Nine things I know about flying in Wisconsin

A beautiful state up north with a serious aviation addiction

Wisconsin is my adopted summer home state and the place where I do most of my fun flying. No, I’m not crazy; I head to Florida when snow, cold temps and ice fishing become the norm. Returning just before Memorial Day allows me the advantage of enjoying the best of both worlds. I like to say that I live in paradise… but in two widely disparate states. Flying makes the commute easy.

1. Wisconsin is more than cows, deer, corn…

Beyond wintry weather, most folks unfamiliar with Wisconsin likely think it’s filled with cows, deer, corn, cheese, a lot of beer, and possessed Green Bay Packers fans. Those descriptions all apply, but there is so much more Wisconsin has to offer. Its economy, ecology, geographical diversity and Midwestern values are largely underappreciated if not misunderstood. Aside from the larger cities of Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay, Wisconsin is largely a rural state. Almost 95% of its airports are uncontrolled and only the three cities mentioned have Class C airspace over them.

2. You can divide Wisconsin into three areas

Geographically, the state can be divided into three different areas: the lowlands, the bluffs and the Lake Superior uplands. The lowlands start at the capital of Madison and extend eastward above the Illinois line to Lake Michigan and north up the shoreline to Green Bay and the stunning area of Door County. It includes the cities surrounding Lake Winnebago where Oshkosh is. The bluffs extend west from Madison and up the Mississippi River. The uplands – known locally as the Northwoods (locals say ‘nortwoods’ with a nasal twang) – is the sparsely populated recreational areas in the north. Wisconsin has 15,000 lakes and many of them are located in the northland.

3. Wisconsin takes great care of its airports

Wautoma Airport
Wisconsin has many well-maintained, friendly airports for GA pilots.

Because winters can be severe, Wisconsinites have every reason to celebrate the warm months of the year in a wide variety of ways. As a result, aviators have a plethora of places to visit and opportunities to enjoy the state by air. Whatever your desires, activities abound and there’s usually an airport nearby that can service your needs. The Wisconsin DOT Bureau of Aeronautics takes its 132 airport network seriously and it shows. I know first-hand… I inhabit one. I hang out at the Wautoma airport (Y50) 35 miles due west of Oshkosh when I’m around. I like to say that if there was an airport in heaven, it would look like Wautoma. Because of its proximity to Ripon, many eastbound AirVenture airplanes stop there en route or when Oshkosh closes for any reason.

Recently talking with a main subcontractor to the State Bureau of Aeronautics, I learned that Wisconsin is one of 10 states which receive and manage block grants from the FAA Airport Improvement Program fund. As such, the federal government provides 90% of funding for new projects directly to the state, which then prioritizes needs, adds 5% while local entities provides the final 5%. I can tell you that they do a great job of helping all the airports in the state. Come see for yourself.

4. Most airports in Wisconsin are uncontrolled

Looking at a State Aeronautical chart, you have to work to find the 12 airports colored blue. Eight of those have commercial service while only three have Class C airspace above them. All of the rest are red. Owing to its rural nature, every airport has something of interest nearby, depending upon your interests.

5. Wisconsin is home of EAA

It would be heretical to not start the discussion with AirVenture. What can you say about an event that drew in 640,000 people to an airport in a town of 64,000 in 2019? While AirVenture is the pinnacle event that gets a lot of press, there’s a second side to the EAA the other 51 weeks of the year. With the crowds gone, EAA visitors can take their time in the EAA Museum. Programs abound weekly. Just this week, I attended an Aviation Adventure program with a group of F-117 Nighthawk pilots. The Poberezny estate guided tour shouldn’t be missed. EAA and FAA meet each winter in what I view as the most important give-and-take discussions involving GA. (Did you know that Harry Houdini considered nearby Appleton his home? There’s a museum at the Castle which has an exhibit dedicated to him.) 2019 was my 38th year in attendance at AirVenture and the primary reason I built my hangar nearby.

By the way, the nearby town of Iola hosts an automotive equivalent of AirVenture each summer in early July. 2019 was its 47th year – almost as long-running as AirVenture. The 300-acre Old Car Show grounds hosts about 2,500 show cars, 4,200 swap spaces, 1,000 car corral spaces and 1,600 RV campsites. If you’re a car person, you need to visit the Iola Old Car show. Get to the Iola airport four miles east and the CCF pilots will ensure you get to the show with a shuttle.

6. Wisconsin boasts the best $100 hamburger that $9 will buy at Central County Airport (68C)

68C
Lunch at 68C is not to be missed.

Located 38nm NW of Oshkosh, this former potato field turned airport holds a Friday fly in lunch almost year around. The Central County Flyers (CCF) have a wonderful hangar filled with picnic tables and a real wood-burning fireplace where they provide lunch to “members only” (you can join for life for $10.) People fly in from hundreds of miles away to enjoy the aviation camaraderie, good food and airplane watching every week. A few years ago, it was renamed Paul Johns Field to honor a local resident/pilot who flew Boeing 314 Clippers on 221 crossings of the Pacific during WWII. This airport is a joy to behold; this is how GA ought to be everywhere. Its Friday fly in lunch menu is always announced in advance online. Sadly, Paul Johns passed away at 104 in 2018, but a showcase filled with his mementos is in the hangar. I got to know him quite well; he started flying in 1929. I’ve seen as many as 80 airplanes on the ground on a nice weather holiday weekend. EAA folks often fly in for lunch, as well. You won’t regret putting 68C on your itinerary if you’re nearby on Friday.

