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Then and Now: 'The most confusing day in airport history'

Travelers stranded by fog in 1966 overwhelmed the then-young Rochester International Airport.

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The vacant lounge area of the Rochester Airport in 1960. This space looked much different several years later when stranded travelers packed in. (Contributed photo from the History Center of Olmsted County)

On Nov. 15, 1966, Gemini 12 astronauts James Lovell and Edwin Aldrin splashed down safely in the ocean northeast of the Bahamas.

This was perhaps the one time returning a space capsule from outer space was easier than landing a plane in Minnesota.

That night, a heavy fog rolled into the state. The fog was “called the worst in years by the Minnesota State Highway Department, particularly in the Twin Cities,” the Post Bulletin reported the next morning. Visibility in the Twin Cities was zilch, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport was closed to landings and takeoffs.

In Rochester, visibility was marginally better: one-eighth of a mile. That was good enough for air traffic officials to divert incoming Twin Cities flights to Rochester’s still relatively new airport.

The result was “The most confusing day in airport history here,” airport officials told the PB.

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The Rochester airport was only dedicated at its new site 9 miles south of the city in 1961. The new airport replaced cramped and antiquated Lobb Field, which had been located in what is now the Meadow Park area of the city.

Three years of construction resulted in a 25,000-square-foot terminal building and runways of 6,400 feet and 4,000 feet — long enough to handle the airliners coming in for landings on that foggy November morning.

The fog was caused by unusually warm temperatures across Minnesota. Rochester reached 56 that afternoon, nearly 20 degrees above normal. That lack of chill might have been a welcome relief to passengers deplaning straight into the weather; the airport did not have all-weather loading ramps directly into the terminal until the mid-1970s.

The crush of passengers and planes sorely tested the young airport’s facilities. At one point, 12 airliners were parked on the tarmac in front of the terminal. Lon Smith, the station agent for Ozark Airlines, told the Post Bulletin, “It looked like there was an aircraft rummage sale going on.”

The passengers from those planes were directed into the terminal, where, the PB reported, “bedlam reigned.”

The terminal’s two restaurants were quickly overwhelmed. Extra help was called in to feed more than 1,000 people throughout the day. Officials also reported a surge in long-distance phone calls from the terminal as passengers tried to let family members and business associates know they were stranded in Rochester.

Many of those passengers were eventually placed in buses that would take them to the Twin Cities. Some got back on planes that were finally being cleared for takeoff. Still others spent the night in Rochester hotels.

Meanwhile, all available rental cars in the city were hired by passengers who wanted to drive to the Twin Cities.

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Gradually, the fog lifted, and operations got back to normal at the busy Twin Cities airport and at the more placid Rochester airport.

In the decades since that foggy day in 1966, Rochester has often hosted overflow from MSP in stormy weather. But this particular crisis demonstrated early on that the community had been correct in building a modern, expanded airport.

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

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