On the southern edge of Wahpeton stands a cluster of sheet metal buildings, some large fields and open sky. Though many may not realize it, this is Wahpeton’s very own Harry Stern Airport.
Karla Schimelfenig is the bookkeeper for Tri-State Aviation as well as the clerk of Harry Stern Airport. She has been the clerk for about 10 years, handling the financial and banking side of things.
The Harry Stern Airport is a federal airport. This means that the airport can receive grants to pay for repairs, she said. Formerly known as the Wahpeton Breckenridge airport, its FAA identifier, BWP, may be a remnant of its old name.
The airport is home to both businesses and private entities including Tri-State Aviation and Wilbur Ellis. Tri-State repairs, maintains and builds airplanes, while Wilbur Ellis is a crop spraying business which utilizes the airport for their sprayer planes.
“There are people who have built hangers and of course they pay for their hangar and then water, sewer, whatever they have, with their hangar. And then they pay an annual lease fee to the Wahpeton Airport to have that private hangar,” Schimelfenig said.
The FAA and the Wahpeton Airport Authority both have to give a business approval before building.
Schimelfenig gave the example of how they received a grant to surface one of the runways with asphalt.
The other runway is the cross-winds runway, used when the winds are such that pilots can’t land on the paved one, Schimelfenig said.
Managing the Airport
Jon Klein is the manager of the airport, as well as the owner of Tri-State. He has been fixing airplanes for 20 years, 15 of those at Tri-State. The former owner of the company was Gerry Beck, who died in a plane crash in 2007 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Klein has had his license for about eight years but has been flying since he was 18.
He and his wife, Rachelle have owned the company for about two years.
“We deal with everything from… you know I deal with the guys that mow it, to the making sure the runway lights are working to we move all the snow,” Klein said. “If the runway has an issue we’re the ones that deal with that. If somebody’s flying in here in the middle of the night I’m the one they call.”
People will contact Klein if they need something after hours or in an emergency.
Schimelfenig said that she believes that few people even know that there is an airport in Wahpeton. However some well-known performers will pass through occasionally taking advantage of the airport’s capacity to land a small jet.
“We have different performers at different times, which is pretty cool. I never realized that until I worked here,” she said.
Day-to-day, Schimelfenig estimates that roughly three to four planes will land during general aviation visiting. This number doesn’t include Wilbur Ellis’ sprayer planes.
“For instance I have a call from a gentleman, he’s coming in tomorrow night, he’s staying overnight to visit. He’s never been here before so he had questions on the airport,” she said.
People may call to check for any “Notices to Airman” (NOTAMs) which warn pilots about an airport being closed or work being done.
Wahpeton’s airport is an “un-towered” airport, meaning that the radio Unicom is not constantly manned.
“People that come into our smaller airport, they know that there’s no tower and they just get on the radio and everybody will be on same frequency in the area hopefully so if there’s another airplane 10 miles out they’ll [communicate with] each other,” Schimelfenig said.
Harry Stern Airport is overseen by the Wahpeton Airport Authority. This committee has five appointed members who meet the second Wednesday of each month and deal with airport business.
“Approval of the bills, any engineering or projects that might be coming up or are being worked on, any miscellaneous, whether it’s repairs for something,” Schimelfenig said.
Klein explained that the authority members are appointed by the mayor. However the city does not have control over the airport.
The airport also features “Harry,” the automated National Weather Service observation station which gives automated weather reports to anyone who calls 642-9800. “Harry” must be inspected at least twice a year by the FAA, Schimelfenig said.
One interesting website for people who are interested in learning about airports is called FlightAware. It has a feature of allowing you to track airplanes in flight across the world.
She spoke about how children from a local daycare will occasionally come near the airport and watch the planes take off. There is also a Young Eagles program which allows students to experience riding in a plane for free. The last Young Eagles event took place in 2018. These events are intended to help spark interest in aviation, she said.
Tri-State and the airport in general seem to be full of activity.
“You meet a lot of interesting people, fun people, that come through,” Schimelfenig said.