Historic Airports Q&A

Terminal expansions, runway repairs, hangar upgrades. These are just some of the many airport improvement projects that 106 Group historians and archaeologists contribute to at dozens of airports throughout the region.

While most of us are familiar with airports as passengers, there is a whole world beyond the endless lines at security and fitting your luggage into an overhead bin. Aging flight infrastructure at airports across the country require updates and repairs. These facility upgrades almost always need to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Bemidji Airport

This is where we come in: At 106 Group, our process provides support from project beginning to end, including setting a rationale for the area of potential effect, conducting an inventory of historic resources and/or archaeology surveys, assessing effects, and consulting with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

We recently caught up with our CEO, Anne, and some of our airports team, about all things airports happening here at 106 Group. We’ve studied more than 20 airports over the last couple of decades so want to share some insights. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Interior of Duluth Airport Hangar

106 Group: 106 Group historians, archaeologists, and planners have been hard at work on cultural resource components at Duluth, Flying Cloud, Longville, Mankato, and Minneapolis-Saint Paul airports—just to name a few! What explains the influx of airport work?

It’s particularly related to a lot of regional airports. We’ve done work at MSP. We have some ongoing work we’re doing at Duluth International, and then we’re also doing some survey at St. Paul’s Holman Field. So those are some of the larger airports in Minnesota. But we’re also doing work on regional airports—almost every county has a regional airport, especially in more rural communities. A lot of those regional airports were developed post World War II, where people got into private planes as more of a hobby and form of recreation. In the 1960s, a lot of the metro area Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC) airports were developed. And these are just now, or have recently, turned 45-50 years of age.

106 Group: 50 years is the age buildings become historic on the National Register, right?

Correct! 50 years is the cutoff for the National Register. Also, over 40-50 years, many of these airports now require upgrades. There is constantly new equipment, new radar, lots of upgrades, building new airport traffic control towers. That equipment has been ever-changing and evolving and infrastructure from even 20-30 years ago— it’s not the most recent technology, it also can’t support the amount of air traffic that is out there across the state of Minnesota now.

106 Group: How does compliance with Section 106 become a requirement for these airport projects?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is, in many of our projects, the permitting body, landowner, or operator. Because of FAA’s involvement—they oversee anything related to upgrades at international and even regional airports, so federal regulations like Section 106 apply.

Flying Cloud Airport

106 Group: What sorts of airport structures do you look at during survey?

The National Park Service has a bulletin related to airports and aviation structures that provides a lot of guidance on this. It’s the runways, the taxiways (you know, where the plane drives out to get to the runway). And then the terminals, all the supporting buildings that house things like the deicers, the luggage carts etc. The air traffic control towers—that’s a big one. Then there’s the hangars and equipment sheds. You’d be amazed at how many kinds of supporting buildings and structures there are for what seems like a simple property type.

106 Group: Is there a typical airport project process?

Projects start with an archaeology literature review to identify potential for those resources. But a lot of these projects often go straight to architectural history and reconnaissance survey phases. Even during the scoping stage, we’ll take a really high-level look at aerials. We’ll find an aerial that’s approximately 45-50 years old and be able to tell that half of this airport was developed in the period of interest.

It also depends on how broad a planning process the client is looking at. We’ve had a couple of stages of work at Duluth International Airport, for example, where the smaller project areas changed many times based on funding. In this case, our team goes back to do updates or expand existing surveys that we completed previously. At the Mankato regional airport, we just recently completed studies for FAA. The client didn’t yet know where they were going to site this new air traffic control tower, so we identified the study area to be 90% of the airport property. In this case a really broad planning study helped to inform the sitting of where the tower could go without additional surveys.

106 Group: What would you say is the biggest strength that 106 Group brings to these historic airport projects?

I think it’s having the experience of working on so many of this type of project and resource, including our familiarity working for and with an agency like the FAA. We’re constantly building new relationships with FAA compliance staff, and we know what that agency is looking for, what their needs are, and their planning processes. At this point we’re able to say, ‘okay, this client is building a control tower. That’s pretty straightforward.’ We know what the regulatory needs are. We know where the siting is going to be, etc.

We also have the benefit of relying on past studies, because particularly for architectural history, it’s all about the context and the development of that context. We work at so many airports that a lot of our team know the history of air development in the state of Minnesota really well, starting with MSP and the St. Paul airport; how it developed into the Metropolitan Airports Commission that oversees the seven-county region; having that context on how regional airports play into it.

This really helps in our analysis because we’ll know which properties to compare and contrast. We’ll know which ones are historic. Knowing where those comparative properties are helps streamline our analysis for a lot of the smaller regional airports.

Duluth International Airport (courtesy University of Minnesota, Duluth)
Lindsey Wallace

Lindsey is an architectural historian and heritage planner. She heads 106 Group’s Planning Team and has contributed to multiple airport projects.

Marika Proctor

Marika Proctor is a writer and editor with a decade of experience communicating about issues related to cultural resource and planning-based projects.