Then & Now: Towering Achievement

Frozen moments as time marches on

When the Experimental Aircraft Association's airshow opens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in July, the taller tower may be active. The snow will be long gone, and by 2009's event, so will the old tower. Jim Koepnick

A backdrop in thousands of pictures taken each year at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s week-long gathering in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the Wittman Regional Airport air traffic control tower is one of the world’s most recognizable. During EAA’s AirVenture, held at Wittman every summer since 1970, the tower becomes the world’s busiest. But wear and tear is taking a toll, and the old building is nearing its end.

“Structurally and mechanically, it’s a nightmare,” says airport director Peter Moll. “It’s pretty much in the old, original condition. There’s no elevator. In fact, when they built it, they didn’t have cranes. It was all concrete block and brick that was hauled up on scaffolding and placed by hand.”

Work began on the tower in 1962, after Miron Construction came in with the lowest bid: $161,125. Opened the following year, the 70-foot-tall building was located just west of Basler Flight Service, on the north end of the then-35-year-old airport, known at the time as Winnebago County Airport.

In 1968, the tower needed to be moved so that controllers could see Runway 18/36, which had moved south to its current location. The 900-ton building was gently hoisted onto special dollies and towed inches at a time by a six-wheel truck. The mile-long trip took two weeks. At its new home, a taller foundation was built. That elevated air traffic controllers an additional 15 feet, giving them a better view of the airport, which by then had grown from 75 acres to 300.

In 1999 after a structural analysis showed the need for renovations, and federal standards required installing an elevator, officials decided that building a new tower would be more practical and cost-efficient.

The new location, at the corner of Knapp Street and Waukau Avenue, has the benefit of being close to sewer and water lines, and, at 120 feet high, the tower will give controllers the best possible view of the four runways on the airport’s 1,400 acres. The tower’s bigger cab will house more controllers, a definite plus during the summer airshow, when at any given time 15 to 20 controllers are working (the rest of the year, two are on shift). There is also an expanded telecommunications room, a bigger equipment room for radio transmitters and voice and data recorders, and a natural-gas emergency generator that replaces one that ran on diesel fuel.

As for cost, the tower is coming in “right around $7 million,” says Moll.

Though the tower won’t be completed until early 2009, the airport hopes to have the tower help out during this year’s fly-in, which runs from July 28 to August 3. By then, the new cab will be able to house some controllers and minimal equipment.

Once the new tower is fully operating, the old one will be torn down. Why not try to preserve it? It blocks the new tower’s view of one of the taxiways. “By FAA standards,” says Moll, “ you can’t have any structure blocking the view of any operational services, so it has to come down.” With its demise, the old tower will have finally passed the baton, and airshow visitors next year will find they have a brand new backdrop for all those keepsake photos.

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