There’s also plenty of room to develop more hangars.

Yet even getting city approval – again, at 6 percent of the cost – for a large, $1,500 fan to cut heating costs in the heated hangar was a chore, Jensen said, which is why he sometimes feels out of sight, out of mind.

Meanwhile, a 2015 city-commissioned airport study anticipated increases in both use and aircraft at the airport. Forecasts call for aircraft numbers at the airport to rise from 29 (2015) to 44 by 2035. Aircraft use was expected to increase half a percent annually, jumping from 6,800 uses in 2015 to nearly 7,700 uses in 2035. But Jensen’s figures show that mark has already been exceeded.

So while the airport doesn’t currently bring in gobs of money, Jensen said, it does fulfill a community need and represents a very valuable asset, by bringing people into Hot Springs, savings property and perhaps lives during fires, offering recreation to those who want to enjoy flying or sky-diving.

Jensen also noted that some first impressions of Hot Springs are formed at the airport, and he works hard to maintain its appearance. He’s looking for volunteers to help do some scraping and re-painting at the main building in the near future.

Original article can be found here: http://rapidcityjournal.com

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