• Alexander Field Celebrates its 85th Anniversary with Link to its Past

    Posted on August 29th, 2013 Rose Dorcey No comments

    Ford Tri-Motor is central to the airport’s roots

    Alexander Field-South Wood County Airport (KISW) is celebrating its 85th anniversary this weekend, and an airplane like one that’s forever linked to the airport’s history will be there all weekend. EAA’s 1929 Ford Tri-Motor arrived in Wisconsin Rapids today. Airport Manager Howard Joling encourages community members to come out to celebrate the airport’s rich heritage.

    “It’s not just an airport anniversary, but for the whole community, the airport is something that started when the mills were in their infancy, and things were beginning to grow and take off,” said Joling, explaining the airport’s longstanding significance to the city. “When the airport started, Nekoosa Papers had their Ford Tri-Motor here, which they purchased in 1928, and used it as promotion for its company.”

    And while the Nekoosa Papers’ Tri-Motor didn’t survive the decades, it was destroyed by a tornado in Iowa long ago, EAA’s Tri-Motor Model 4-AT is very similar.

    EAA's Ford AT-4 Tri-Motor

    EAA’s Ford AT-4 Tri-Motor

    “Our aircraft was built in 1929,” explains Ed Rusch, of Coldwater, Michigan, captain of EAA’s Ford Tri-Motor. “There was a Ford Tri-Motor brought here by an industrialist who had operations in this area in 1928. It was an earlier version of this aircraft, but basically the same.”

    Nekoosa-Edwards Paper Company purchased the plane in 1928 for $48,000, according to Joling. The industrialist Rusch spoke of, John Alexander, then the paper company’s manager, purchased 330 acres to be used for a new airport. It’s been in operation since. At one time, it was served by Midstate Airlines. Today, it’s an important economic agent for the community, says Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Zach Vruwink. Hear Mayor Vruwink’s comments here.

    Today’s arrival of EAA’s Ford, NC8407, was highly anticipated by area news representatives, who eagerly stepped on board for a 20-minute flight over Wisconsin Rapids. It was an opportunity to link to the city’s past, and imagine what the area looked like in the late ’20s, with its rivers, lakes, forests, and paper mills. Dozens of men and women gathered to take pictures and see the plane up close, and view the numerous historic airport photos on display.

    Ruth Johnson, Wisconsin Rapids pilot

    Ruth Johnson, Wisconsin Rapids pilot

    One woman stood out. Ruth Johnson, nee Blount, shared her personal history with the Wisconsin Rapids airport. “A gentleman named Jim Johnson had spray painted an old hangar at the airport in 1957,” Ruth recalled. “Several of us then formed a local Civil Air Patrol branch to practice searching for downed planes.”

    Ruth Blount was 19 years old in 1958. She and Jim became friends. “Jim bought an Ercoupe in 1958,” Ruth continued. “He told me I could take lessons in his plane. I did, and after seven hours, I soloed.” Ruth paused, then smiled and added, “Some of the guys had nine hours.” Ruth was told that she was the first woman who had soloed an airplane at the airport.

    Ruth and Jim got along well, and were married in 1961. They flew for many years together, creating many warm memories. “We would fly to Green Bay for a hamburger and a malt, and fly back without a flight plan,” she recalled. “Many happy hours were spent in the air.”

    Jim and Ruth Johnson made a home in Biron, a village just east of Wisconsin Rapids. When Jim died in 1990, Ruth got out of flying.

    “It just wasn’t fun anymore,” she said.

    But being back at the airport, running into old friends and making new ones with her effervescent smile, brought back good times for Ruth. “Oh, it’s good to be back at the airport,” she said. “You meet such nice people through aviation.”

    As if taking a ride in a rare, historic airplane to view the beautiful Wisconsin Rapids area isn’t reason enough to stop at the airport this weekend, Ruth may have just convinced you.

