Thern reflects on a lifetime in aviation

Mike Thern, Rushford Aviation Fixed Base Operator, has recently retired from his position after nearly two decades of service.
Chad Smith

 Winona native Mike Thern is stepping down as the Fixed Base Operator of Rushford Aviation. After being around planes and flying for most of his adult life, as well as a good portion of his childhood, Thern said it’s time to “throttle back” a bit.

“It’s just time,” Thern said. “I’m not going away though. I’ll continue to be a tenant up here at the [Rushford] airport because I have hobby work going on. I actually quit doing customer aircraft work several years ago. At that point, I got my projects down out of the rafters, including two aircraft projects I’m working on rebuilding and restoring. Doing things like that is the love of my life, so that’s what I’m doing.”

Thern can trace his love of aviation back to his childhood, when he wanted to be either a commercial or military pilot when he grew up. However, his eyesight didn’t meet the stringent requirements for those careers, so he became a private pilot.

“I used to work with my dad in his manufacturing business,” he recalled. “I had an idea growing up that I’d fill my dad’s shoes when he stepped down. I worked there for many years before realizing it wasn’t the right thing for me. But, throughout the years my dad and I worked together, we were businessmen and pilots.

“We owned a company airplane and did a lot of traveling,” he said. “While it wasn’t always practical to fly somewhere, it was always fun. That’s a lot like the clientele that we get coming through here at the Rushford Airport. They aren’t always flying to Rushford for local business purposes, they’re quite often businessmen/pilots who are heading somewhere else and are stopping here for fuel.”

While he couldn’t fly for commercial airlines, Thern is still a licensed commercial pilot, which means others can hire him to be their private pilot. He also is qualified to teach others how to fly. Thern first jumped behind the wheel as a pilot during his time in college.

“I was 18-19 years old when I first started taking flying lessons,” he recalled. “However, I’d already been flying with my dad, so I knew how to fly a plane. While I knew how to fly one, I wasn’t an expert on landing it yet. I only took four hours of lessons before my instructor let me fly solo. That meant I could go off and practice by myself. It typically takes between 10-20 hours before students get to fly solo.”

The family’s manufacturing plant was located in the industrial complex near the Winona Airport. The students from the Aviation Maintenance School used to work on airplanes there and Thern wanted to do that too. Thern soon realized he had the option to do that after leaving the manufacturing business.

After that, it was off to aircraft maintenance schooling. “I worked on small, general aviation aircraft and knew I wanted to stay in the area,” Thern recalled. “I even taught aircraft mechanics for a while at the school I went to before the program was shut down.”

At that point, Thern knew he didn’t want to exit the aviation field, and more specifically, aircraft maintenance. He decided to start his own Fixed Base Operation (FBO), which is like an airport service station. He looked at the Rushford Airport, which he said was headed for closure in the summer of 2000. “I thought maybe I could establish a business up there and the City of Rushford might be interested in continuing it,” Thern said.

“I talked with (then) City Administrator Larry Bartelson and the deal came together shortly afterward. The airport was dead back then and we brought it back to life rather nicely.”

Thern’s aviation career has taken him from one end of the country to another. “I’ve flown from beyond Florida and in the Bahamas up to Washington State, and everywhere in between,” he recalled. “I’ve never actually totaled up all the hours in my flight logbook. Just eyeballing it, I’d say my flight time is in the neighborhood of 4,000 hours.

“I never really had a favorite destination when I was flying,” Thern recalled. “Just like people enjoy driving somewhere in their car, I enjoyed taking ‘road trips’ in my plane. It was one-and-a-half years ago that my wife and I flew our vintage airplane down to the Bahamas, where they were devastated by Hurricane Dorian last weekend.”

With his retirement from Rushford Aviation, flying is now his “hobby-job,” so Thern will still be around the Rushford Airport daily.

He says flying is something special and will always remain an important part of who he is. “To be able to get into an airplane and get off the ground is just indescribably special. Those of us who are pilots can’t put our finger on anything more than that. We just love flying.”