Soul of Sanderson Field

Posted: Wednesday, January 6, 2021, 12:00 am

Rooted in a love for aviation and passion of local volunteers, Sanderson Field Municipal Airport (KANJ) is a gateway to the Eastern Upper Peninsula (E.U.P.) and a hidden gem of Sault Ste. Marie.

With a community rich in air travel history, the field was officially designated as an airport in 1934 under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Sanderson Field is now owned by the City of Sault Ste. Marie and overseen by the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation (EDC). The EDC contracts to a fixed based operator, Great Lakes Aviation, to meet regulatory operation requirements and the airport is managed by Sault Ste. Marie local, Tom Brown. Partnership with the EDC allows airport employees to handle operations, while the EDC staff manages finances, grant applications, marketing and hiring.

“The aviation and historical knowledge of airport staff, combined with economic training of EDC employees is the perfect fit for business growth and impact in Sault Ste. Marie,” EDC Director Jeff Holt states. “Three recent businesses have come to Sault Ste. Marie because of the benefits our airport provides.”

Economic impact of Sanderson Field is equivalent to over $1 million in annual revenue to the community. On average, each visitor spends $587 while visiting Sault Ste. Marie. This revenue benefits the entire community, specifically impacting local businesses, restaurants and hotels. Sanderson Field oversees about 1,000 flights per year with purposes ranging from customs inspections, military operations, visits from elected officials, air ambulance travel, local business operations and tourism.

Sanderson Field is open 24/7, ensuring pilots can access the self-service fuel station and complimentary facilities at any time. The airport also provides courtesy cars to pilots and passengers who may want to visit a local restaurant or business in the community.

“Customer service is our focus,” explains Brown. “People like flying to Sanderson Field because they know they will receive great care here.”

The airport is a resource for the E.U.P.’s health care facilities. Specialty doctors can fly in, visit patients and fly out in a few hours. When critical patient transfers are necessary, ambulances meet the plane on the ramp, saving essential time in the transfer process. On average, the airport sees about 50 health care related flights annually.

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Sanderson Field’s traffic and revenue through the ongoing border closure between the United States and Canada. About 30 percent of annual airport traffic comes from customs inspections on international flights. In a normal year, customs officers meet with pilots and passengers directly upon arrival at the airport. The efficiency of the customs inspection is attractive to international travelers who will land at Sanderson Field for customs inspections – much faster than a landing at an urban airport. It also brings revenue to the airport and local community

A recent attraction to international pilots is the Sault Ste. Marie International Seaplane Base (MI8) located at Rotary Park. Handcrafted by Michigan pilots in 2010, the seaplane base was donated to the City of Sault Ste. Marie and officially activated in 2019. Seaplanes dock and customs officers visit the MI8 base to perform customs inspections. The EDC and Sanderson Field staff launched complimentary services that have increased seaplane base activity to over 100 annual flights.

“Seaplane pilots have the option of using a courtesy car to visit local businesses and can make fuel purchases directly from the airport,” states EDC Operations Manager, Tracey Laitinen. “Complimentary services attract seaplane travel and bring tourism revenue to our community.”

As the airport’s abilities have grown, the need for aviation mechanics has increased. Sanderson Field filled this need by creating an intern program for those interested in a career in the aviation industry. Interns experience hands on learning and are taught by Sanderson Field employees. Interns use skills learned in the program to certify in airplane mechanics and repair. Growing the intern program through partnerships with local colleges and high schools is a future goal of the airport.

The airport offers many economic benefits, but perhaps the greatest community benefit are local aviation enthusiasts who have a passion to share the airport with families across the E.U.P. Volunteers of Soo Pilots EAA 1437 created and personally sponsored events for the community including Young Eagles free airplane rides for children, a movie night in the airplane hangar and fall color tours. Events are family-friendly and are one of the highlights of summer for many young fans of flight.

“These events wouldn’t be possible without our group of volunteers,” describes Holt. “They open their hearts and pocketbooks to share their love of aviation with the community.”

In addition to his role as manager, Brown is an active volunteer at the airport. He is influential in the growth of community events and holds a vision for the future of Sanderson Field Airport. One of Brown’s favorite parts of managing the airport is the interesting and sometimes famous people he meets on the job.

“The cast of the History Channel’s 'Oak Island' flew to Sanderson Field,” states Brown. “They were such nice people. I also witnessed the exchange of the Stanley Cup. There are always interesting people flying here that I am able to meet.”

Brown encourages those interested in learning more about aviation to visit FlightAware. com. Flight Aware is a free service allowing fans to see a map of all planes in the sky. Tail numbers can be entered to learn more about specific planes and flight destinations.

More information about Sanderson Field Airport is available at www.sandersonfield.com.