The art and science of aerial photography was in its infancy when Warren O’Brien took to the air with his camera in 1924. A commercial photographer by trade, O’Brien was an aviator in his heart.
Born in 1898 and raised in Waukesha, he was present when John Kaminski made the first airplane landing in the city in 1912. One look at Kaminski’s Curtiss and the teenaged O’Brien was hooked.
By the 1920s, the young photographer and movie maker was promoting his business from the air. With help from local pilots, he learned to balance himself in the front cockpit of a Jenny and carefully lean over the side with his camera. Eventually he learned to walk out on the wing, bulky camera strapped around his neck, to make the picture or shoot his movie.
In order to fly himself, O’Brien acquired a pilot certificate and then joined other area flyers to organize the Waukesha Flying Club in 1930. Together they purchased a WACO 10 and flew it off fields and pastures. In 1931, they reorganized as the Waukesha Aviation Club, and elected Warren O’Brien as its first president.
The first goal of the new club was to see a modern airport at Waukesha. To drum up popular and political support they sponsored a series of air shows featuring local and nationally known aviators and attracted crowds of thousands. They achieved their goal in 1933, when Waukesha County appropriated funds necessary to receive a federal grant and build an airport that survives to this day.
The county airport proved its value during World War II as a base for the Civil Air Patrol. O’Brien was a leader in the Waukesha Squadron, one of the largest and most active CAP units in the state.
As the years passed, O’Brien committed himself to collecting, preserving, and publishing the history of aviation in Waukesha and southeast Wisconsin. He created an invaluable public archive of photos, movie shorts, and documents that enriches our knowledge of Wisconsin’s aviation history.
Photographer, movie maker, pilot, aviation advocate, and historian, Warren O’Brien left a deep and lasting legacy to aviation in Wisconsin.