7. Wisconsin is for seaplanes

As I said, Wisconsin has 15,000 lakes. There are six public seaplane bases and seven private locations where prior permission is required. There are a few restrictions on the many other lakes but most are open to use… just check the WisDOT site first. I actually have a friend who fishes from his Lake Amphibian. The lakes are where many of Wisconsin’s resorts are located.

8. Not convinced yet? Here are more of my favorite places

Baraboo-Dells airport (KDLL)

Located along a scenic section of the Wisconsin River in an area of sandstone etched gorge formations, the Wisconsin Dells is a popular resort and water park destination for mid-westerners. Enjoy old tractors … especially steam tractors? Don’t miss the Badger Steam & Gas show held in early August just after Oshkosh. Want to do some gambling? Try the Ho-Chunk Gaming casino located adjacent to the airport … they’ll come pick you up. Did you know that there’s a circus museum dedicated to preserving the sights and story of railroad based circuses in Baraboo? Their Ringlingville displays show the historic winter headquarters of that circus.

Ashland airport (KASX) and Madeline Island airport (4R5)

If you enjoy fall foliage colors or want to see the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, autumn is the time of year to visit this area. The trip up over the Northwoods can be spectacular. Consisting of 21 islands accessible only by boat, taking the tour from Bayfield is the best way to see the islands and the six lighthouses that inhabit them. Madeline Island is not a part of the Lakeshore and is accessible via ferry or ice road once Lake Superior freezes over. In winter, you can visit the ice caves when it is determined that transiting by vehicle over the frozen lake is safe.

The Door County Peninsula above Green Bay (KSUE, 3D2 and 2P2)

Door County colors
Door County is a famous for its fall colors.

Door County is a peninsula jutting out of NE Wisconsin into Lake Michigan. It’s mostly a tourist/resort area and is serviced by three airports in addition to Green Bay (KGRB). In fall, this area is also a beautiful place to visit or spend a weekend. The Washington Island airport (2P2) is an especially interesting place. Just a flight around the area is breathtaking in fall. The National Railroad Museum is located in Green Bay, as is Lambeau Field near to the airport.

The Brodhead airport (C37) and EAA “Cheesehead” Chapter 431

Just before AirVenture, the EAA Chapter hosts the Hatz/Pietenpol fly in. Folks headed to Oshkosh often stop in en route. In September, they hold the Midwest Antique Airplane Club event, however, that event is open to members only. Great grass runway here.

Golfing at Wisconsin Rapids (KISW)

In the last couple of years, a new world class golf resort called Sand Valley has been built near Wisconsin Rapids. With two regulation courses, Sand Valley (named best new course in 2017) and Mammoth Dunes (named best new course in 2018) plus a 17 hole par three course named The Sand Box – the airport has been inundated with high-end jet traffic bringing serious golfers to the area. The airport manager told me this morning that last year they saw nearly 800 jets coming in. The airport has had a major runways overhaul and a new 15,000 ft sq hangar capable of hangaring G550s is under construction. If golf is your game, Wisconsin Rapids is your place. There are about 10 other courses nearby. Wisconsin Rapids is also in an area heavily covered with cranberry farming, as well.

Three Lakes Airport (40D)

If you like grass runways, a floatplane dock or a great restaurant right on the water, this is the place. The Sunset Grill is open June through Labor Day and seasonally otherwise. The restaurant is right across the street from the airport. Call ahead to make sure they’re open.

The large MOAs and restricted areas associated with Volk ANGB and Fort McCoy

Due west of Oshkosh, the Combat Readiness Training Center at Volk Field (ANG) and the nearby Fort McCoy Total Force Training Center (USA) are very active military bases often hosting major military exercises. The USAF occasionally holds safety meetings at Volk ANGB and allows civilians to fly in with prior permission (PPR). They have great static displays of airplanes. The 115th Fighter Wing flying F-16s (they’re transitioning to F-35s) from Madison’s Truax Field often uses the very large MOA and restricted airspace, as well. It’s not a good idea to transit the airspace under VFR without talking to the RAPCON on 135.25. The restricted area is a live fire area. If you have authority to enter, Fort McCoy has an absolutely wonderful Commemorative Display area of buildings and more.

9. Winters are fierce

Finally, a brief talk about pre-heating airplane engines. Owing to its extremely low winter temperatures, most airplanes based in Wisconsin spend their winters in hangars. And in those hangars, you will see every hand-built pre-heating contraption on the planet. Those that don’t have external pre-heating usually have permanently installed heaters on their engines. Include this in your planning. The EAA holds a winter ski plane fly in for a reason… extrapolate.

4 Comments

  • Great article on Wisconsin. I live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and the author is correct on the best times to fly in Wisconsin or where we are. We are already experiencing light snowfall. I live 6 miles from the Wisconsin border. Our airport is Ironwood (IWD). Because of the high winds that have been prevalent over the past 2 weeks, not many light aircraft have been aloft. The only regular flights that run year round are AirOne’s Caravans the provide service to Chicago and Minneapolis. IWD does have a 6500′ (90-270) runway that used to service 727’s. Ashland (John F. Kennedy) has two runways that can help alleviate the high crosswinds we experience here and is closer to food and lodging in Ashland. Wisconsin is a great place to visit and live. Thanks for the new destinations to visit and enjoy.

  • Great article Larry. Although I live in Illinois, I too spend most of my summer flying in Wisconsin. Our home away from home is La Crosse. The airport is on French Island between the Mississippi and the Black Rivers. It is one of the blue airports and the tower staff are great folks.

    La Crosse is a very scenic area with bluffs to the east and west. They have a world class Octoberfest, and it is an important area for fishing, tournament and recreational.

    I do agree once a year Oshkosh is the place to be. I camp under my wing every year and love everything that Oshkosh offers.

    Thanks for putting me on to a couple airports I need to visit.

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