When the Metropolitan Airports Commission first came into existence in 1943, the organization operated Wold-Chamberlain Field (which is now Minneapolis-St. Paul International) near Minneapolis and Holman Field in St. Paul.
The law that created the MAC authorized the organization to develop other airports within 25 miles of the core of Minneapolis and St. Paul. (Later legislation expanded that authority to within 35 miles of each city’s downtown.)
By the time WW II ended, the MAC was preparing to acquire several area airports. As demand for general aviation flights increased in the metropolitan area, along with commercial air service, it became clear that Wold-Chamberlain would not have the capacity to accommodate all the area’s aviation needs.
Following -- in order of when the MAC acquired the land for each airport -- are brief histories of the six reliever airports in the MAC’s system.
Modern details about each airport can be found at this website.
St. Paul Downtown Airport (Holman Field)
In its early days St. Paul competed with Wold-Chamberlain for the dominant position in airmail delivery and commercial air travel in the Twin Cities. But the formation of the MAC in 1943 also supported the ongoing development of MSP, which had more room to grow and was centrally located between the two downtowns.
Pictured: An airport employee at St. Paul's Holman Field checks a weather station in the 1920s.
For much of its history the St. Paul Airport grappled with the threat of spring floods, which have washed across the airfield many times in the last 100 years. Major floods in 1952, 1965, 1969, 1997 and 2001 all led to weeks or months without operations at the airport.
The 1965 flood was the biggest attention-grabber. The month of March 1965 was a record-setter for snow, with 51 inches falling in the St. Cloud area and 66 inches in Collegeville. A rapid springtime warmup followed, unlike this year.
On April 16, 1965, the Mississippi River was 12 feet above flood stage at downtown St. Paul. That flood and several others provided motivation to find a long-term solution.
In 2007-08, after a lengthy planning process, a new floodwall was constructed. The floodwall has been deployed multiple times since to protect the airport from flooding.
With reliable year-round operations secured, the St. Paul Downtown Airport has seen significant new investment in recent years. That includes new hangars built by corporations, which account for about 80 percent of the airport’s operations.
St. Paul Downtown is the only MAC airport classified as an “intermediate” airport, having a runway longer than 5,000 feet. As such, it is a key base for corporate jets and business aviation.
Flying Cloud Airport
In 1941 the U.S. Navy reached an agreement with Martin Grill to conduct training flights on a grass strip on his farmland in modern-day Eden Prairie. Grill later sold the site to American Aviation Inc., a private enterprise.
Originally, the airport was going to be called Southwest Minneapolis Airport. Airfield manager John Stuber gave it the “Flying Cloud” name.
With flight activity on the increase in the late 1940s, the MAC acquired Flying Cloud in 1948 and paved it the next year.
In the late 1960s and 1970s the airport was home to eight very popular flight schools, as piloting became a popular career choice for veterans returning from service in Vietnam. The airport’s location near the growing Twin Cities area also drew a steady stream of student pilots.
Flying Cloud’s air traffic in that era is hard to imagine by modern standards. Eden Prairie remained largely undeveloped in the 1960s, and in 1966 Flying Cloud ranked second to only Chicago’s O’Hare Airport as the busiest airfield in the central United States.
In 1968, Flying Cloud had 446,198 take-offs and landings, or operations. By comparison, last year MSP had 416,213 operations.
Today Flying Cloud today is primarily a recreational flying hub and also houses a number of corporate jets for businesses in the southwest metro area. The airport handles about 90,000 operations per year.
In the 1920s the city of Crystal’s first airport was located near the modern-day intersection of W. Broadway and 49th Avenue N.
To make way for suburban expansion, the airport later moved to its current location north of Bass Lake Road.
The MAC acquired the airport in 1948 to serve the northwest metro area. The airport remains a popular hub for recreational flying, and has four runways: three paved and one turf – the only turf runway in the MAC system.
