The alarm went off at 5:45 a.m., on Saturday morning, September 25, but we were already awake and thinking about flying to Northwest Wisconsin this weekend. With 45 airports already in my logbook, just 15 more remained to complete our goal of flying to all 60 Wisconsin counties with a public use airport in four flights.
My husband, John, and I began this adventure in July when we flew to 19 airports in 19 counties. Flights two and three took place in August when we flew to 26 more. An airport closure, airplane availability, and personal schedules delayed our completion, but it all worked out for the best. With reports of fall colors near peak in North Central and Northwest Wisconsin, we were ready to go.
Our flight plan included the following airports:
- Taylor County Airport (MDZ) – Medford, Taylor County
- Rusk County Airport (RCX) – Ladysmith, Rusk County
- Rice Lake Regional Airport (RPD) – Rice Lake, Barron County
- Shell Lake Municipal Airport (SSQ) – Shell Lake, Washburn County
- Sawyer County Airport (HYR) – Hayward, Sawyer County
- Cable Union Airport (3CU) – Cable, Bayfield County
- Madeline Island Airport (4R5) – La Pointe, Ashland County
- Richard I. Bong Airport (SUW) – Superior, Douglas County
- Burnett County Airport (RZN) – Siren, Burnett County
- L.O. Simenstad Municipal Airport (OEO) – Osceola, Polk County
- New Richmond Regional Airport (RNH) – New Richmond, St. Croix County
- Red Wing (Minnesota) Regional Airport (RGK) – Bay City, Wisconsin, Pierce County
- Menomonie Municipal/Score Field (LUM) – Menomonie, Dunn County
- Chippewa Valley Regional (EAU) – Eau Claire, Chippewa County
- Neillsville Municipal Airport (VIQ) – Neillsville, Clark County
John and I got to the airport by 7 a.m., fueled up the Winnebago Flying Club’s Cessna 172, N7770G, and departed Runway 27 at Wittman Regional Airport (OSH) at 7:43. ATIS reported 2900 overcast, and that’s exactly what it was as we departed, but the clouds were clearing by the time we were flying over central Wisconsin. An hour and six minutes later we were on the ground at our first stop, Taylor County Airport (MDZ) in Medford.
Our next leg was a 25-minute flight to Rusk County Airport (RCX) in Ladysmith. The Rusk County Airport Fly-in was that day (part of the “Leaf it to Rusk Fall Festival”) and there was a lot of activity when we landed at 10 a.m. Breakfast is free for pilots at this fly-in, but we just weren’t hungry, so we looked at the airplanes, took some pictures, signed the airport register, and then departed for Rice Lake.
Departing Rusk County we saw a panorama of beautiful fall colors. As we looked to the west, the ground was a sea of yellow, orange, and red, interspersed with stands of green pines and dozens of lakes and rivers shining in the sunlight. Those were truly unforgettable views and I couldn’t stop saying to John, “Just look how beautiful this is!”
Landing at Rice Lake Regional Airport – also known as Carl’s Field (RPD), was exciting for me because I knew I would learn more about Carl Rindlisbacher. Carl managed the Rice Lake Airport for decades and became well-known for the accurate, hand-drawn weather maps that he created. He was an airport advocate who was instrumental in obtaining funding and local support to build the airport to the beneficial community asset it is today. Carl was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame in 2007 for his efforts. It was good to see a large plaque honoring his memory prominently displayed in the well-appointed airport terminal.
We bought an ASA 2011 FAR/AIM and then made our way back to the airplane, but not before spending a few minutes talking with the friendly airport staff and posing for our usual pictures. For all the talking and picture taking, we were on the ground for only 20 minutes and departed for Shell Lake at 10:39.
Thirteen minutes later we were on the ground at Shell Lake Municipal Airport (SSQ). I was impressed with the beauty of this small town and its airport. On approach to Runway 32, we flew over the lake and got a great view of the shoreline and heavily wooded area. A quiet little airport, it’s the kind where you wish you could camp in the grass under the wing and walk into town to get an ice cream cone. In fact, inside the tiny terminal building there’s a map that shows you the short walk to nearby attractions. I think we’ll be going back next summer!
From Shell Lake we flew for 18 minutes to Sawyer County Airport (HYR) in Hayward, landing at 11:28 a.m. We were happy to see Dan and Patty Leslie, airport/FBO managers there, for it’s been a while since we’ve seen them. We got caught up on what’s going on in each others’ lives, met their dog and one of their sons, and talked with another pilot who was visiting from Alaska. Thirty-four minutes later we departed for one of the most highly anticipated airports of our entire tour: Cable Union Airport (3CU).
