Irv Klemmensen a staying force at Jacksonville Municipal Airport
Story and Photos By Julie Gerke
Jacksonville Municipal Airport has been part of the community for 77 years, and Irv Klemmensen has been part of the airport for 44 of them.
Klemmensen, known best as “Klem,” owns Klem’s Aero Repair, an onsite facility that offers inspections, repairs, rebuilds and pretty much anything else an airplane owner might want or need.
Pilot John Oakes of Jacksonville and his son Charlie count Klemmensen as a friend and have used his guidance and expertise in several restoration projects.
Right now, they’re working on a two-seat Aeronica that required more work than anticipated. After pulling and rebuilding the engine, the pair are reworking the cowling and Charlie Oakes has been repairing and cleaning the interior of the fabric wings.
“[Klem’s] a national treasure, … probably more than anyone,” said John Oakes, a licensed airframe and powerplant mechanic. When he is working on a plane, “Klem is standing here telling us what to do and how to do it. … He’s a magnet that draws people. He’s a big draw.”
In decades past, the airport grounds hosted Stinson fly-ins, where owners of that iconic craft would fly in and park their planes, allowing the general public to ooh and ahh, much like a classic car show, plus two visits from the Ford Tri-Motor, the first mass-produced airliner. The annual Jacksonville Area Chamber of Commerce Steak Fry and Experimental Aircraft Association “Young Eagles” rides bring non-aviators to the grounds.
The airport is actually Jacksonville’s second: the privately owned Jacksonville Airport, then located south of town, was operated between the early 1930s and late 1950s by owner/manager Fred Wharton.
Then, as now, the airport is a second home for private pilots and their families, who take personal pride in the offerings of the tax-supported airport.
A lifetime of aviation
Klemmensen, now 77, joined the U.S. Air Force after high school. When he returned stateside, he headed to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for his airframe and powerplant (A&P) license and immediately was hired at then-Capital Airport in Springfield. He later moved to the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington, where he worked on final assembly of eight versions of the 747, at the time the largest plane in the air.
He’d grown up in Sioux City, Iowa, and that’s where he married Nannette, his partner in life and in work (she co-owns the repair shop). They have four children: Mike, aviation division manager for Caterpillar Inc. corporate headquarters; Bill, who works for FlightJet at Chicago O’Hare International Airport; Annette, a human relations professional in Denver; and Pam, a Jacksonville School District 117 employee who lives in Jacksonville. The couple also has four grandchildren.
Klemmensen proudly points out that he and his four siblings all have been married at least 50 years, and all of the guys were in military service, including three in Vietnam. Klemmensen’s hitch was spent in Thailand; he was among several mechanics cited for quick and accurate work on a helicopter that landed in a fire pod, which “tore it all to pieces,” he recalled. “It took three days straight to get it together again.”
At the municipal airport, Klemmensen works from a leased building just west of the terminal, accessible through a gate from the main parking lot and from a taxiway. On this particular day, the closed beige doors conceal at least six prop airplanes in various states of repair or inspection. Several of the planes are from the 1940s; one is a Seabee; at least one has fabric wings. A couple have sat for years, covered in dust, as Klemmensen waits for owners to pay long-overdue bills. He also has a long-term contract to work on the four airplanes owned by the Illinois State Police.
The large shop floor is filled with tools, compressors, lifts, ladders, parts and boxes of various screws, gaskets and fittings. The office is similarly outfitted, encircled by workbenches and anchored by a picnic table filled with snacks for daily coffee meetings and the occasional grade school tour group. A decorative carved clock is a souvenir from Alaska, where his sister lives, but Klemmensen chuckled that a “made in” sticker showed its origin as Texas.
Over the years, the hanger made a great place for “hundreds” of couples to practice line-dancing, a favorite activity of Klem and Nan. A small woodworking area is where Klemmensen designed and built several hinged tables that – depending on how they’re folded – are either comfortable benches, a full picnic table with seats or a half picnic table with room on one side for someone who uses a wheelchair or rolled chair.
The airport has 38 hangers, and Klem counts 22 of the local planes on his work roster.
‘He’s my inspiration’
Rick Smith of Divernon brought his own plane in for restoration a couple of years ago, and learned to do much of the work under Klemmensen’s guidance and expertise; he now helps Klem with other renovation projects and is working on his A&P license. Another friend, Dan Maggart of Winchester, won a 2018 award from the Vintage Aircraft Association for his restored 1968 Cessna 177 Cardinal, according to The Source archives.
