UND + GFK = America’s busiest airport in early March

‘And given that the U.S. is home to the world’s busiest airports, we might have been No. 1 in the world,’ UND’s chief flight instructor says

UND’s full schedule of student flight training in early March helped Grand Forks International Airport lead the nation in tower operations. Historically, GFK is among the top 25 airports in the nation each year for take-offs and landings. UND archival image.

Watch out, LaGuardia, and move over, O’Hare:

According to official Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) numbers, Grand Forks International Airport (GFK) was the busiest airport in the nation for a streak of days in early March.

Specifically, GFK’s combination of passenger flights and UND flight training traffic topped all airports in the United States on March 1-3 as well as on March 8.

The feat was noticed by GFK’s air traffic controllers, as all airports are required to report traffic data to the FAA. Air traffic numbers take weeks to become official, and today, the FAA confirmed the early March reports.

In such a case, Grand Forks didn’t trounce the likes of Atlanta and Chicago by numbers of passengers flown, but by the amount of instructions to take off or land – referred to as operations – issued by its control tower.

Jeremy Roesler

During the multi-day streak, GFK’s tower relayed as many as 2,000 instructions to pilots taking off and landing in a given day.

Historically, UND’s full schedule of student flights put GFK in the top 25 busiest airports nearly every year.

And while the coronavirus pandemic shuttered UND Flight Operations for a time in 2020, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences has since regained its momentum – topping the national operations charts a year later.

“With the reduced amount of airline traffic, general aviation airports have been moving up the busy list,” said Jeremy Roesler, UND’s chief flight instructor, referring to the University’s year-round operation at GFK. “We have appeared in the top 10 in the past, but it’s unusual to see this type of thing happen for consecutive days.

“And given that the United States is home to the world’s busiest airports, we might have been No. 1 in the world earlier this month.”

Good weather means ‘busy’

In the world of air traffic control operations, a Piper Archer flown by a UND flight student and their instructor counts the same as a Boeing 777 airliner rolling down the runway.

And in early March, skies were blue and wind was light – great conditions in the Red River Valley, given the season. UND currently has around 1,400 students on its flight schedule, and optimal conditions signify operations happening from 7 a.m. until 10:30 p.m. at the airport.

“When we get good weather, we’re busy,” said Roesler. “But we’re only able to achieve those numbers when everyone is doing their part to prioritize safety, respecting rules and procedures.”

Robert Kraus

In fact, despite precautions in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the University is on pace to break a longstanding record for hours flown in a year.

Roesler reiterates that the School’s flight output is only possible through the team effort represented by UND Flight Operations and GFK. Roesler’s staff of 250 flight instructors are merely one component of what he refers to as the “sheet music” that keeps planes flying nearly every day.

“The number of safe and successful flights we’ve been able to accomplish is a great testament to the teamwork and support from our maintenance team, dispatchers, line support, air traffic control and Grand Forks International Airport,” said Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

Safety through teamwork

As a UND alumni, Ryan Riesinger recognizes the relationships and partnerships required to achieve flight excellence year after year, especially through circumstances such as COVID-19. The executive director for the Grand Forks Regional Airport Authority said the University’s growth has been impressive to witness first-hand. Before joining GFK five years ago, Riesinger graduated from UND in 1996 with a degree in airport management and worked at airports across the Midwest.

“When I look at the enrollment and the amount of activity going on through UND’s flight training, I think it speaks to not only the students’ passion for flying, but also their positive, long-term perspective,” Riesinger said. “Everyone has done a great job in getting students back on track after last spring.”

Riesinger went on to say that he’s proud of the work performed by GFK staff that, in tandem with UND Flight Operations, maintains the airport’s safe and renowned training environment.

“It’s one thing to consider the amount of flights, but all of these pilots are training and learning at different levels,” Riesinger said. “To function and accomplish our high amount of operations safely, that simply doesn’t occur without our air traffic controllers.

“Our controllers complete safely what every ATC does in the United States. On top of that, they’re doing it in a busy environment with student pilots. They do a fantastic job.”

Elizabeth Cory, public affairs specialist for the FAA, further remarked that keeping aircraft safe in the National Airspace System is the work of traffic managers everywhere, and that the tower team is proud to have a role in educating the next generation of aviation professionals. Also, many members of the team working at the Grand Forks Air Traffic Control Tower are graduates of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, she said.

“The facility handles a high number of aircraft in this student-training environment with the highest level of safety. The facility is proud to work with UND, the airport’s largest user, in continually evaluating the operation, and addressing any safety concerns that may arise,” Cory said.