    Tri-Motor flights  are available from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Friday through Monday, for $75, or $50 for kids 17 and under. EAA Chapter 706, based at Alexander Field, is offering breakfast from 8 – 10:30 on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Lunch is by the American Legion throughout the weekend from 10:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. A hangar dance, with ’20s and ’30s music by the Swaneee River Oriole Orchestra (Ruth’s son, Johnny, is a member) takes place Saturday night from 7 – 10. We hope to see you there!


  • Cumberland Airport Has New Name

    Posted on August 29th, 2013 John Dorcey No comments

    Four years ago, nearly to the day, we wrote regarding a suggestion to rename the Waukesha Airport. The suggestion came from the editorial staff of the Waukesha Freeman newspaper. Our article, What’s In a Name, discussed Wisconsin’s airports, their names, and how or why that name was chosen. We disagreed with the suggestion to change Waukesha’s and the change didn’t come about.

    Fast forward to late August 2013 when WAHF member/supporter Brad Volker, Rice Lake, shared an article from the Cumberland Advocate. The article details the histories of two airport benefactors whose work will be acknowledged as the City of Cumberland changes the airport’s name from Cumberland Municipal Airport (KUBE) to Toftness/Erickson Field. We thank the Cumberland Advocate for providing permission to reprint their article. We also recognize the article’s author John Ostrem, a member of the Cumberland Airport Commission.

    Commission to name Airfield after local aviators

    Toftness / Erickson Field
    Aviation pioneers Irving Nordeen “IN” Toftness and Willard “Bud” Erickson will have the Cumberland Airfield named in their honor at the Fly-In pancake breakfast held during the Rutabaga Festival, Sunday August 25 at 10:30 AM. Mayor Tom Mysicka will officiate at the ceremony honoring each of these pilots that started the Cumberland Airport in June of 1946. Today the Airport with its 4,000’ hard surface runway, arrival and departure building, 17 hangars with 21 aircraft represents a nearly $10 million replacement cost and serves 11,000 landings/takeoffs each year.


    Local chiropractor “IN” Toftness moved to Cumberland in 1932 fresh from Chiropractic College in Davenport, Iowa. He became interested in aviation taking flying lessons in 1939. His wife Louise followed earning her pilots license which was extremely unusual for a woman in those early years of aviation. They had no children and flying became their “only hobby“ according to Dr. Tom Toftness of Cumberland. IN and Louise flew their small planes to the four corners of the United States whenever they had time off from the clinical practice.


    Toftness saw the need for an airport and in 1946, together with CJ and Linda Burton purchased 40 acres of farm land at the current airport site to create their own field. The original airport had several small “T-Hangars,” where airplanes were kept and serviced. Records indicate mechanic Ray Peterson had several small training planes operating on the field. Peterson is the uncle of current Airport Manager Al Seierstad.


    Throughout his flying career IN Toftness owned five different Cessna airplanes and gave rides to Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, and residents of Cumberland. Many tell of their first rides and citizens remember Toftness flying low over town late at night to signal people to take cars to the airport to light the runway.


    In addition to the original 40 acres of land, Toftness and Louise made a significant gift in excess of $200,000 for constructing a hard surface runway. Federal funds were available but without the generous gift from their Living Trust, the Cumberland Airport would have remained a grass cow pasture.


    Our second aviation pioneer is Willard “Bud” Erickson who also dedicated his life to the Cumberland Airport. Erickson was a highly decorated Navy fighter pilot with service in WWII and the Korean War. Following the 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing, Erickson declined a deferment for farming and went to Navy Flight School to follow his dream of flight. Erickson flew 14,400 hours in Navy airplanes and achieved the rank of Lt. Commander. Erickson and wife Doris returned to Cumberland following the Korean War and Bud flew for the Department of Natural Resources as a fire watch spotter and enforced game laws.


    Erickson spent countless hours working with Federal officials to get navigation beacons and lights at the airport and could always be found on the mower and snow blower taking care of the runway. Erickson saw the need to build a longer hard-surface runway to accommodate larger planes so he and Doris generously traded land from their home farm with a local farmer to create the runway.


    The longer runway allowed the State of Wisconsin to designate Cumberland as the loading site for aircraft taking hearing impaired school-age children to a residential school in Delevan. State planes would load students every Sunday afternoon and return on Friday evenings throughout the school year.


