Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2019 issue
INDEPENDENCE, IOWA – The City of Independence, Iowa, alongside the Connell family, held a ribbon cutting ceremony and open house, April 13, 2019, to officially rename the local airport “James H. Connell Field” (KIIB). The airport was renamed after longtime legacy airport manager and retired fixed base operator, James “Jim” Connell, who dedicated more than 45 years to building a strong aviation community in the community and region.
In 1967, Connell started his fixed base operation at the airport and was appointed airport manager in 1980. He dedicated the next 45 years to building and expanding the airport into an “enhanced services airport,” making it the business-class facility it is today.
During his tenure, Connell felt strongly about bringing awareness and knowledge about the benefits of the airport to the community. He enjoyed showcasing the airport’s facilities to residents of Independence and surrounding communities. It was his mission to host as many public events at the airport during his tenure, including starting free airshows that were held for close to 30 years.
“One of the highlights of my aviation career includes the many friends I made along the way,” said Connell. “It was the pleasure of my life to share my love of aviation with my family and friends.”
Connell started out hosting small fly-in breakfasts in the 1970s and then airshows with as many as 9,000 people, featuring the late Marion Cole and Joe Dooley, the “Flying Irishman.”
Additionally, for nearly a decade, Connell advanced the agriculture industry in the area with his aerial application spraying business, flying the Grumman Ag Cat.
Jim Connell received numerous awards and accolades during his career. One of his most notable was the Charles Taylor Award for 50 years of aircraft maintenance, and the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award for 50 years of flying with no incidents, accidents or violations. His name is on a scroll in the Wright Brothers building in Washington, D.C., and he is listed among some 1500 pilots in the nation to receive this honor thus far. Connell’s aircraft maintenance technician certificate number is 1,441,859, which he acquired in 1959.
In 2015, Connell was inducted into the Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame and forever commemorated in the Iowa Aviation Museum in Greenfield, Iowa.
Together, Jim and his wife, Karen, were dedicated aviation professionals. Jim Connell served on the Aviation Maintenance Advisory Board at Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo, Iowa from 1972 until the program was eliminated. Karen Connell also served on the college’s board for more than 15 years. Additionally, Jim was an FAA Safety Officer for many years, and both Jim and Karen served on the Iowa Department of Transportation Aviation Advisory Board. Karen was also president of the Iowa Public Airports Association and served several years on its board of directors.
The original airport in Independence was a grass airstrip located west of the airport’s present site. Initially, there were no buildings at the airport’s current site with only a 2800 X 50 ft sub base runway with no lighting. The City of Independence had enough lumber delivered to the airport to build a building about the size of a double garage.
In 1971, under Jim Connell’s leadership and help from airport enthusiasts, the first airport office building was built, and three community hangars were built by renters.
The first metal building for the maintenance shop was built in 1972, supported financially by “Indy Aviation Boosters, Inc.” Jim rented this building for his shop, and when it was paid for, it reverted to the City of Independence.
Next, under Connell’s leadership, the first row of T-hangars (10 stalls) were built through Indy Aviation Boosters, Inc. They supported the costs, and when the building was paid for, it too reverted to the City of Independence.
At this time, the FAA funded the non-directional beacon (NDB) and it was maintained for many years by Larry Torgerson under the supervision of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Federal Communications Commission. In 1985, the second terminal building was built, along with a 4000 X 75 ft. concrete runway that includes automatic lighting, VASI lights, and strobe lights. The cost of this expansion project was approximately $6 million.
The last airport project under Connell’s leadership was in 2010-11 when the runway (18/36) was expanded to 5500 X 100 feet at a cost of $17.5 million. An AWOS system was also added.