Crystal’s control tower is operated by federal employees and sees about 40,000 operations per year.
Lake Elmo Airport
During WW II, land not far from the current airport was used by the U.S. military for training flights.
The MAC acquired land for the current airport in 1949, paying $38,300 for 160 acres. Another 470 acres were added in 1966 to create the present-day airport.
Today Lake Elmo is a recreational and training airport, and is in the midst of an environmental assessment that involves reviewing plans to relocate a runway and realign 30th Street North.
The airport has about 25,000 take-offs and landings each year.
Anoka County-Blaine Airport
In 1950 the MAC acquired 1,200 acres of farmland in Anoka County to develop a second major airport, which it thought would be needed in 10 to 15 years.
That grand plan never came about, but Anoka County-Blaine did develop into an important reliever airport in the MAC system.
Originally, the University of Minnesota’s flying club had land nearby the current airport but needed room to expand by the late 1940s. Both the University and the MAC ended up acquiring land that became part of the current airport.
In the late 1960s, Anoka County-Blaine Airport took 2,500 feet off the south end of the runway and added the same length to the north end, moving the runway farther away from the city of Mounds View, located to the south. A golf course on the airport’s northern edge also serves as a buffer for neighborhoods in Blaine that have been built over the years.
As part of the dispute with Mounds View, the state passed a law in the year 2000 that places a 5,000-foot limit on runway lengths for “minor airports” that is still in place today. All the MAC’s reliever airports are considered “minor” for that purpose except St. Paul.
Airlake Airport was originally a private airfield built by Bloomington-based Hitchcock Industries and open to the public.
As pilot training activity picked up after the Vietnam War with returning veterans and the GI Bill, the MAC saw a need to add an airport with an instrument landing system (ILS) for training purposes. At the time, only MSP had that equipment.
The 25-mile limit to the MAC’s authority was changed to 35 miles in the mid-1970s. That enabled the 1979 acquisition of Airlake, which is located in Lakeville, almost 29 miles from Minneapolis’ City Hall.
The Airlake acquisition came a year after the crash of an airliner in San Diego that had collided with a private plane on a training flight at the San Diego airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced soon after that it would help improve 86 satellite airports around the country to move small planes away from major airports.
The new system at Airlake diverted about 60 training flights a day away from MSP.
The relievers adjust to changes in the air
The MAC’s reliever airports today are in a different mode of operations than they were even 15 years ago.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, rising fuel costs and the deep recession led to decreased flying activity. An aging base of recreational pilots is also shrinking the number of users of general aviation airports in the Twin Cities and nationally.
While the volume of recreational flying is down, business and corporate activity is up at many of the MAC’s reliever airports.
Those business clients are making new investments in the reliever airports, led by St. Paul and Flying Cloud. The MAC has also continued to improve the airports, highlighted by runway extensions at Anoka County-Blaine in 2008 and at Flying Cloud in 2009, accommodating growth in corporate traffic. Recent runway work at the St. Paul Airport reconfigured intersecting runways and improved safety.
A recently completed economic impact study of the reliever airports found that together they contribute an estimated $756 million annually to the Twin Cities-area economy, along with 1,030 direct jobs.
Broken down by each airport:
Airlake Airport (in Lakeville and Eureka Township)
Direct Jobs: 31
Total Jobs: 104
Total Economic Output $13.2 million
Anoka County-Blaine Airport
Direct Jobs: 130
Total Jobs: 560
Total Economic Output $118 million
Direct Jobs: 100
Total Jobs: 320
Total Economic Output $71 million
Flying Cloud Airport (in Eden Prairie)
Direct Jobs: 340
Total Jobs: 1,190
Total Economic Output $229 million
Lake Elmo Airport
Direct Jobs: 14
Total Jobs: 60
Total Economic Output $12.8 million
St. Paul Downtown Airport
Direct Jobs: 410
Total Jobs: 1,430
Total Economic Output $312 million