When I started flying almost 20 years ago, many people told me about Libby Parod, the airport manager at Cable. “Quite a character,” they said, “you would love her.” And one of my aviation regrets is that I never got to meet her.
Libby managed the airport singlehandedly for decades after her husband, Carl, died in 1959. She mowed the grass, marshalled aircraft, and served warm, home-baked cookies. Her small home didn’t have running water so she asked many pilots to haul out her tub to empty the bath water (and of the pilots I’ve talked to who emptied it, they feel honored to have done that for Libby.) Though I didn’t get to meet her, I’ve learned a lot about her, and was thrilled to finally see a memorial to Carl and Libby at the airport. We toured the mini museum that’s set up inside her former home, filled with photos, awards, newspaper clippings, and other momentos, including a Christmas card Libby received from former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson.
After 40 minutes on the ground at Cable, we got back in the airplane right before 1 p.m. Next on our flight plan was Madeline Island (4R5). The 24-minute flight was beautiful, with fall colorama still in view, but not as close to peak as it was earlier in the day. We flew right over the top of John F. Kennedy Memorial Airport (ASX) in Ashland, Wisconsin, which is closed temporarily due to a runway intersection reconstruction project. Just ahead of us was the Lake Superior shoreline, and I marveled at the beauty of the Apostle Islands to our north. I kept saying to John, “This is so cool!” and couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. We saw a dozen or so sailboats on Lake Superior, no doubt enjoying one of the last weekends on the deep blue water.
The largest and only commercially developed island in the chain, Madeline Island is 14 miles long and 3 miles wide. Its airport offers a 3,000-foot paved Runway 04-22, located about 2-miles northeast of La Pointe in Ashland County. (It also offers wildlife; we saw a deer on the east side of the runway as we were landing.) When we landed, we checked the time and decided to hike into town just to be able to see more of the island. It’s as sweet as can be. A few vacationers were still enjoying the island shops and biking trails, and the locals told us that this is one of the last weekends as a late summer/fall destination. One of them even gave us a ride back to the airport, a common occurrence, I hear. We later learned that airport visitors can sometimes grab a bicycle from a rack behind the FBO to ride into town (nothing fancy!) but our walk on that gorgeous Saturday afternoon was perfect.
We stayed on Madeline Island for almost three hours before making our way to Superior (and made a promise to visit there again.) As we departed the island, energized from our walk and the friendly people we talked to, John commented how blessed we are to be able to fly to these wonderful places and meet good people. Amen!
The day before we arrived at Richard I. Bong Airport (SUW) in Superior would have been Bong’s 90th birthday (he was born on September 24, 1920) if he hadn’t died while testing an aircraft in 1945. Bong was born and raised in nearby Poplar, Wisconsin and his legacy as America’s Ace of Aces is alive at the airport. Walking into the terminal from the airport side we were greeted by a huge wall mural of Richard and Marge Bong standing in front of his P-38, Marge.
Along the halls are framed and matted photographs and newspaper clippings telling of Bong’s successes in World War II. Another painting depicts a B-17 flying over Superior, showing “the tanks” we had just reported we were over on our approach into Superior. Outside is the original stone terminal building/FBO, Twin Ports Flying Service.
Our next stop was the Burnett County Airport (RZN) in Siren, Wisconsin. I had called Jeremy Sickler, airport manager, about a week before to let him know we would be arriving on either Friday or Saturday. He told me to let him know which day it would be so we could chat, but I had forgotten. The airport is nice, but it was quiet when we arrived after 5 p.m. Jeremy, understandably, was no longer there, so we left a note on his door and 10 minutes later we were on our way to Osceola.
L.O. Simenstad Municipal Airport (OEO) in Osceola was quiet, too, when we landed there shortly before 6 p.m. We didn’t stay long, just enough time to get a photo. Soon we were on our way to the New Richmond Regional Airport (RNH), where we heard a lot of traffic over the CTAF. No wonder, it was a beautiful, smooth evening for flying. Airplanes were landing and taking off on both the grass and paved runways. We got in line and departed at 6:38, enjoying the unmistakable Minneapolis skyline against a golden blue sky as we climbed out.
Our last flight of the day took us southeast to Menomonie, where we spent the night with our son, Luke, a Multimedia Design student at UW-Stout. Luke picked us up at the appealing new terminal and we went out for dinner and great conversation. He showed us his latest class work and business website, LPmultimedia.com.
