Waukesha County Airport… Critical To The General Aviation Needs of Southeastern Wisconsin

Wisconsin has a long and diverse aviation history, to which Waukesha County has been a significant contributor.

In 1930, Waukesha locals, Jack Miller and Warren O’Brien, came up with the idea of forming “Waukesha Aeronautical,” a club for aviation enthusiasts. One year later they formed the “Waukesha Aviation Club,” which is still in existence today.

Although one of the initial goals of the club was to promote an interest in aviation and teach people to fly, the main goal of the club was to find a way to develop an airport for the City of Waukesha and its residents. The club rented land from the Badinger Farm on the corner of Highway 30 and Pewaukee Road, which served as the first airport.

The club’s long-term goal was to prove to the county board the viability of an airport and secure county funding for development of a permanent airport facility. Early efforts failed and the county board twice voted to reject the idea of funding an airport.

In 1933, club member Dean Crites moved from Honey Creek, Wisconsin to Waukesha and began his hands-on involvement with the airport, which would continue for the next 36 years. That same year, the Waukesha Aviation Club hosted an air show and brought in famous air racer, Jimmy Haislip, to take all 65 county board members on an airplane ride. This effort was so successful in swaying the county board that they voted unanimously to fund construction of Waukesha County Airport at the current location.

The original cost to construct the airport was estimated at $5,000. However, much of the land was swamp that needed to be drained. It took more than 2 years and an additional $15,000 from President Roosevelt’s New Deal/Work Projects Administration (WPA) to drain and level the swampy land. On August 18, 1935, over 6,000 attendees paid 25 cents each to attend the dedication ceremony. During the construction of the airport grounds an additional $38,000 in WPA funding was procured to construct the original terminal building. It was dedicated on August 14, 1938 and could accommodate 14 planes.

Aviation continued to see enthusiastic growth throughout the late 1930s to 1940. Dale Crites decided to join his twin brother in 1937 and the brothers opened a Piper Aircraft dealership. Membership for the Waukesha Aviation Club continued to grow and 1939 saw the first young woman take to the skies. Services at the airport continued to grow as well, and the first parachute school opened in 1940. In addition, the Crites Brothers’ Spring City Aviation trained hundreds of pilots and is still in operation today. But war clouds were on the horizon and there was fear among aviators that the U.S. government would confiscate their airplanes.

With the onset of World War II, the Waukesha Aviation Club transformed to a chapter of the Civil Air Patrol, shifting its focus from recreational flying to flight training for the armed services. During the war the airport was essentially unchanged.

In 1947, the Waukesha Aviation Club was reformed. After the war there was an increased interest in recreational flying due to all of the returning military pilots resuming civilian life. As the new decade was dawning, a new era of growth for the airport was dawning as well. Airport manager, Dale Crites, was successful in adding an administration area to the south side of the terminal building, Quonset huts and T-hangars, paving 3,000 feet of the east-west runway and associated taxiways, and adding runway lights. The dedication for the runway was held on September 11, 1955. To assist with safety, the Waukesha Aviation Club purchased the first air-to-ground radios for the airport and donated the Tetrahedron wind indicator, which is still in use today and still maintained by the club.

Between 1950 and 1960, the number of based aircraft doubled. To meet growing tenant needs, two 1,000-gallon underground fuel storage tanks were installed and a maintenance hangar was constructed just west of the terminal building.

In the 1960s, the airport continued to experience heavy use and it was necessary to grow rapidly to meet the demand. A new north-south runway was paved and lighted, and 600 feet of pavement was added to the east-west runway. Due to increased usage by turboprop aircraft, a 10,000-gallon jet fuel tank was installed to meet the needs of consumers. Most notably, for the first time land was leased to a private entity, Waukesha Motors, for construction of a hangar.

The need for hangars continued to grow and the southeast T-hangars were constructed. In 1961, the Waukesha Aviation Club once again demonstrated their generosity and vision for the airport by donating a wind speed indicator. Also, the second floor was added to the administration area of the terminal building.

Thanks to the combined guidance of the Crites brothers, the generosity of the Waukesha Aviation Club, and the view that the airport was an asset to the county, the airport continued to leap further ahead of other airports in the area with new innovations and services it provides the aviation community and general public.

In 1969, Dean and Dale Crites retired. Day-to-day management became the responsibility of the fixed base operator with oversight by the county. This arrangement continued until the formation of the airport commission 23 years later.

In 1974, the county realized a control tower would promote safety and enhance the airport. A temporary control tower from the La Crosse, Wisconsin airport was acquired, and began operating and staffing as a non-federal control tower. The remainder of the 1970s was somewhat troublesome for the airport, possibly a reflection of rising fuel prices, gas rationing and inflation. This trend continued into the recession of the early 1980s.