    Over the years there have been many businesses at the airport including a travel agency, charter flight service, aircraft and instrument repair facilities, and Romeo Aviation Flight Training School. The airport is used by local businesses including 3M, Seneca Foods, engineering companies, SW Bell Communications, and when the weather is below minimums helicopters from the hospital use the radio beacons to land.


    Both Toftness and Erickson families had aviation as part of their heritage. Mark Erickson is a pilot, Max Erickson is a commercial pilot for UPS flying an AirBus 300 and several of the Toftness relatives are pilots and commercial pilots.


    We have come long way from the early years of Cumberland’s grass strip in a “cow pasture” to the high tech airport with GPS navigation, weather forecasting, and communications systems.


    IN Toftness, whose passion for aviation was matched by his world class respected chiropractic procedures and responsible for starting the airport. Lt Commander “Bud” Erickson, a frightfully young patriotic farm boy launched from aircraft carriers in two wars defending American freedoms, whose leadership and dedication to safety was responsible for so many improvements that we take for granted today. Mayor Mysicka said, “We are very lucky to have such an excellent airport as a community asset and we have these pioneers to thank. It is a great honor for our City to name our field after them.

    Changing an airport’s name to recognize the passion and dedication of two local aviators and sharing their history makes sense. It is a change we can support. Congratulations Cumberland on your “new” airport.

  • Milwaukee’s First Airport

    Posted on February 16th, 2011 John Dorcey No comments

    This story could be from anywhere and anytime during our nearly 110-year aviation history. The mayor had decided that it was time for a new airport. The only question remaining was where to locate the facility. The mayor asked seven local businessmen, each with an interest in aviation, to meet in his office on Tuesday. A five-man committee resulted from that meeting. The committee’s charge was to investigate potential airport sites and secure the needed property.

    The meeting could have occurred anywhere and anytime. In this case, it was Milwaukee in 1919. Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan held the meeting on April 29, 1919. Members of the airport site committee included W. E. McCarty, Milwaukee County Board, chairman; F. A. Vaughn, president Wisconsin Aero Club;  August H. Vogel, War Industries Board; Charles B. Whitnall, Milwaukee County Park Board; and Alfred W. Lawson, Lawson Aircraft Company.

    Historical Marker at site of Butler Airport (Rose Dorcey photo)

    The committee wasted no time in getting to work touring several potential sites the very next day. The committee’s work ended with Butler Airport beginning operations on July 3, 1919. The airport would suffer from identity crises over its life. The facility was located on Lisbon Road near the Village of New Butler. It was called both Lisbon Field and Butler Airport. The airport, owned by Milwaukee County, would serve the area’s aviation needs for seven years.

    Change came about as a result of the airmail service that began on June 7, 1926. The airmail route, CAM 9, ran between Chicago and Minneapolis with stops in Milwaukee and La Crosse. Soon complaints came from several directions. The airfield was located too far from the city, some said, while pilots complained about obstructions surrounding the field. The airmail contractor, Charles Dickenson, threatened to discontinue service to Milwaukee unless the situation was improved. The outcry by area businesses and the press had a powerful effect; reaction by Milwaukee County was swift.

    On August 11, 1926, just two months after airmail service began, the County Board unanimously adopted a resolution that the County Highway Commission expend the funds necessary to either improve the existing airport or purchase a new airport site.

    Hamilton Metalplane, Milwaukee County Airport, ca 1930

    Thomas F. Hamilton owned a successful aircraft and propeller manufacturing business in Milwaukee. In 1920, Hamilton had purchased the Hirschbuehl farm located on Layton Avenue on the city’s south side. He located his business there and built an airport on the site that would serve both his business and its customers.

    The Hamilton facility would top the list of potential sites according to an August 13, 1926 Milwaukee Sentinel article, “Hamilton airfield, near Cudahy, was looked upon as one of the most desirable of available properties…”

    The Milwaukee County Board, on October 5, 1926, approved an appropriation of $150,000 and directed the County Park Commission to purchase and equip the Hamilton Airport. Milwaukee County Airport came into existance on October 29, 1926, when the transaction was completed. The Butler Airport site was abandoned and became Currie Park, a part of the Milwaukee County Park System.