One pilot, originally from Pittsfield, flies his plane from Kansas City for work. Others come from Ohio and elsewhere, drawn by Klemmensen’s well-known reputation. Airport manager Shastin Saxer said the airport gets a lot of business from pilots going to and from air shows, drawn by a convenient stop, good fuel prices, help if they need it and a comparatively large terminal, given the size of the airport.
The pandemic slowed traffic in and out of the airport, but 2022 numbers showed 7,326 operations (takeoffs and landings), Saxer said.
In mid-August, Craig Albright from Gilbert, Arizona, was flying home from Michigan when mechanical troubles meant an unscheduled landing in Central Illinois. He sought help at the Springfield airport, but couldn’t find a mechanic until someone recommended Klemmensen. “He’s saving my bacon after my alternator failed,” he said.
The 2002 Cirrus SR 22 cruises about 165 mph and Albright has flown all but 40 hours of the 4,200 hours logged on the airframe. The flight instructor and his wife have flown the plane to the Bahamas, Alaska, Hudson Bay, Central America, Nova Scotia, Mexico and Baja, California. The alternator replacement took a day or two, so the couple stayed at a Jacksonville hotel and used one of the airport’s courtesy vehicles to explore Lincoln sites.
Pilot Kent Allen of Jacksonville likes that Klemmensen permits “owner-assisted” annual inspections. That allows Allen to take off cowlings, dozens of screws and other parts while Klem and independent mechanic Mark Phillips work on the 1970 Aero Commander Lark.
“I wouldn’t have made it without [Klemmensen],” said Charlie Oakes. “I rely on him for his counsel and experience. … He has helped so many get their license. … He’s my inspiration for going to mechanic school. He’s a big part of that.”
Phillips, a phone company retiree who lives in Sherman, not only is a licensed airframe mechanic and inspector, but a pilot and hanger tenant. He counts Klem among his good friends.
Aviation had been a dream since he was a little kid. “I love coming out here,” Phillips said. “I wanted to fly as a kid but couldn’t afford it. My ability [to work here is a dream come true. [Klemmensen] was thanking me [for helping] and I said, ‘No, I need to thank you.’”
Hank Priester of Springfield, an airport design engineer with the Illinois Department of Transportation, leases a hangar at the airport for personal use.
He’s worked with Klemmensen (“he’s such an asset”) for 28 years and he’s “probably the biggest reason we’re over here” rather than at another airport.
What is now Klem’s Aero Repair was a hangar originally intended for Brower Airlines, a small commuter airline that went out of business in the 1970s before the hangar was completed. Cole Aviation, which also operates a maintenance shop at the airport, is located across the parking lot.
On Oct. 14, 1982, Klemmensen opened his new business in a smaller hanger shared with then-manager Sally Prewitt; he moved to the Brower hangar when his business outgrew the space. The first dollar he made at the shop hangs on a wall in his office.
Treating others right
Klemmensen first saw Nan at a Halloween dance, where the high school sophomore was dressed as a red devil. Klem, a senior, soon tracked down Nan’s homeroom teacher, and asked for details and “the nun gave him all the information he needed,” Nan said.
It was love at second sight, the couple jokes: Despite the Halloween dance, it wasn’t until Christmas that they realized they were meant to be together. During her senior year, her parents allowed her to fly to Phoenix to see Klem, then stationed at an Air Force base. She stayed with friends (a married couple) while Klem stayed in the barracks. “They trusted me to be a good girl and I was and he was a gentleman,” she said.
They married three weeks after her graduation, and three days later he received orders to go to Thailand. By the time he shipped out, the newly pregnant Nan had moved back in with her parents and sisters; daughter Annette was four months old before Klem met her. “It was four days before the Red Cross even told me she was born,” he said.
He’d started working when he was 9 years old, after his dad died, and made $2-$3 a week picking produce to help pay for his sisters’ schooling. He and a brother also milked cows, making extra money by selling the cream once a week.
The kids rarely were sick; a neighbor raised honey and the family believed local honey provided immunity to germs. He missed one day of class during four years of high school, and that was for an uncle’s funeral.
His grandpa was 19 when he moved from Denmark to Battle Creek, Iowa, and his dad farmed 160 acres with horses. “My dad always said that you should treat people like you want to be treated and you’ll never go wrong,” he said.
‘A genuinely good guy’
Nan, who retired after 33 years as a bus driver for District 117, now volunteers at Jacksonville Memorial Hospital. She’s a eucharistic minister and choir member at Church of Our Saviour and a member of the Catholic Daughters of America. The couple recently won an early bird prize of $10,000 as part of the Routt/Our Saviour School Dreams fundraiser; it was the second time they’d won that prize since the fundraiser started 30 years ago.
