Milwaukee Mag
Field of Dreamers
October 21, 2012
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  • This is a story about a long-lost Milwaukee airport, but it starts with a very lost Milwaukee pilot, sputtering high above the Pacific Ocean June 28, 1927, just one month after Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight.
    Cream City native and Riverside High grad Lester J. Maitland, a lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, took off from Oakland, Calif., at 7:09 that morning. He was trying to complete the first nonstop flight from North America to Hawaii – arguably a more daring feat than Lindbergh’s, as Hawaii was a much smaller target than France. Veer just 3.5 degrees off course, and you’d miss the islands and disappear forever.

    Luckily, Maitland and his navigator, Lt. Albert Hegenberger, had the latest in technology aboard. Unluckily, it failed 90 minutes into the flight: Hegenberger had to use the stars above and the wave patterns below to determine their route. Amazingly, the two men survived, and 26 hours after leaving California, Maitland was circling Oahu, in search of a place to land.

    They found their airport – Wheeler Field, where most of the welcoming crowd had disappeared hours before, assuming them dead – and not long after, Milwaukee found a name for its newest airport, Maitland Field, a narrow strip of land by the harbor that’s now home to Summerfest. Today’s Sky Glider riders unwittingly fly roughly the same route as that first runway, with decades of invisible history beneath their dangling feet.

    It was just 10 days after Milwaukee’s new favorite son completed his crossing that the Common Council voted unanimously in favor of the new name. And no less than Lindbergh himself weighed in on the airfield later that summer, telling newspapermen visiting him at the Hotel Astor that “A ‘class A’ airport requires a 2,500-foot diameter, and when Maitland Field has that space, it will be the only field necessary to serve Milwaukee.”

    It wasn’t, though. The reclaimed land that created the field was long enough – some 4,800 feet – but averaged only 500 feet in width, and despite Lindbergh’s optimism, never grew larger. What did grow were operations at Hamilton Field, a broad, grassy expanse south of the city that now goes by a longer name: General Mitchell International Airport.

    Maitland Field, wedged into a narrow spot south of today’s Discovery World and east of Interstate 794, never had enough space to compete with Mitchell but long gave civic boosters plenty of room to dream. As the Milwaukee Journal reported in 1930, “no other large city is said to have the natural advantage presented to Milwaukee, by which an airplane can taxi up to a railroad terminal and discharge its passengers within a few feet of a waiting train.”

    For several years, the Loening C-2C (get it?) Air Yachts of Kohler Aviation did just that, promoting their service as the “Bridge that Spans Lake Michigan.” Featuring floats and an open cockpit, the ungainly planes hopped from Milwaukee to Muskegon, Mich., and on to Grand Rapids, Mich., where passengers caught up with trains bound for Detroit and points east.

    With one-way trips running $18 (or about $240 in today’s dollars), the service was pricey even in flush times, which September 1929, the month the service started, certainly was: The Dow Jones had quintupled in value the previous six years. A month later, the stock market crashed, and in 1933, so did two Kohler planes. The airline filed for bankruptcy the following year.

    Almost 80 years later, aviation experts observe that conditions at Maitland would have rarely been ideal. “Lake Michigan is not a very desirable place for seaplanes,” says David Greene. And he should know. He’s not only a seaplane pilot but also holds the position in Wisconsin’s state government today that Lester Maitland created at the end of his Air Corps career: director of the Bureau of Aeronautics.

    Maitland wasn’t a desirable place for planes with regular landing gear either. Flat tires occurred frequently due to nails and broken glass that surfaced from the old landfill beneath. And prevailing winds hit planes on the runway crossways instead of head on, as pilots prefer. And then there were what one report artfully called the “mental hazards” of navigating the airport, which included Downtown’s tall buildings and two gigantic smokestacks just off the southern end of the runway.

