Wade & Geanette Cebulski's Beechcraft
Bonanza at the Seeley Lake Airport
with the Swan Mountains rising in the background.
by Gary Noland
For the Pathfinder
December 2, 1999
After many years as an unwanted stepchild of the Missoula County Airport Authority, the Seeley Lake airport has been returned to the authority that created it almost 30 years ago, and that has proven to be a fine homecoming for all parties involved.
In an agreement finalized in July of 1998, ownership of the Seeley Lake Airport returned to the Aeronautics Division of the Montana Department of Transportation.
The State didn't particularly want the airport back as it had problems financing the needs of 13 other state-owned airports.
Michael D. Ferguson is administrator of the Aeronautics Division and when he was asked a couple years ago by Missoula County Airport Authority (MCAA) if he wanted the airport back he said: "No way!"
His answer reflected budgetary concerns from responsibilities at 13 state-owned airports. "I told them we couldn't afford it," Ferguson said in recalling that conversation.
Mike Rogan, left, and Mike Ferguson of the Aeronautics Division of the Montana Department of Transportation, talk to members of the Flying club at a social and business picnic last spring.
MCAA told Ferguson a private group was willing to buy the airport, but he informed them they couldn't sell it because it was built in the early 1960's by Western Montana Properties, developer of the Sky Park subdivision around the airport, under a program with the old Aeronautical Commission and then turned over to local government to operate. The provisions of that initial arrangment required local government to operate the airport "in perptuity" or give it back to the state.
The latter is just what a group of local pilots wanted, as well as the Missoula County Airport Authority (MCAA) which had its hands full operating Missoula International Airport and had no time, or enthusiasm, for the little grass strip in the northeast part of the county.
So, the only one to really convince was Ferguson.
After meeting with pilots in Seeley Lake, Ferguson changed his mind.
"They told me MCAA wouldn't let them do any volunteer work, fearing liability problems," Ferguson said.
Wade Cebulski, a local pilot and now head of the local Flying Club, is one of many volunteers ready to do work at the airport, and he has plowed the airport strip for the past three winters with his pickup.
"I can't tell you how many hours I have into that," Cebulski laughed, adding that the MCAA, fearing liability, threatened to have him cited for trespassing. But the airport strip was kept open, despite the fact that it was always officially closed in the winter by MCAA, and used by Forest Service biologists who flew in here frequently on a joint Lynx research project with the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
"We couldn't get anywhere with Missoula County Airport Authority," Cebulski said, and that prompted local pilots like Doug Mood and Dick Lewis to begin talking to the state about taking over the airport.
Ferguson's division had an entirely different approach which meshed perfectly with the enthusiastic group of local volunteers here.
The state has in place a volunteer program that minimizes liability and provides workman's compensation insurance coverage for volunteers for hours worked. Ferguson's approach, quite the opposite from MCAA, was to seek out volunteers and have them sign agreements with the state.
"I told them we were going to beg them to work," Ferguson said when meeting with the pilots. "This group was eager to work," he said and that changed his mind about bringing the airport back under state ownership.
Missoula County Commissioners, after meeting with local pilots at a Seeley Lake Community Council meeting in March of 1998, instructed the county attorney to draft a resolution transferring the airport ownership back to the state. The commissioners offered to give to the state about $9,000 in equipment (a truck and grass mower) that had been used at the airport, and to allow airport use of water from a well at the adjacent county shop facility.
The acutal transfer was made on July 1, 1998, and in the 16 months since, local pilots and volunteer workers have worked with the state Aeronautics Division to make what improvements they could afford.
"The state has been unbelievable," Cebulski said. "They have brought the airport back to the standards to which it was originally designed."
Those standards are pretty simple and basic, not too expensive for materials, but heavy on labor needs. With the state providing funds, about $2,000, so far for grass seed, knapweed spraying, fence repair materials, a rotating beacon, and gate repairs, the pilots and other volunteers have provided the labor.
Cebulski stressed that "a lot of people have helped at the airport."
"It's amazing the support we've had from people in the community," he said. "Thirteen or fourteen people showed up one day to help build a fence."
Work at the airport is done under the umbrella of the Seeley Lake Flying Club, which keeps bookkeeping records. An ealier group, called Friends of the Airport, was disbanded because of bookkeeping duplications.
Just recently, the Flying Club has made provisions for associate memberships for people who are interested in helping at the airport, but have no interest in the club's airplane, a 1967 Aero Commander.
