By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Winsted Airport has been a busy place this past year with an increase in air traffic and visitors.
The numbers have been on the rise since Joe Johnson opened his Westside Skydivers business May 1, doubling his original estimates in skydiving customers, and proving wrong all of those who doubted the popularity of his business.
Chairman of the Winsted Airport Commission, Russ Paschke, is impressed with the success Johnson has had.
“They have already done over 1,500 jumps, and they are hoping to do 2,000 by the end of the season,” Paschke said, during a recent interview.
“We (airport commission) didn’t expect it to be that good, but it really turned out to be quite a deal. I thought it would go big at first and then taper down, but it just keeps going.”
Paschke complimented the communication used by Westside Skydiving.
“Radio communication is very good,” Paschke said. “The pilots know at all times when someone is in the air and when someone is jumping.”
Paschke attributed a noticeable increase in the amount of aviation fuel being used at the airport to the skydiving business. Through an agreement with the city, Johnson is required to use airport fuel, which does pay a small portion back to the city for the use of the airport.
“I think we bought two to three loads (between 3,000 to 5,000 gallons each load) of gas already this summer, when normally we would get that much for the year,” Paschke said.
Paschke is hoping that the increase in activity at the airport will mean the city council will consider paving the grass strip runway sometime in the future, allowing larger aircraft to land at the Winsted Airport.
“A lot of these twins (twin engine aircraft) can’t come in because their insurance isn’t good on a turf runway,” Paschke said. “Besides that, they probably couldn’t get off of it because there is too much resistance to the wheels.”
The city’s most recent project at the airport was in 2009, when it made improvements to the taxiway and drainage systems.
Even with the recent rains, Paschke said there weren’t any flooding problems, and he concludes the new drainage system is working.
The newest addition to the airport is a compass rose and letters spelling Winsted, which can be seen very clearly from the air.
“Jumpers say they can see it at 10,000 feet,” Paschke said.
An organization, called the 99ers, came out to Winsted’s airport and, for the cost of the paint, did all of the work
According to Paschke, the pilots can line their magnetic compass up with the compass rose to detect if the plane’s compass is on or off a few degrees.
If the plane’s compass is off even 4 or 5 degrees, it could put a plane several miles away from its destination, according to Paschke.
Johnson wants to expand business
Johnson is just as happy about Westside Skydiving’s popularity as everyone else, and calls business, “really good.”
Most of his business is from Minneapolis, but there are people who come from the St. Cloud area and out of state, but not many locals, according to Johnson.
The skydivers have ranged in age from 18 to 86 years old.
Johnson just recently had a group of 10 people who were all turning 70 years old who made a jump in Winsted and made the news on KARE 11.
He has been operating out of Hangar 30, but because of this year’s success, Johnson wants to build a larger hangar, which would give him more space to have proper classrooms and more packing area, and to store a larger plane.
He would like to get a Cessna Grand-Caravan, which holds 17 people. His current aircraft holds four.
He is running into some opposition from the airport commission regarding the larger hangar, which he wants to have built right next to the airport parking lot. He is hoping they can work through his plan and have it in place within two years.
Johnson has made almost 8,000 career jumps. He was previously employed at Skydive Twin Cities in Baldwin, WI.
According to Johnson, the biggest difference in working out of Winsted is the view from the plane at 10,000 feet. “It is beautiful out here. I can’t believe how many lakes there are around here,” Johnson said. “It is just phenomenal. I am really, really happy with my choice of locations. I never get tired of looking around.”