In Minnesota, an airport runway spans two countries

Photo: Scott Chastain

You must have to be a patient and forgiving sort to live near Roseau, on Minnesota’s northern border. People there have to put up with things we non-border people take for granted. The freedom to move around America, for example.

It took an around-the-country trip by a California teacher to tell me something about my adopted state that I didn’t know. There’s an airport in Minnesota on which a runway spans two countries, surrounded by some unwelcoming feds.

For the last few weeks, Scott Chastain has been writing installments in his travelogue of last month’s journey, during which he flew his homebuilt airplane around America, dropping in at small airports to discover the sort of wonders that mostly small towns possess. He eschewed hotels and depended on the kindness of people.

“What do you have in Solon Springs?” he asked a resident of that northwest Wisconsin town.

“We have a Dairy Queen,” the man replied.

Lesson: People are proud of what they have in their towns, as well they should be.

Along his journey, he encountered plenty of kindness, flying without any sort of plan of where he’d end up on any day.

And then he made it to Minnesota.

“There wasn’t a whole lot underneath me but marshland, lakes, and tundra as far as the eye could see,” he writes.

He wanted to land at Piney Pinecreek Border Airport, which is shared by Piney, Manitoba, and Pinecreek, Minn.

The airport once resided entirely within the United States, but when the runway needed extending, it could go only go across the 49th parallel.

When Chastain visited, his string of welcoming encounters around America ended.

“It was like something out of a dystopian novel,” he said.

I was wiping down the Dove, enjoying the beautiful greenery and the rolled-up hay bales, when suddenly an SUV with U.S. Customs markings pulled up. Leaving the engine running, an officer stepped out wearing combat fatigues and body armor.

He was a young guy. He didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked pretty stone-faced and too serious for his own good. I looked at his uniform. Stitched over his heart was the name, Miller.

“Good morning!” I greeted him. I was in a great mood. Then that guy showed up.

“Where are you coming in from?” he asked me. He looked at me like he was about to reach for his gun.

“Duluth,” I told him.

“Well, we don’t open until nine o’clock. Why didn’t you announce yourself coming in?”

I told him that I did announce myself. I told him that I announced myself 5 miles out, then on the 45-entry for runway 15. Didn’t he hear me?

Then he told me that I should have called ahead on the phone to let him know that I was coming. He repeated to me that the airport wasn’t open until nine-o’clock, and that I should have called him before landing.

“Yes, sir,” was all I could say. I felt like I was on the verge of being ordered to lie face-down on the pavement with my hands behind my head or something.

Then officer Miller told me, “Look. You see those tanks right there?” He was pointing at the fuel farm. I told him that, yes, I saw them. “Well if you walk past those, you’re in Canada, and you’re gonna be in trouble. Then if you try to walk back, you’re gonna be in even more trouble. You can use the restroom and get fuel if you need it, but stay on this side of the tanks. Got it?”

The reality and law is that Chastain was free to fly into the airport at any time he wanted. He’s an American, traveling on American soil. He didn’t need permission to use the restroom. He didn’t need permission to land. He didn’t need permission to buy fuel.

While the Customs office only opens at 9 a.m., Chastain wasn’t crossing a border (he would have if he’d traveled farther down the runway). Chastain was free to move about America.

“Okay, thanks,” I said. “Have a great day.” He didn’t reply. He just got into his SUV and drove off. That’s when I decided to use the restroom and get out of there before he changed his mind again and came back to arrest me, for God knew what.

I quickly climbed back into the plane and strapped in. It was clear that I was unwelcome and I could not wait to get out of there. Why in the world was there a rotating beacon and a lighted runway if you could only land there at certain times of the day?

I cranked the Dove over and rolled forward. As I was taxiing out, I saw the SUV racing toward the tarmac again. It was 9:00. There was a Piper coming in on final, and I waited for him to clear the runway before I back-taxied to runway 33. I didn’t waste any time blasting out of there. As I pulled the Dove back around and headed for Roseau, I looked down and saw Miller walking up to the Piper. A family was getting out of the plane, and I felt sorry for them.

In the rest of Minnesota, we have a freedom of movement we take for granted. Along Minnesota’s northern border, the law-abiding was suspect.

I apologized to Chastain for the attitude my state showed him. But it was all good, he said. His next stop was Roseau, and he got to tour the Polaris plant.

Welcome to America.

If you have time to kill today, there are few better ways to spend it than reading his travelogue, which starts here.

[Update 8:51 a.m. 9/1/16] From the MnDOT Office of Aeronautics, which owns the airport:

Actually, anyone can land at Piney-Pinecreek without permission. That is the definition of an airport that is open to the public. We visit Piney-Pinecreek on a fairly regular basis and Customs and Border Patrol always comes out to greet us. If they don’t I walk over and talk with them before doing anything else. Pilots should be sensitive about landing at border airports. For a while the FAA had a temporary flight restriction that required the filing of a flight plan for all flights operating in the vicinity of the border. I just looked for it and couldn’t find it, but border security is serious business and Customs and Border Patrol is not the welcome wagon. It is their job to be suspicious of people they encounter.

There is nothing at Piney-Pinecreek except the airport and a border crossing. As a pilot, I wouldn’t choose Piney-Pinecreek as a destination because there is no place to get food or aircraft maintenance, there are lots of nice airports in the area: Roseau, Warroad, that are welcoming and would have been a better choice. International Falls is a particularly fun airport to visit. The Einarsons are always welcoming and no airport in Minnesota takes better care of you. The only reason I would choose Piney-Pinecreek would be if it was along my route and I wanted quick access to Customs.

So I would apologize to your friend as I’m sure you did for the less than Minnesota like welcome he received. As for other pilots wanting to visit Piney-Pinecreek Airport: I recommend that they file flight plans and make announcements over the CTAF of their intentions. There are requirements that they stay in the aircraft if clearing customs at Piney-Pinecreek. If they are not clearing customs I recommend they talk with the Customs and Border Patrol agents before doing anything else. I also recommend that they only go there in daylight hours for two reasons. It is less suspicious, and the mosquitos are vicious at night.


Rick Braunig
MnDOT Office of Aeronautics