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New airport led to longer flights from Rochester

The new Rochester airport south of town offered longer runways and better air service, even if it took a few years for those jets to arrive.

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A Northwest Airlines plane was one of the first to take off from the new Rochester airport in September 1960.
Contributed / History Center of Olmsted County
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The opening of a new airport in September 1960 brought Rochester into the jet age — almost.

The first passenger plane to land at the new Rochester airport 8 miles south of the city was a propeller-driven airliner — the first of many that would land and take off from the new runways before the jet age finally touched down a couple of years later.

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But the new airport did position Rochester to host the big jet airliners of the future, something the former airport at Lobb Field, with its cramped location surrounded by urban development, was not capable of handling. And even if there had been room to expand Lobb’s 4,500-foot main runway, it’s difficult to imagine jet airliners roaring in for landing over residential neighborhoods.

So the opening of the new Rochester airport was indeed “an aviation milestone,” as Ted Zawasky, a Northwest Airlines official, said at the time.

Shortly before the airport was open for business, Zawasky announced that Northwest would start flying its DC-6B airliners to and from Rochester six times a day. The planes had a wingspan of 117 feet, weighed 107,000 pounds, featured a pressurized cabin capable of carrying up to 76 passengers, had a top speed of 371 miles per hour and a normal range of 2,200 miles. Not a jet, yet, but practically the next best thing for travelers.

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“The only thing that has prevented Northwest from operating DC-6B aircraft here in the past is the fact that Lobb Field cannot handle anything as large,” Zawasky said.

The main runway at the new airport was 6,400 feet long, with a cross runway of 4,000 feet. To handle ever larger planes, those runways would, in the future jet age, eventually be lengthened to 9,000 feet and 7,000 feet.

But by 1960 standards, the new Rochester airport was completely up-to-date. There was a 25,000-square-foot terminal building, parking for at least 250 cars, and an air traffic control tower. The cost of construction was $4 million, shared by federal, state and local governments.

In addition to Northwest, Rochester in 1960 was served by Ozark and Braniff airlines. Northwest alone had nine scheduled flights each day, heading east to as far as New York City, and north to the Twin Cities. Braniff and Ozark generally flew southward, giving Rochester passengers and Mayo Clinic patients additional travel options.

Of course, in that era, when long-haul flights were not routine, many destinations could only be reached by “puddle-jumper” flights that hopped from one airport to another.

Northwest’s 11:35 a.m. departure from Rochester, for example, stopped in Madison, Milwaukee and Detroit before reaching New York City. On the other hand, there was a direct flight to Chicago at noon. ”The flight is one hour and 20 minutes and luncheon will be served,” the Post-Bulletin reported.

All of this activity was based at the gleaming new airport located on a plateau south of the city. Pilots would no longer navigate by the corn cob water tower as they had done at Lobb Field.

And in 1963, when Northwest started flying Boeing 707 jet liners, the future for which the new airport had been built would arrive at last.

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Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.

Then and Now - Thomas Tom Weber col sig

Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.
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