    None of that stopped local inventor and entrepreneur Anthony “Tony” Lange, however, who stepped in after Kohler left. Lange, who leased the property from 1937 to 1946, brought along energy and a more glamorous name – the “Milwaukee Seadrome.”

    The staff was also more glamorous. Virginia Considine was a Kentucky beauty queen (Mountain Laurel Festival, 1940) who filled in when Lange’s secretary, Daisy, went on vacation during the summer. Considine, now 93 and living in Colorado, brightens with the memory. The field was “very popular,” she insists, and served a well-heeled crowd. (Jimmy Rank, son of a local jeweler, gave her a makeup compact with a specially engraved aeronautical theme that she still treasures.) The field’s marketing was upscale, too. An invitation to the Seadrome’s “Formal Opening” touted the field’s services for the “Modern Industrialist,” including “larger bi-motor equipment for personal and public relations use.”

    Lange’s son William remembers him as a tireless worker who put in seven days a week at the field, despite the long commute from their Pewaukee home. But when the winds were right, Lange lived every commuter’s dream, flying above the snarled traffic before touching down at their lakeside cottage out west. William says a neighbor complained – not about the noise, but because his own kids “would not greet him coming home from work. … They all went down to the lake [to watch] the seaplane land and taxi to the pier.”

    The flight that remains in Considine’s memory, though, took place over Lake Michigan. A woman asked for a ride to Green Bay one Saturday morning, and Lange invited along Considine, whom he was teaching to fly. After they were airborne, the passenger opened a window. Suddenly, dust was everywhere. The woman was trying to spread her husband’s ashes.

    Lange himself died in 1994 after a long subsequent career as president of his hydraulics company, Lange Lift, but his legacy remains. “Tony was a great guy,” Considine says. “Everybody liked him.”

    Not everyone, however, liked Maitland Field. It had its adherents — Edward Gerhardy, president of the Greater Milwaukee Committee, told the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1955 that the field was “one of the most valuable assets Milwaukee has,” before claiming the site as perfect for yet another new aviation fad: helicopters, which would make “regular freight runs between downtown Milwaukee and such cities as Chicago, Madison, Green Bay and Grand Rapids.”

    But the Army had come calling looking for Nike missile sites, and Port Director Harry Brockel was more than happy to turn Maitland over to them: “seaplanes … have completely disappeared from the area,” the Sentinel reported.

    Taking their place were 12 Ajax missiles, delivered “under cover of darkness … by six trucks and a police escort” in 1957. One hundred men were assigned to the base, one of eight Nike sites that eventually encircled Milwaukee, from River Hills to Waukesha and Cudahy.

    Eighty-five years after Lester Maitland found Hawaii, Milwaukeeans still love flying. In 2011, Mitchell handled roughly 475 flights a day. Maitland was averaging fewer than seven landings a day in 1955, and the field was losing $1,000 a month. When the Nike program began to wane, some urged resurrecting the airfield, but by then, officials were set against it: It cost too much, served too few. “Over our dead bodies that airstrip will be revived,” Brockel said in 1961.

    Lester Maitland died in 1990 in Arizona, but unlike his flight to Hawaii, the remainder of his life took a roundabout route. He spent his final three decades serving parishes from Michigan to Hawaii as an Episcopal priest, a job he sought after an epiphany in church. “There’s a better job for you where you can do more good,” Maitland said he told himself.

    It wasn’t a job he ever did in Wisconsin. After that brief postwar stint as the state’s first aviation director, Maitland left the state in 1949 over a disagreement “with the lack of priority Wisconsin gave airports and flying,” the Journal reported. He’d asked Acting Gov. Oscar Rennebohm to increase his budget a whopping 425 percent to support new state airports, only to have Rennebohm reply, “Don’t you think we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, with existing fields being used as little as they are?”

    Was Maitland Field ahead of its time or behind? Maybe both, but neither Maitland nor Rennebohm could argue that the field is underused today: Some 1.5 million people stream across its tarmac each summer.