Club members are Gary Grant, Dick and Cindy Lewis, Gerry and Bonnie Connell, Wade and Geanette Cebulski, John and Terrie Hebbelman, Bob and Patti Stine, Derk and Marilyn Vinkemulder, Dave and Jan Geulff, and Dave Harrison.
Reggie Meierhenry is the Airport and Airways Bureau Chief with the Aeronautics Division, and he keeps tabs on volunteerism at the airport.
Last month in a telephone interview he said the spreadsheet in front of him showed 140 hours of volunteer labor officially recorded, but that he had an estimated 90 more hours yet to be added to the spreadsheet that would bring the total to 230 hours in the 16 months the state has had jurisdiction at the airport.
"That's extraordinary for any airport in the country. The number of hours are extraordinary and the number of people extraordinary," Meierhenry said, adding a desire to expressly thank the volunteers.
"We're very happy with this volunteer group. They've done a wonderful job at little expense on our part," Ferguson echoed in praise of the volunteers.
Ferguson's department has only $17,000 for taking care of the now 14 state-owned airports, and the $2,000 spent so far at Seeley Lake is a healthy percentage of that budget. In addition, the state picks up $1,200 in liability insurance premiums through another budget, and costs for workman's compensation on the volunteer hours had not yet been computed.
Mike Lindemer, airport manager, is responsible for logging the hours that volunteers put in on such projects as tree removal (small trees near runway), rock raking, weed spraying, gopher control, tie-down maintenance, fence and gate repair.
A major project underway now is the addition of around 800 feet of runway at the north end increasing the runway length from 3,500 feet to 4,300 feet. A cement run-up area is planned at the north end also.
Lindemer is the "designated airport manager with no salary," Ferguson said, adding that Lindemer is also the fuel vendor at the airport, providing a truck, other equipment and fuel at his own cost. Lindemer has to collect six cents per gallon on fuel sold to pilots with this money going back to the aeronautics division.
"It's a fuel flowage fee," Ferguson said, and is common practice throughout the country. Also, the airport is no tax burden to local residents as the Aeronautics Division is funded by a 2 cents per gallon avaiaton fuel tax.
Lindemer also maintains a unicom radio at his business, Lindey's Steakhouse, which is used for ground to air communication of weather and runway conditions. Pilots can reach the unicom on 122.9 radio frequency for advisories. Lindemer also operates a seaplane base on Seeley Lake, but it is not connected in any way with the regular airport or the state.
Ferguson, who is generally happy with all the local improvements, said one improvement, an airport beacon light, wanted by local pilots for safety reasons has resulted in some local complaints by residents on the mountainside who complain about the rotating light.
The beacon, absent from the airport for many years, was re-installed last spring. Ferguson said it has been "shielded" to prevent direct viewing from the mountainside, but that people still complain about seeing it sweep across the sky.
Though the number of people using the airport might be small, the airport "...is a valuable business asset for the community," Lindemer said, adding that in contrast to "weekend warriors" who play in the Seeley Lake area, pilots and their friends who fly in usually drop a lot of money in the community for lodging, meals and other entertainment.
The airport is an added attraction for people drawn to the recreational lifestyle here.
Local pilots Bruce and Nan Burris(at left), and Wade and Geanette Cebulski just before flying their private planes from Seeley Lake to Columbus, Montana, to attend a pilot's social gathering there recently. Both families own Beech V-35 Bonanzas. Bruce Burris is a pilot for United Airlines and he and his wife live in Seeley Lake. The Cebulski's are long-time residents, and Geanette is taking flying lessons to serve as her husband's co-pilot during their trips
Bruce Burris is a United Airlines pilot who keeps his Beech Bonanza here, but commutes out of Missoula to his Chicago base. He and his wife, Nan, are building a home here on the Double Arrow.
Bob Thorne, another airlines pilot, and architect Rick Brighton, both of here and Park City, Utah, use the airport regularly. The two are partners in the Fly Inn subdivision near the airport.
Talk a few years ago of "growing the airport" with paved runways has subsided, and intentions are to keep the airport the way it is, but to enhance safety in any way possible.
"We're not looking for a paved airstrip," Cebulski said. "Now it's unique, a Montana grass airstrip, the kind city pilots are looking for, and we want to keep it the way it is."
One change Cebulski might welcome begins this winter and should relieve him of the volunteer snow plowing he's done in the past few years.
Meierhenry said the Aeronautics Division has an inter-departmental arrangement with the state highway department to help with mowing and plowing and that snow-plowing arrangements are being negotiated to keep the airport runway open this winter. Volunteers will still help with plowing, though, until the ground is frozen.