Flying high

Posted on Apr 30, 2020 :: Personalities
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The view driving down 20th Street past Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh is about to change. The facility has received approvals for several projects, including a new general aviation terminal and reconstructing a taxiway. While commercial air traffic no longer passes through Oshkosh, Airport Director Jim Schell says Wittman remains a bustling place and the busiest general aviation airport in Wisconsin for 51 weeks of the year. For that other week of the year, Wittman becomes the busiest general aviation airport in the world thanks to its neighbor, the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Wittman Airport is getting a whole new look.

Jim Schell: Yes. We have several projects that were in the works for a while and now they are all coming together. The big thing is that we are finally getting a new general aviation terminal. Right now at the airport, we are in a building built in 1958, and it is next to a commercial terminal that hasn’t seen a commercial flight since 2003. Building the new $7 million terminal — and demolishing the old buildings — will provide us with a modern gateway to the city.

The new terminal will be more efficient and serve Wittman for the next 50 years. The building will provide room for our administrative services, rental car options and meeting spaces that the general public can use.

When people come to Oshkosh, the terminal is the first thing they see — it’s the gateway to the city. On a daily basis, we have a lot of people coming in and out of Oshkosh on private flights. They may be here to meet a client or they could be local companies who use Wittman for their corporate flights. Right now, that first view — the outdated building and empty commercial terminal — is really not the best.

When most people think about an airport, they think of commercial flights. Since we don’t have any in Oshkosh, they may think Wittman is a quiet place — it’s not. Besides the general aviation business, the airport is also home to several aviation businesses like Basler Turbo Conversions, Sonex Aircraft and Fox Valley Technical College’s aviation program. We also have a close relationship with our neighbor, EAA.

Once the new terminal is in place, the old commercial terminal will come down. There’s a lot of construction going on at the airport, and we hope to have the new terminal and alpha taxiway done in 2021.

What is happening with the alpha taxiway?
The alpha taxiway is the main taxiway to our main runway. During AirVenture, our alpha taxiway also serves as a third runway, so it gets a lot of use. It was built in 1967 and is showing its age. We need to convert it from 50 feet wide to 60 feet wide to make it safer. We can do that by adding 5-foot shoulders on each side. The Federal Aviation Administration awarded us an Airport Improvement Program discretionary grant to rebuild the taxiway. Work starts this year but will take a break around AirVenture and then start up again afterward.

How does AirVenture affect Wittman Airport?
We are the busiest general aviation airport in Wisconsin for 51 weeks out of the year, and for one week a year, we are the busiest general aviation airport in the world since we serve as the airport for AirVenture. The planes coming in use our two runways, plus the alpha taxiway as a runway. They are all continuously busy. We take in a lot of airplanes in a short amount of time. Our control tower keeps track of all those planes. We normally have a staff of nine at the airport. To handle the extra traffic during AirVenture, both the FAA and EAA bring in volunteers to help staff the air traffic control tower and have a ground presence. It’s a volunteer job that there’s a waiting list for. EAA and AirVenture are why people know Oshkosh, and that’s the brand we want to build off of.

For the past several years, both Winnebago County and the City of Oshkosh have worked to create an aviation business park adjacent to the airport. Where does that project stand now?
Another one of our construction projects is building a taxiway from the aviation park land owned by the county to the airport. There’s been a lot of marketing for the park, and there’s a huge prospect list, but one holdup has been that it is not connected to the airport, so we’re doing that. The taxiway will make the aviation park shovel-ready. We can then begin a big marketing push. The aviation park is a great way to diversify the local economy and the type of jobs available in this market.

What do you see in the next few years for the airport?
We are right in the middle of conducting a master plan for the airport — taking a strategic look at the number of hangar units and thinking about the best way to use our land. We have several organizations that lease airport land besides EAA, including FVTC, the Hilton Garden Inn and Sonex. Basler is on its own property, but they pay for use of the airport.

The airport has 83 hangar units, and some are in really bad shape. That’s an area of focus to improve. We are doing design and engineering work and hope to redevelop those hangars. If we can replace them, they will be more energy efficient. Long-term, we want to expand the hangars since there is such a big demand for space at the airport.

After the May issue of Insight was printed, EAA announced it was canceling AirVenture 2020 due to COVID-19.