MILWAUKEE — Milwaukee’s General Mitchell International Airport is often an afterthought to the American flying public. For years, the airport took a back seat to the much-larger airports in Chicago, about 90 miles down the road. To help get the truth about this airport, Southwest Airlines and Mitchell Airport flew Airways to Milwaukee to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility’s operations.
Hamilton Airport, as it was called then, began handling passenger traffic in July 1927, when the first terminal, named the Hirschbuehl Farmhouse, opened. Within days, Northwest Airlines began regularly scheduled service to Chicago and Minneapolis. In July 1940, the airport welcomed a new multi-story terminal building to help meet Milwaukee’s demand for air travel.
In 1941, Hamilton Airport was renamed General Mitchell Field, after the famed Brigadier General and Milwaukee resident William “Billy” Mitchell. After World War II and into the early 1950’s, Milwaukee saw a boom in air travel. This growth not only meant more passengers, but also “growth in the number of flight operations, including the large propeller-driven StratoCruisers and Constellations.” July 1955 brought the opening of a new $3.2 million terminal that featured three concourses and 23 additional gates.
The 1940s and 1950s brought the addition of the military to Mitchell Airport. In the late 1940s, Mitchell Airport began to be used as a prisoner-of-war camp. In 1947, the 128th wing of the Wisconsin National Guard made Mitchell Airport its home. Today the wing is an Air Refueling Wing and operates on the east ramp of the airport. From the 1950s to 2008, 440th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve was stationed at Mitchell Airport.
With a new age of aviation upon them and an increasingly larger flying public, Mitchell Airport renovated and greatly expanded the terminal, to the tune of $44 million dollars in the late 1970s. The renovations welcomed many new shops and expanded ticketing and baggage claim areas. October 1989 brought the opening of a new cargo operations center and maintenance center. In 1990, Concourse D expanded by 16 gates to help modernize the facility. In 2007, Mitchell Airport added eight gates to Concourse C.
Mitchell Airport Tour
Upon entering General Mitchell Airport, the first stop we made was the Mitchell Gallery of Flight. This small flight museum offers viewers a peek at the history of Mitchell Airport and highlights many great accomplishments in aviation history. Without spoiling the visit too much, one can see the history of Billy Mitchell, the role of Midwest Airlines and AirTran at the airport, and view an outstanding collection of World War II aircraft models. The Mitchell Gallery of Flight is located pre-security in the main terminal.
From the Gallery of Flight, we drove to the snow management hangar. With an average snowfall of around 47 inches annually, Mitchell Airport needs a large fleet of snow removal vehicles to keep runways clear and flights on time.
A fleet of 12 snow combos quickly and efficiently clean up a runway in under 30 minutes. The crews work in two shifts of 12 men, with six snow combos on each side. Each group of snow combos is accompanied by what is called a snow thrower. This mega machine is capable of rotating at around 2,400 rpm and can throw thousands of pounds of snow over 300 feet. This machine pushes snow away from the runways and off of the runway lights. A chemical truck often also joined the combos out on the runway to remove ice from the surface.
A staff of 65 men and additional seasonal employees work to keep aircraft clean and safe during the treacherous winter months. To finish off the mega machines are two massive snow melters. Each snow melter is capable of melting tens of thousands of pounds of snow an hour. These machines are used to reduce snow piles along the airfield.
The snow management fleet utilizes a massive former C-130 hangar at the former home of the 440th Airlift Wing. The hanger fits the needs of the snow management fleet perfectly with the long snow combos nicely sliding in.
After the snow management hangar, we toured the Emergency Operations Center. This room serves as a nerve center in the event of a crisis. One large table seats eight airport officials, each designated to a department. Seats at this table include airport operations, emergency responders such as police and fire, public relations, and others. Hundreds of cameras are connected in a network and can be broadcasted real time in the Emergency Operations Center. Maps and airport diagrams are displayed on the walls for emergency management while each department is designated a personal monitor and telephone.
Next door to the Emergency Operations Center is the Airport Operations Center. The Airport Operations Center is a highly complex room that controls much of the airport. A team operates the room 24/7 and 365 days a year to make sure the airport is running smoothly. From aircraft emergencies to a leaking faucet, the room controls everything.
Inside the Airport Operations Center are several small stations reserved for unique roles such as fire protection, monitoring every door in the airport and runway light conditions. During our brief visit to the center, five automated alarms rang from the central computer, alerting the workers of an abnormality. Luckily the instances were just false alarms such as an jammed or unclosed door. The workers said that hundreds of automated alarms go off daily with the overwhelming majority of them being false alarms. Either way all alarms are treated equally with a quick and professional response.
On another computer screen a large airport map can be seen. This interactive map shows areas of needed maintenance and other abnormalities along the airfield. During our visit, a small private aircraft blew a tire during taxi and needed assistance. On the screen a large red circle appeared showing the position of the aircraft on the taxiway. Within a minute, the team alerted airport operations ground personnel to assist the disabled aircraft. All passengers onboard the aircraft were safe, but a Green Bay Packers game that night would ultimately be missed.
A fire control system gave the control center team complete management of the hundreds of fire alarms, smoke detectors, and sprinkler systems within the airport. Any potential fire would be instantly located and proper personnel would be dispatched to the scene.
As in the Emergency Operations Center, the Airport Operations Center had full control of the hundreds of cameras in and around the airport campus. With the touch of a button, the main cargo delivery gate could be monitored while Gate C14 was being watched. The room also had direct access the the air traffic control tower.
After the Airport Operations Center, we watched the baggage screening process. The baggage room featured a state-of-the-art system where computers track where each bag is located at all times. Rapid-moving conveyor belts and trap doors moved to get the bags where they needed to be. In a separate room, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) physically searched bags. To avoid lifting heavy bags, each bag was lifted from a conveyor belt to the TSA officer by a vacuum suction arm. This straight-out-of-a-sci-fi movie technology greatly reduced TSA liability and work related injuries. Unfortunately, due to federal regulations, we were not allowed to photograph this process.
From there we walked onto the Southwest Airlines ramp at Concourse C, Gate 22. We were getting ready to view an aircraft turnaround from the ramp. As aircraft N7708E, a 737-700, pulled into the gate, we were delighted to see that the aircraft was in the new Southwest Airlines livery. In fact, the aircraft was former AirTran bird N175AT delivered in October 2005 and refurbished for Southwest in October 2014.
The Southwest employees at Milwaukee happily welcomed us onto the ramp. We were given a complete walk-around of the aircraft and saw how the ground crews work. We even got to go underneath the plane and took a picture of the Southwest Heart featured on the bottom of their new livery planes.
The turnaround and departure of N7708E marked the end of our tour at Milwaukee’s General Mitchell Airport. I came to the airport and city with no true predictions of what it would be like. After a day full of great adventures touring the airport and the city I left knowing what Milwaukee Airport truly is about. It is a city that often doesn’t get the attention that it deserves and is often seen as the “little brother” of Chicago. In reality Milwaukee is its own unique city that far surpasses its reputation.