North Dakota Aviation: Front Door to Growth

By Scott Spangler on September 25th, 2011

Lately there hasn’t been much good news about aviation, general or otherwise. Then I went to North Dakota for a story on a one-tech avionics shop halfway between Fargo and Bismarck. A flight school was setting up in the next hangar, an indicator of better times at the airport, said Greg Earnest at Jamestown Avionics, because new pilots mean more airplanes. In passing, he mentioned the state’s Flight Training Assistance Program, which defrays the cost of bringing a CFI to airports where none live.

Say what?

Greg aimed me at the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. Its website was as open, friendly, helpful, and positive as the people I’d so far met in Jamestown. “The state aviation system is an attractive front door to our state’s economic growth,” reads the first sentence of the commission’s philosophy. Here’s the rest of it: “To ensure this growth, the system needs continual enhancement with state-of-the-art technology. With this goal, continued flexibility and responsiveness by the Aeronautics Commission will fulfill the needs of the aviation community.”

Which brings us back to the flight training program. Keeping track of FAA pilot statistics, the commission decided to do something about the declining pilot population in the state—down 22 percent, from 4,095 to 3,207 over the past 30 years. Its analysis revealed a disproportional decline between rural and urban areas, in part attributed to the dearth of CFIs at rural areas. North Dakota law says that the commission shall cooperate with towns to develop and coordinate aviation activities, this includes educational grants, i.e. the Flight Training Assistance Program.

The program is about 5 years old, said Larry Taborsky, aeronautic commission director, and four airports now participate in the program. That may not sound like a lot, but consider this: North Dakota has 89 public airports (72 with paved runways) spread across 70,700 square miles. (More than 200 private strips also dot the landscape.) The 2010 census counted 672,591 residents. Among them, in 2009 the FAA counted 2,990 active pilot certificates: 633 students, 8 sport pilots, 1,117 privates, 993 commercial, 247 ATPs, and 461 CFIs. In 2006, there were 2,335 pilots in North Dakota, and 1,755 aircraft (including 255 ag applicators and 105 corporate airplanes).

By these numbers, that’s a 28 percent increase over three years, so the program is surely making a difference. Airports without a CFI and/or an aircraft for instructional use based at them can apply for an annual FTAP grant. The commission pays 75 percent of the CFI’s transportation, lodging, and meal expenses, with the airport covering the rest, and CFIs must provide a minimum of 3 hours of instruction per visit (not limited to one student). Commuting CFIs need not be state residents, but all instruction must take place at one of North Dakota’s public use airports.

To give people a reason to fly—and to visit the state—the commission launched its Passport Program, which encourages pilots to visit each of its public airports, attend FAA safety programs, and visit North Dakota’s aviation museums. At the same time, you can follow Lewis & Clark’s path along the Missouri River. The commission also runs a Junior Pilots and Education program, with an annual aviation art contest, and publishes a number of aviation awareness materials. What’s more, it is part of the North Dakota Aviation Council. It unites eight member organizations that represent airports, ag aviators, pilots, FBOs, A&Ps, homebuilders, and fun flyers because they “believe that solutions to the problems we face are best served by working together rather than struggling as independent special-interest groups.”

What stands out in most in North Dakota is not the solutions to its problems, which are unique to its geographic and demographic needs, but its resourcefulness, comity, and teamwork. It is an example that would do us all well, and not just in aviation. –Scott Spangler

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3 Responses to “North Dakota Aviation: Front Door to Growth”

  1. Dennis Conn Says:

    I am interested in applying for the North Dakota CFI grant

  2. Scott Spangler Says:


    Follow the link to the ND aeronautic department in the story, and you’ll find the info needed to participate in the program on the left side of the home page, the bottom link button.

  3. North Dakota Leading the Way | High Altitude Flying Club Says:

    […] came across this interesting post on the JetWhine blog. It talks about an innovative state program in North Dakota which defrays the cost of bringing […]

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