Urban spelunking: Timmerman visit opens door to a new look at Milwaukee
Living in Bay View, I saw a lot of air traffic overhead. These days, living on the Northwest Side, I still witness a lot of air travel from below, but more of it buzzes rather than zooms past these days, as we live in the approaches to Timmerman Airport.
Driving past the 420-acre airport, you can see two TV news helicopters taking off or landing, blimps and zeppelins parked or getting ready to waft up and a steady stream of small craft making use of Milwaukee's second-tier airport.
Recently, I met with Daniel Gerard, of Gran-Aire, the family-run company that operates Timmerman, to get a behind the scenes look at the place. We spent about 45 minutes talking about the airport's services and looking at its flight simulator, maintenance shops and other areas before Gerard said, "you ready to go up?"
I admit, I hesitated. I wasn't sure if I was ready to make my single-engine prop plane debut. But I decided to give it a whirl. I got the ride of my life and earned the first 6/10 of an hour toward my pilot's license, should I decide to pursue that.
Born as Curtiss-Wright Field
Timmerman opened in 1930 as Curtiss-Wright Field, built – along with 24 other similar airfields across the country – by plane manufacturer Curtiss-Wright. At the end of the war, Fliteways purchased Timmerman, and Milwaukee County purchased it two years later. In 1959, the county renamed the airport in honor of County Board president Lawrence J. Timmerman.
"Our main job is the building and the airport operations: the fuel sales, the hangars. That aspect," says Gerard. "Milwaukee County still does all the plowing and the lawn maintenance, all the signs. The FAA does all air traffic. They contract with a company called Midwest Air Traffic Control Services to do smaller airports like Timmerman, Waukesha, Janesville.
"The control tower and everything outside of the building is very strictly regulated by the FAA. We have very little to do with that."
In addition to serving the helicopters of Channels 4 and 12, Timmerman is home to Milwaukee Youth Aviation, Civil Air Patrol Squadrons, more than a 100 private plane owners who store their craft in Timmerman's hangars, gas up there, have their planes repaired and maintained in its shops, Gran Aire's flying school – which accounts for a large part of its business – and lots of charter and private travel, too.
"We have eight airplanes, five flight instructors," says Gerard. "The majority of people coming in are coming in to inquire about flying lessons. There are 100-plus hangars, most have planes in them. Just privately owned by one person, or a group of people, or a corporation.
"Seems like every year we have at least one blimp or, last year, we had the Farmer's zeppelin. During the playoffs last year, the Goodyear blimp was here, too.
The Sky Room bar and restaurant that long inhabited the second level of the main building has been long closed and, according to Gerard, there are no plans whatsoever to reopen it.
"People just chill in our parking lots now and watch the airplanes," he says. "It's basically just an empty room now. Nearly daily somebody comes in or calls and asks about the old Sky Room. It was crazy popular in its heyday. I've seen pictures where there was standing room only. It's long before my time."
Earning My Wings
But, it was the "going up" that turned out to be real story of the day.
Gerard, who earned a bachelor's degree in aviation from Minnesota State-Mankato, spends much of his time at Timmerman teaching folks of all ages to fly. You can see his love for flight in his eyes when he talks about it.
"Flying is something that is appealing to a large number of people," he says, noting that his students range from high school and college kids looking to break into an exciting career to retired folks. "Mostly because it's relatively unknown; different than what many people experience. It still has this romance to it."
Hopping in the small Cessna plane ("hopping in" is an oversimplification; Gerard actually spends a good while nosing around the exterior and interior of the plane before we even strap on our seatbelts), he's completely at home.
Meanwhile, I'm thinking about Otis Redding, the Torino football team and everyone else who didn't live to regret getting on board a small plane, trying not to psych myself out of seeing Milwaukee from above at a more leisurely pace than you get taking off or landing at Mitchell.
But in a couple minutes we're in the air. I might add that I got us up in the air. Yes. Me. I was steering, I was accelerating and I was pulling back, aiming at first at the top of the tree line. Incredible, I know. I still only barely believe it.
Of course, Gerard – who has worked at Gran-Aire since 2005 – had a complete set of controls on his side of the plane, too, and while he may certainly have nudged things a bit (damn, I hope so!), I could feel the movements I was making affect the plane.
We took off toward the south and immediately we turned toward the north, where with almost no effort, I spotted my wife's office. In a few moments were were up above Grafton and Cedarburg and I was reminded how lucky we are to live so close to so much pasture, so much green.
Gerard told me to find I-43 and turn to follow it south. Meanwhile, he radioed the folks at Milwaukee Approach to get clearance for us to do a sight-seeing trip over Downtown. He then heard from the control tower that a passenger jet headed for MKE would soon appear to our left, a few hundred feet below us.
So, while I spotted my son's school, the OnMilwaukee.com office and other personal Milwaukee landmarks, Gerard kept an eye out. When the plane finally came into view over the lake it was freaky. It looked small, like when you'd see it from the ground. Except that we were looking down at it, not up.
We zipped around Downtown, then past the Domes and Miller Park and up over my house, which I was surprised was so easy to locate. After snapping a quick photo of Wright's Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church and Timmerman itself, we overshot the airport, so we could turn around and land from the north.
A Smooth Landing
This part Gerard did pretty much entirely by himself and I was fine with that. Even with him in control, as we kept slowing and slowing – almost to what I thought was the point of sputtering – I began to get edgy. I'm not a good lander. But, Gerard is a formidable pilot, and he landed us smoothly and safely.
Safely back on the ground in the Cessna 172S Skyhawk SP, I ask Gerard if he has landed his dream job.
"It didn't realize it at first," he says. Though he trails off, the contented smile on his face is all the answer I need.
I then taxied us back to a parking spot next to the building. Sure, it was a little zig-zaggy, but, I did it.
With no illusions that I could do any of this again alone, without a pro like Gerard sitting next to me, I still felt exhilarated, and a bit edgy, and realized why people go to places like Timmerman to learn to fly.
There is a real feeling of freedom and excitement being up in the air alone with no tray table, no in-flight movie. Just you, the plane and the open sky.
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