    On March 17, 1941 the Milwaukee County Airport was renamed General Mitchell Airport in honor of General William “Billy” Mitchell, famous Milwaukee aviator. The airport’s name was changed one last time, on June 19, 1986, to General Mitchell International Airport.

  • What’s in a name?

    Posted on September 4th, 2009 John Dorcey 4 comments

    Last week the Waukesha Freeman editorial staff suggested renaming the Waukesha County Airport as a way to honor Waukesha native Les Paul. The August 26 article states: “Crites Field could be renamed Les Paul International Airport. Rock stars might fly in here just to land their private jets at a really cool airport.” Folks involved in Wisconsin aviation already consider Waukesha airport as “really cool” and that its name – Crites Field – is most appropriate. The idea does lead one to ponder Wisconsin’s airports and their names.

    Today there are 133 public-use airports in Wisconsin – 97 are publically owned and 36 are privately owned. There are another 437 privately owned facilities that are restricted use. You can search the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Master Record database.

    Names of the publically owned facilities typically reflect their owners or location. Wisconsin has 35 airports with municipal in their name, 16 that have county in their name, and 19 with a general location name. Regional is in the name of 10 Wisconsin airports. The 17 remaining airports have names of historic interest.

    Alexander Field South Wood County Airport is better known as Wisconsin Rapids. John Alexander donated land for the airport and is remembered for the gift. Lawrence J. Timmerman was Chairman of the Milwaukee County Board for 33 years. Upon his death in 1959, the Curtiss-Wright Airport was renamed in his honor. The Brown County Airport is named for Austin Straubel, the first military aviator from Green Bay to lose his life in World War II. Middleton Municipal is also known as Morey Field after Howard Morey, the airport’s founder. Richard I. Bong Field in Superior is named for “Ace of Aces” Dick Bong. Hillsboro’s airport is named after Joshua Sanford, a Native American who flew in Chennault’s 14th Air Force. General Mitchell International Airport is named after Milwaukeean General Billy Mitchell. The Lakeland-area airport is also known as Noble F Lee Memorial. Lee was a pilot, flight instructor, and longtime airport manager.

    It is the private airports where we find some interesting, creative names. Wisconsin is known for its beer so we shouldn’t be surprised to find Beer Airport in St. Croix County. Too many beers and it is said you have gone on a Bender – an airport in Marathon County.

    Aircraft related names abound – Funk Aerodrome (Kewaunee), J-3 Cub Field (Jefferson), Plows and Props (Walworth), Rag Wing (Langlade), Wag-Aero (Walworth), Weedhopper Meadow (Walworth), and finally, Broken Prop (Waushara), hopefully not named for some pilot’s misfortune.

    Wisconsin’s natural resources are reflected in a number of airport names – Bark River (Waukesha), Battle Creek (Waukesha), Eagle Ridge (Dunn), Blair Lake (Iron), Bogus Creek (Pepin), Black Otter (Outagamie), and Lake Ell (Portage).

    While Able doesn’t have an airport in Wisconsin, Cain’s Field is (Oconto). Don’t land poorly at Heckler’s Strip (Dane) – you’ll probably hear about it. Larson Airport (Winnebago) is on the National Register of Historic Places.

    Finally, my favorites – Bucky’s (Waushara), Dinnerbell (Fond du Lac), Kitty Wompus (Sawyer), Mount Fuji (Walworth), Polish Paradise (Adams), Uff-da (Dane), Will-be-gon (Washburn), Whoopy Hollow (Lafayette), and With-Wings-and-a-Halo (Winnebago).

    There is much in an airport’s name – history, pride, creativity, and some humor. The Waukesha County Airport is named after two brothers – Dean and Dale Crites, who made an enormous impact on Wisconsin aviation. Changing the name to salute Les Paul, or anyone else, would be a mistake.