Through the mid and late 1980s, the airport saw some interest in private entities building hangars as advances in aircraft design and performance occurred. The county constructed the Army National Guard Hangar, extended and widened Runway 10/28 to its current length of 5,850 feet, and planned for the installation of an Instrument Landing System (ILS).

In 1987, Waukesha County formed an “airport study committee’ with the objective to “develop continuity of airport governance.” Increased demand for services at the airport, the growing and changing nature of the General Aviation fleet of aircraft, and regulatory requirements necessitated the formation of an “airport commission” in 1992. The commission was tasked with setting policy, hiring an airport manager, developing operational and capital budgets, and developing a master plan for the airport.

During the following years, a new “airport layout plan” was developed, adopted by the county board, and major construction began. A “master plan” was completed and adopted by the county board in 2002.

This year Waukesha County is celebrating the airport’s 75th anniversary! A lot has changed in those years as the commitment and vision of countless local aviators and enthusiasts transformed a pasture to Wisconsin’s third busiest General Aviation airport. The airport now boasts a new terminal building, a new federal contract control tower, and 63 hangars that house over 220 business and private-use aircraft. Upcoming airport improvement projects include a vehicle gate redesign for the Southeast Hangar Area in 2010, the reconstruction and lighting of the two oldest taxiways in 2011, and the study of alternate design ideas for adding standard safety areas on the main runway. Arriving IFR aircraft have the option of utilizing either the VOR-A, RNAV (GPS), or ILS approaches.

Tenants and visiting pilots enjoy an impressive range of full-time aviation service providers including Atlantic Aviation, Plane Safe Aircraft Maintenance, SkyCom Avionics, AirCraft Image, Stein Aircraft Services, Spring City Aviation, Flight for Life, and there’s still room for more! The airport is situated perfectly between Milwaukee and Madison off Interstate 94 giving patrons and tenants immediate access to major Southeast Wisconsin attractions like Miller Park, the Summerfest grounds, Harley Davidson Museum, State Fair Park, Milwaukee County Zoo, and Lake Michigan…not to mention the many local attractions, restaurants, and lodging available in Waukesha. Waukesha County Airport is not only an integral part of Wisconsin’s aviation history, but an invaluable asset to its future and to the future economic development of the county.

Keith Markano, who got his start in airport management in New Jersey, has been manager of Waukesha County Airport since 2001. As manager he works with airport tenants in regards to lease agreements, and community and customer relations. He also works with federal, state and local officials on airport funding and maintenance, tower operations, and security issues.

Markano describes that his major challenge in airport maintenance came during the winter of 2004, when Wisconsin experienced extremely cold temperatures. Due to a deep frost, the utility runway began to deteriorate rapidly and required rapid repair. This runway is also impacted by non-standard safety areas, and has drain tile and part of a storm sewer running beneath it, which needed to be addressed.

To minimize the financial impact to the county, Markano traveled to Washington, D.C., seeking to have the airport place-named for an appropriation in the following year’s FAA Reauthorization Bill, thereby making the project eligible for 90% federal funding. The remainder of the project was paid 2.5% state and 2.5% local. Wisconsin is a block grant state and typically funds projects at 60/20/20 percent levels. Through the assistance of Senators Herb Kohl and Russ Feingold, Markano was able to have the airport included in the Senate version of the appropriation bill and funding was secured late in 2005.

Airport security is an area of expertise for Markano. He has developed and implemented an airport emergency plan following the federal security 139 requirements beginning in 2000, when he was operations assistant at the airport. Since that time the airport has held annual tabletop exercises and two full-scale drills. When the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) released its Guidelines for General Aviation Airports in May of 2004, Waukesha County Airport had already met many of the suggested guidelines. Also, in early 2004, Waukesha was one of only three airports in the state that took advantage of the funding available from the Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance (OJA) for critical infrastructure improvements.

In the fall of 2005, Markano worked closely with the Associate Dean of Criminal Justice from Waukesha County Technical College (WCTC) to procure a federal grant to develop a curriculum for security training for General Aviation. WCTC was awarded one of three nationally available grants. Markano is now on the advisory committee along with members of the TSA, FBI, U.S. Marshals Service and others who are committed to developing the program.

Prior to working at Waukesha County Airport, Markano was employed by Johnson Controls World Services as an Operations Supervisor at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

Waukesha County Airport is one of three airports hosting the 55th Annual Wisconsin Aviation Conference to be held at the Country Springs hotel in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Milwaukee General Mitchell International Airport and Milwaukee Timmerman Airport also serve the region, and welcome conference participants. For additional conference information, contact the Wisconsin Airport Management Association at 715-358-2802 or email daredem@verizon.net.

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