His name already in (landing ) lights, Richard Helgeson calls it a careerHe already has an airport named after him and a key to the city of Two Harbors. After Monday night, Richard Helgeson can add another accolade to his resume: the distinguished honor award, the highest recognition given to citizens in Two Harbors.
By: LaReesa Sandretsky, Lake County News Chronicle
He already has an airport named after him and a key to the city of Two Harbors. After Monday night, Richard Helgeson can add another accolade to his resume: the distinguished honor award, the highest recognition given to citizens in Two Harbors.
The Two Harbors City Council meeting room was packed with Helgeson’s friends and family on Monday. The regular council meeting lasted only about 30 minutes and at the end, Mayor Randy Bolen presented Helgeson with the award.
“What can I say but thank you?” Helgeson said after receiving it.
Helgeson’s been manager of the airport on the outskirts of Two Harbors from its humble beginnings to its recent improvements and many commendations. The Richard B. Helgeson Airport received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Governor’s Award in 1992 and the 2011 Project of the Year from the Minnesota Council of Airports.
Despite the many honors he and the airport have received, Helgeson is decidedly humble when asked why the airport’s been so successful.
He attributes it simply to location, saying the airport is close to Duluth, where the airport hangars are often full. Two Harbors is a close alternative and offers benefits like low fuel prices and maintenance services.
It also has Casey Komarek, an airplane inspector with a stamp of credibility from the FAA. He’s one of only three inspectors in the state to offer required inspections of planes being imported or exported.
But Helgeson’s work was a large part of the airport’s early success.
“He’s the guy that’s made it beautiful,” said Mike Busch, Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1128-Two Harbors president, who rents a hangar at the airport.
Helgeson, 86, began managing the airport in 1970. At the time, he and his brother operated the Ben Franklin store in Two Harbors and the airport, just a grass-covered landing strip, was a side project.
“There was nothing here, really nothing. Just the forest,” he said.
So he and some friends made the airport’s first major upgrade: mowing the landing strip. They gathered their personal lawn mowers, lined up on one end of the runway and trimmed the knee-length grass to a more manageable length. The grass-cutting was the first of many improvements.
“Through the years, this place has grown from nothing to 40 hangars and basically they’re all full,” Helgeson said.
For the first six years, Helgeson’s gig was unpaid. It became a salaried job in 1976 and Helgeson has held the position since then. He got his pilot’s license shortly after he started working at the airport, though macular degeneration has left him unable to fly for years.
“Last time I flew in a small airplane, I landed it myself, and I hope to keep that record,” he said.
His official retirement is set for Oct. 31, but the city hasn’t finished writing up the contract for a new manager, meaning Helgeson might be hanging around a bit longer than planned.
“It looks like it’s going to go full circle and I’m going to wind up working for nothing again,” he said with a laugh.
Helgeson accepted his award on Monday with applause from the audience after the councilors all shared personal stories and appreciation for his work.
“You are an institution in this community and forever will be,” Mayor Randy Bolen said.
Though retirement is quickly approaching,, Helgeson said he hopes he can still work a few days a week assisting the new manager doing the work he loves.
He summed up his years at the airport simply: “For me, it’s been a good ride.”