Airport history

The terminal at Gallatin Field in the 1940s. Though an airfield did exist just northwest of today’s Gallatin Field as early as 1928, it wasn’t until 1942 that the city of Bozeman opened the field at the airport’s current site. The larger city needed an airport of some sort, but sited the field near Belgrade because it was a far better location for aviation, said Brian Sprenger, current airport director.

Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport at Gallatin Field is the busiest in Montana, undergoing seemingly constant expansion of its facilities in order to keep up with record-breaking numbers of passengers moving through it every year.

Up until about 50 years ago, however, the airport then known only as Gallatin Field was not a significant player in air travel for Montanans. In all of 1966, fewer than 1,000 passengers came and went through the facility (by comparison, the airport served 1.5 million passengers in 2019). Today’s travelers also can fly to many United States cities on direct flights from Bozeman, while in 1966, the nearest airports then offering service outside of Montana were in Butte and West Yellowstone.

Though an airfield did exist just northwest of today’s Gallatin Field as early as 1928, it wasn’t until 1942 that the city of Bozeman opened the field at the airport’s current site. The larger city needed an airport of some sort, but sited the field near Belgrade because it was a far better location for aviation, said Brian Sprenger, current airport director.

“Belgrade’s population in the 1940s was extremely small,” Sprenger said, while providing an overview of the history. “There was, I would assume, no appetite for 618 people to use their tax dollars for operation of an airport, so that’s why Bozeman did it.”

The choice of site ended up being ideal, Sprenger said. The property was relatively flat, and its weather distinctly different from Bozeman’s with relatively calm winds. Airport developers talked to area farmers about wind directions, and sited runways accordingly in the exact orientation still in use today. 

“They were quite brilliant – they could have gone further west, but they really found the ideal location for airport in this valley,” Sprenger said.

A few years later, Gallatin County purchased half-interest in the facility from Bozeman, and the two entities operated it jointly until 1972, when the county created an airport authority – a self-managing, government entity, managed by an airport board. It was shortly thereafter that the interests of the city of Belgrade and the airport’s began to overlap, and the agencies entered into a series of partnerships that continues to grow and expand today.

Neither Sprenger nor Jason Karp, Belgrade’s planning director, are willing to say that the tremendous growth of Belgrade and of the state’s fastest-growing airport are directly linked, but neither do they dismiss certain obvious connections. They agree that Belgrade benefits economically from its proximity to the airport, thanks to passengers passing through the city; Karp expects that to increase when the planned Airport Plaza commercial development comes online at the site of the airport interchange, which wouldn’t exist if the airport weren’t where it is. 

Historically, Sprenger says, growth projections and plans for the airport haven’t been based on what’s going on in Belgrade, but rather on activity in the greater region. For example, airport planners started gearing up for 

anticipated growth when development of Big Sky Resort began in 1973, though that project didn’t proceed as quickly as originally expected. A graph on the wall in Sprenger’s office tracks the airport’s passenger numbers year to year. While the trend shows the number either steadily or dramatically rising depending on the time period, he points to little dips that could be attributed to factors such as the Yellowstone fires in 1988 and the national recession in 2009.

“We have been one of the most significant-growth airports in the country, not due to local events,” he said.

Despite the analyses of seemingly independent factors influencing growth at the airport and in Belgrade, as well as the fact that the airport lies contiguous to the Belgrade city limits, Karp and Sprenger agree that the ties between the two entities are symbiotically entwined.

“Our internal organs are irrevocably attached to each other, very much like Siamese twins,” Karp said. “As Siamese twins existing side by side, we have to get along with each other.”

The shared “organs” include portions of the city water and sewer systems. The city and airport erected the water tower on airport land in the 1976, because both needed water, Sprenger said; in 1973, the airport obtained right-of-way from the state where the city’s sewage lagoons are located today. The airport also granted an easement to Belgrade for its sewer line, and put in a well on the east side of the airport in 2001 to augment water supply for both the city and the airport. The airport used its own land to develop beds to help reduce the load on the municipal sewer system, and also uses effluent for irrigation, he added.

Sprenger said he hears criticism from some in the community about the airport “not paying” for the services it receives from the city, and he believes the public isn’t fully aware of the agreements that have been crafted to make the arrangements fair. For example, in some cases bills for service are covered in lieu of rent by the city, and the airport provides a significant amount of maintenance on city infrastructure sited on the airport property.

Karp agreed that “it’s a really compacted relationship, not always based on dollars for service” and “it is something we (the city) have to keep an eye on.

“We’re having a million people pass through our town every year. We have to be sure our ratepayers don’t subsidize their impact,” he said.

While the airport does impact local services and infrastructure, it also has helped mitigate some inevitable issues related to the fast pace of growth in Belgrade. A prime example is the extension of Airway Boulevard to Dry Creek Road, which both men agree has prevented significant traffic congestion problems in Belgrade by providing a bypass to the northern part of the city. The road was built as part of the new interchange for Interstate 90 that accesses the airport.

“I can’t imagine where we’d be now without it,” Karp said. “(Traffic) is bad now; it would be untenable without it.”

Another example of mutual benefit exists between the Central Valley Fire District, which built its new main station on airport property. Fire Chief Ron Lindroth has said it’s a prime location for CVFD headquarters, because of easy access under railroad tracks, to Interstate 90, and to different parts of Belgrade. Sprenger said the airport, in turn, benefits by the presence of emergency assistance just moments away.

Sprenger added that no state, county or local taxes have been assessed to support the airport for 30 years, because it has been able to operate at a “self-sustaining” level, unlike many airports in Montana and around the country.

He said the airport also provides a significant number of jobs in the area, and that 1,000 people are employed at the airport.

“The airport is a huge employment base for the whole valley,” agreed Karp.

Karp said he hears citizen complaints about delays and noise caused by the convergence of Belgrade’s transportation industries (airport, interstate and railroad), but he believes those inconveniences are outweighed by employment and commercial opportunities that come with them, as well as by convenience.

“Belgrade definitely gets some benefit from having the state’s busiest airport – it’s a two-minute drive and you can go anywhere in the world. That has changed in recent years, and I think people take that for granted,” he said.

Karp, who grew up in the Gallatin Valley, said he remembers when air service here wasn’t nearly so convenient. He remembers his first flight in the mid-1970s, operated from the old terminal building designed by Fred Willson in the 1950s.

“I got on an old 727, and the airplane was bigger than the terminal,” Karp said. “Shortly after that (1977), the first phase of the new terminal with a jetway was built. To see it keep growing is neat to see.”