They’ve both weathered health troubles over the years, and Klem is waiting on hearing aids from the Veterans Administration due in this fall. They’re a couple that share glances that only 57 years of marriage can bring, and finish each other’s sentences when telling stories of their courtship and early marriage.
Both of the Klemmensen sons have gone into aviation careers. “I owe everything, from my whole career, starting off at that airport and starting off with him,” said son Mike, who’s spent 23 years with Caterpillar, including a headquarters move from Peoria to Fort Worth.
He was 12 when he asked his mom for a pass to the YMCA; Nan took him to the airport to ask Klem, who replied he’d spring for the pass but Mike would have to wash airplanes. Over time, the boy learned about mechanics and, later, he and his brother both would earn A&P licenses.
Before his dad started Klem’s Aero Repairs, Nan and the kids “just saw him on Sundays. We’d go to church and then spend Sundays with Dad,” Mike said. “Everything my parents have, they earned. … When he started own his shop, we’d see him more. He’s always been a really hard worker, and a lot of that was to provide for his family and put his kids through school. He’s an awesome dad but he worked hard, really hard. Fortunately for me, once I started working with him, I saw him a lot. In the shop or baling hay or mowing grass, that’s when I spent my time with him. We were always working on something. “He’s a nurturer, but he comes by that honestly, being patient. He’s a good guy to be around, a genuinely good guy. I’m most proud of my dad, his consideration for others. He’s never chased a dollar. It’s always about my mom, his kids, his friends. He’s the most selfless guy I know – my dad always puts everyone in front of himself and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
What’s new at the Jacksonville Municipal Airport
Although the Jacksonville Municipal Airport is a tax-supported entity, there is undeniable personal pride and a sense of ownership from its board members, manager and staff, plus local pilots, mechanics and neighboring land owners.
Much has changed over the years at the 77-year-old airport, located north of Jacksonville at 1956 Baldwin Road. Propeller planes and corporate jets share the runways; more hangars have opened; two private businesses offer all sorts of maintenance; and the airport offers flight lessons in its two aircraft. New lights, updated signs and fresh pavement all were recently approved as part of long-term plans. The governing board recently approved new fencing, four vehicle gates and five pedestrian gates; most of the vehicle gates will be controlled by keypads and can be tracked remotely.
Still on the waiting list: Improvements at the terminal, where mold, moisture and termites decimated some interior walls. The board has repeatedly sought federal and state grant money for the work, and state transportation and aeronautics officials agree the board has tried every avenue other than its own checkbook.
Money in the airport’s bank accounts, however, already is allocated for the bigger projects and to pay off loans for a hangar project.
Despite the bare walls, a Federal Aviation Administration report said the local airport is “one of the nicest airports” the inspector had visited, adding, “the facilities are maintained incredibly well.”
In September, the Jacksonville Municipal Airport board voted to extend the contract of manager Shastin Saxer. His original contract was set to expire in January 2025; it now will run four years past that date. Saxer had been with the airport for 20 years prior to resigning in October 2020. He was rehired in January 2021.
The majority of the 38 hangars are spoken for; some hangars may house two planes. Some hangars may be leased but empty, because pilots like to have one available before they decide to buy a plane.
The individual hangars are leased monthly, with rent ranging from $85 to $215, and a recently completed T-hangar will bring in another $25,800 annually when hangar rentals meet capacity. The two maintenance hangers – for Klem’s Aero Repair and Cole Aviation – also are leased monthly.
As with other small units of government, what used to be done with handshakes and conversations has become formalized thanks to federal and state rules about safety, spending, design and available money.
In addition, mandated by a new state rule, the airport board created a committee that will provide a list of efficiencies and increased accountability, if any is needed, within 18 months of its first meeting.
The airport is the domain of the airport authority, a board whose five members are split between city and county appointments. The fiscal year 2023-24 budget has estimated expenses of $2.86 million, with estimated revenue of $2.87 million.
Perhaps the most noticeable changes involve security, ramped up nationwide after 9/11. Gates have to be kept closed; aircraft need to stay a certain distance from the terminal and from fuel islands; hangar customers need to sign specific documents to allow access to their planes. Hangar lease-holders also must hew to a variety of rules designed to protect both individual plane owners and the airport as hangar owner.
Many of the safety rules are now formally outlined in a document that was based on a template from another airport. After pilots and mechanics raised specific concerns, Beard described the paperwork as “a living document” and the board agreed to make changes specific to the local airport.