by Harold Mester
It was the golden days of aviation: A time when fuel was inexpensive and pilots would take to the skies to relax, have some fun, get a unique perspective of the world, and enjoy some fresh air.
During the 1950s, homebuilt aircraft gained popularity in a big way. At the time, it cost less than $1,000 to build an aircraft at home. Thanks to fewer government regulations and the rise of lightweight fiberglass and other composite materials, building a personal aircraft was within reach for a much wider range of people across the nation. Private aviation began to flourish, and homebuilders became a tight-knit community. There was never a better opportunity to achieve the dream of flight!
Little did anyone realize that one of the biggest “things” in aviation was about to happen, right here in the Midwest. The year was 1953. The place: Curtiss-Wright Field in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The pilots: three dozen, all with an interest in “hangar flying.”
On January 26, 1953, the cold weather was offset by the momentum of what was occurring in the dope and fabic shop upstairs from the maintenance hangar at Gran-Aire, Inc. This was it: The first gathering of the newly-formed Experimental Aircraft Association, laying the groundwork for EAA’s first annual “fly-in convention,” which was held at Curtiss-Wright eight months later.
According to EAA Founder Paul Poberezny, Gran-Aire President Bill Lotzer approved of the meeting. “Bill was a good supporter,” said Poberezny. Lotzer’s son, John, continues to operate Gran-Aire in the same facilities and in his father’s tradition of service and warm hospitality.
“Everyone keeps asking how I felt about starting the organization. I didn’t feel anything because none of us knew at that time what it would become. To us, it was just another flying club and we had no thoughts, other than to help it get started,” EAA founder Paul Poberezny wrote in his book Poberezny, The Story Begins.
“We didn’t plan for it to gain worldwide recognition. Our purpose for having the fly-in was to provide a service to those who came to the event.”
Poberezny thought that hosting the first EAA convention in Milwaukee could help bolster attendance at the annual “Milwaukee Amvets Air Pageant” event. Less than two dozen pilots flew aircraft to the event, but 150 people attended. Wow! What a contrast to the hundreds of thousands of people that attend EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis. each year. The soothing hum of spinning propellers created a somewhat chaotic scene for onlookers.
“We were amateurs! I could be found scurrying all over the airport, parking airplanes, greeting pilots, running to the pay station, trying to find motel accommodations and, in some cases, helping to solve and fix maintenance problems,” recalled Poberezny, describing the first fly-in. “I had also never given a speech in front of a very large group, and admit to being more than a little nervous before doing so.”
Today, as host of the largest general aviation event in the world, EAA’s annual “AirVenture” fly-in convention at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, attracts more than a half-million people. While today’s EAA AirVenture is a far cry from the first fly-in 60 years ago in Milwaukee, Curtiss-Wright Field still exists, but it is now known as Milwaukee County’s Timmerman Airport. Timmerman’s KMWC airport code still contains the letters “C” and “W” from its Curtiss-Wright days.
Over the years, KMWC has played a key role in training thousands of aviators. During the 1940s, Curtiss-Wright Field was instrumental in developing a Civilian Pilot Training program funded by the military. Hundreds of future Army, Navy, and Air Force pilots received their initial flight training at Curtiss-Wright Field.
This proud tradition of flight training continued after the war, as thousands of pilots trained for civilian flying jobs for the airlines, corporations, government, and agriculture. Still others learned to fly at Curtiss-Wright just for the challenge and satisfaction of being able to view the earth from above.
Today, many piston aircraft and a few small jets still come and go throughout the day at Timmerman. Some pilots with homebuilts and other experimental aircraft will undoubtedly land at KMWC to rent a car for the quick one-hour drive to EAA AirVenture this summer, July 29 thru August 4, 2013 (www.airventure.org).
Many visitors to Timmerman have no idea that one of the world’s greatest aviation organizations started there. The next time you visit, look closely. You just might catch a glimpse of Curtiss-Wright, just above the door to the maintenance facility of Gran-Aire.
Curtiss Wright Airport, located northwest of Milwaukee, was established in 1929 as part of a national chain of airports affiliated with the Curtiss-Wright Company. In one of the great ironies of aviation history, the Curtiss and Wright companies merged in 1929. (Neither was still owned by their founders at that time). The Curtiss-Wright name gave the Milwaukee airport a certain cachet, although it was insufficient to overcome the adverse effects of the Depression. As a result, only one hangar was constructed. Nevertheless, Curtiss-Wright Field was a favorite site for Wisconsin air shows, and in 1953 the field was the site of the first fly-in of the Experimental Aircraft Association. The magical dream of flight still happens every day at this historic airport.
“Where does a dream begin? For me it was at the age of five, and my dream was the airplane,” Poberezny wrote in his memoirs. “Those days, as has each one since, have been memorable to me. Every day of my life I have spoken the word: Airplane.”
Lawrence J. Timmerman
So, who was Lawrence J. Timmerman, and why is Milwaukee County’s general aviation airport named in his honor?
The tale began when Timmerman was “shanghaied” for his first airplane ride in 1940, which set in motion a series of events that laid the groundwork for aviation planning in Milwaukee County.
Shortly after Timmerman was elected chairman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors in 1936, he and some other county supervisors went to the airport to see a large transport plane that was visiting Milwaukee. Timmerman was not at all interested in going for a ride, but that’s exactly what was about to happen, according to then-airport manager, Stanley E. Piasecki.
“Not me,” said Timmerman. “You won’t get me up in one of those things.”
“Come around and look at it anyway,” replied Piasecki. “It cost $135,000.”
“Must be some plane for that price,” Timmerman quipped. “Maybe I will.”
It was a big mistake on Timmerman’s part, because Piasecki had been plotting behind the scenes. Once Timmerman was on board, Piasecki waved a secret signal to the pilot, and off they went! This “visit” to see the aircraft blossomed into Timmerman’s first airplane ride.
From that moment on, Timmerman was hooked on aviation, and he quickly became one of the most enthusiastic airport supporters in the Milwaukee area. He understood the value of developing top-notch aviation facilities. During his service on the county board, he became a leader in the continued enhancement of General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.
Aviation had a major impact on Timmerman’s view of the world, too. Later in life, 14 years after his surprise first flight, Timmerman rode in a jet aircraft for the first time. After landing, Timmerman remarked, “You can’t go around in a Model T all the time!”
Timmerman’s interest in – and impact on – aviation in Wisconsin cannot be understated. Shortly before his death in 1959, the county board renamed Curtiss-Wright Field in his honor, recognizing his many contributions to aviation in Milwaukee County.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Harold Mester is a private pilot and part owner in a Cessna 172 Skyhawk based at Timmerman Airport.