An uncertain future for an under-the-radar airfield

Jensen Airfield leases eight acres of the U’s Rosemount property since 1981.

Jensen Air Field is a part of the University owned UMore Park property and is rented and managed by 13 pilots.

Jules Ameel

Jensen Air Field is a part of the University owned UMore Park property and is rented and managed by 13 pilots.

by Katherine Lymn

Jensen Airfield , located on the University of MinnesotaâÄôs UMore Park property in Rosemount, has been pretty quiet since its founding in 1981. That is, with the exception of three small-plane crashes from flights based out of the field that resulted in three fatalities. The field is back in the spotlight now after a fourth plane crashed there Oct. 3. But the accidents are not the only issues the facility is dealing with; its relationship with the University is uncertain as plans move forward to develop UMore Park and threaten to kick the pilots and their planes off the land. The fourth crash The Oct. 3 accident was the fourth in 19 years at the field. The first was in 1990 when a plane lost engine power. The pilot and passenger sustained minor injuries but were not killed. Pilot error was blamed in a 1997 crash that killed the planeâÄôs pilot, according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. The third recent crash was Aug. 4, 1998, which killed two people, including the pilot. Fuel contamination and pilot error were determined to be the causes by the NTSB. One of the victims of the 1998 crash was Craig Adams , brother of Clay Adams , who currently serves as the pilot representative for Jensen Airfield. The Oct. 3 crash was nonfatal and was caused by a loss of engine power. According to Rosemount police reports, the pilot, 35-year-old Brian West, began turning the plane around when he realized he had lost power but did not make it back before crashing into a cornfield. The wreck resulted in a minor injury to West and major but nonfatal injuries to the passenger, Courtney Leer. Airfield co-founder Arnie Jensen said four accidents in 19 years are âÄúprobablyâÄù more than average, but he emphasized there was no pattern among the causes of the accidents. Establishment The airfield is on land the University bought in 1947 for $1. During World War II, some of the land was used as an ammunitions plant for the army, called Gopher Ordnance Works. In 1978, Jensen worked as director of training for the International Union of Operating Engineers , which needed more space to train its workers. The area Jensen chose is now the eight-acre Jensen Airfield. Jensen and co-founder Earl Adams, ClayâÄôs father, approached the UniversityâÄôs Board of Regents in 1980 to inquire about leasing the land as a training facility. Jensen said the union chose the Rosemount site because it was heavily forested and in need of clearing, which would provide a good opportunity for employees to train with heavy equipment. âÄúWhen you run heavy equipment, you either dig holes or level land,âÄù he said, so the workers leveled the land to prepare it for an airstrip. At the time, Bill Cook worked for the University as a manager of the Rosemount property; Jensen and Adams said he was supportive of the lease. However, when Cook left the University, the airfield lost a major advocate, weakening the tie between the airfield and the University. Tensions In 1981, when Cook was still around to back the 2,800-foot airfield, the University and the airfieldâÄôs founders agreed to a 10-year lease. âÄúFrom there on out we had a long lease to work with,âÄù said Clay Adams, who works as a pilot for Delta Airlines . In 1996, the two parties agreed to a one-year lease, and leases have been signed year to year ever since. University Director of Real Estate Sue Weinberg said this is because the University is looking into both gravel mining and community development at the 5,000-acre UMore Park property. Weinberg said that while gravel mining is not slated for land the airfield is on, the phased development may very likely push the airfield off its land in the future. âÄúThe Jensen field lease will continue until the University needs that land for other purposes,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs the phased development of the UMore Park land that will determine when, in fact, this Jensen field lease will no longer continue.âÄù Currently, 13 pilots use the field and divide the $15,000 annual lease among one another. The lease rate has increased three to four percent a year, Adams said. Adams said the lease does not include the University providing any service for the airfield, such as fuel or lawn care, other than the land itself. âÄúThey just think that if you own an aircraft you must have some money,âÄù Adams said. Weinberg, who has been with the University since before Jensen Airfield was established, said the University tries to keep the lease rate at market value. Both Adams and Jensen said other similar airfields pay less for their leases, but the leases cover running water, fuel and other additions not accounted for in Jensen AirfieldâÄôs lease. The men spoke somberly about the possibility of losing the airfield. âÄúWeâÄôd love to stay here, but I donâÄôt think thatâÄôs being realistic,âÄù Jensen said. Airfield use A strong sense of community exists among the 13 pilots at the airfield. âÄúWeâÄôre all friends,âÄù Adams said. âÄúThereâÄôs a lot of talent here.âÄù About half the pilots fly every weekend during warm weather, although Adams said a small number of pilots, including him, even fly during the winter. âÄúWeâÄôre out here, 20 below zero, flying on skis,âÄù he said. Although all the pilots use their plans for recreational flying, the facility âÄúis not a fun-and-games airport all the time,âÄù Adams said. Adams stressed the multifaceted uses of the land, including fieldwork for University aerospace engineering and mechanics students. He said the tenants of the airfield make sure to keep the runway at a certain height for the students when they use the space. âÄúWe do a lot with the University for educational reasons,âÄù Adams said. At the time of its inception in 1981, the field also served as a âÄúlearning deviceâÄù for construction students at the University, Adams said. Aerospace security and technology manufacturing company Lockheed Martin also utilizes the space. The company works with model planes on the field with interns who are enrolled at the University or who have recently graduated. Both University students and Lockheed Martin interns last used the field in fall 2008. The grass airstrip is ideal for multiple uses, because it does not wear down tires and its remote location means there are no nearby residential areas to complain about the noise, Adams said. âÄòWeâÄôre nervousâÄô A lease request is due on Nov. 11 of each year, and Adams said he and the other pilots submitted their request about a month ago. âÄúEvery year weâÄôre nervous,âÄù he said. Neither Adams nor Jensen is certain what will happen to the field in the future. âÄúI donâÄôt think they [University officials] like us, but they tolerate us,âÄù Jensen said. And while the University has not directly asked the pilots to leave, âÄúthey havenâÄôt been overly friendly either,âÄù Jensen said. Jensen plans to continue on as normal and to appreciate the land while the lease is intact. âÄúWeâÄôre just going to keep doing what weâÄôre doing,âÄù he said.