We slept well at the hotel, and planned to have breakfast and go to church with Luke in the morning. Instead, I woke up with a terrible headache. I walked across the parking lot at a little after 6 a.m. to buy Excedrin and then went back to bed. By 10 I was finally feeling better, so we checked out of the hotel at 11 and then met Luke for lunch. We took our time and talked about school and flying and Luke’s motorcycle racing this summer, and then he drove us around campus before taking us to see his new apartment. There’s nothing better than spending time with your kids, but we had to get going; there were four more airports on our flight plan.
Luke dropped us off at the Menomonie Municipal-Score Field Airport (LUM) at about 1 p.m. We fueled the airplane with 100LL for $3.59 per gallon and then rocked our wings goodbye as we departed southwest to the Red Wing Municipal Airport (RGK).
This airport is unique in that it’s a Minnesota airport physically located in Bay City, Wisconsin. No matter, it’s in a Wisconsin county, so we went there! We’re glad we did; the staff was friendly and welcoming and we wish we could have stayed longer. Located along the bluffs near the Mississippi River, the views were spectacular and I took lots of photos as John was flying.
From Red Wing we turned back northeast toward Chippewa Valley Regional Airport (EAU) in Eau Claire. We landed on Runway 22 at 2:48, but could have been on the ground sooner if I had requested from ATC landing on Runway 4. Still, I performed a stellar, full-flap landing on the 8,101-foot runway, so I shouldn’t complain!
John and I had been to Eau Claire to give a Wisconsin aviation history presentation in early spring. This visit, we noticed a big change at the Heartland Aviation FBO. They’re adding on, and the familiar scent of drywall and fresh paint greeted us as we walked in. The Husby family and their employees run a fine FBO and it will be even nicer when the construction is complete.
We departed Runway 4 from Chippewa Valley Regional Airport bound for airport/county number 60, Neillsville Municipal. About 25 miles southeast of Chippewa Valley, right on our flight path, was a 3,095 foot transmission tower. I have seen this tower when it was poking above the clouds on an IFR flight many years ago (and it’s a freaky sight!) This time though, it was harder to spot; we saw it about 7 miles out. Of course, we climbed high enough to avoid it, but I felt better once we spotted it.
About 10 minutes after seeing the tower we landed on Runway 9 in Neillsville. We got out of the airplane and did our customary things, take pictures, use the restroom. Did we do a happy dance because we had completed our goal? No, but John gave me a hug and kiss and we congratulated each other on setting, planning, and completing this goal. And besides, we still had to fly home to Oshkosh, so it wasn’t truly complete until we made it home safely.
One of our favorite people, Harold “Duffy” Gaier manages the Neillsville airport and owns Duffy’s Aircraft Sales and Leasing. On this gorgeous Sunday afternoon, Duffy wasn’t there, so we didn’t get to say hello. Duffy is also a designated pilot examiner, and he was the one who looked me in the eye once and told me, “You’ve passed.” And while it wasn’t planned this way, it seemed fitting that this challenge ended where it began some 20 years ago, the place where I earned my private pilot certificate.
The flight back to Oshkosh provided one of my favorite aerial views: Bright red cranberries being harvested near my hometown of Wisconsin Rapids, where I learned to fly. Talk about coming full circle, I became interested in flying when I was a young girl growing up near cranberry marshes in the Village of Biron. When I would hear the crop dusters flying low over the marshes, I would hop on my bike and ride down the street to get a closer look. I was so impressed by the sound and size of those bi-planes and it planted a seed that took some time to grow. By now, it’s reaching middle age, and good Lord willing, will mature with many hours of safe flying in my future.
The flight from Neillsville to Oshkosh took 55 minutes. We crossed Interstate 39 and I thought about all the times I’ve driven that road and about all the times I’ve flown over it. We pointed out small, Central Wisconsin towns like Kellner and Almond along the way, verifying them on our Green Bay sectional, even though we have a GPS in the airplane. We flew over the Wild Rose Idlewild Airport (W23) and watched as a bright yellow ultralight took off and departed the pattern to the north. We noticed the small, pretty town of Poy Sippi, with the Pine River running through it and a church steeple shining in the late afternoon sun. Lakes Poygan, Butte Des Morts, and Winnebago and the city of Oshkosh loomed ahead, but it was almost like slow motion as we savored the simple beauty of Wisconsin’s landscape on the way home.
The Oshkosh air traffic controller put me on a two-mile straight-in final for Runway 9 and soon we were on the ground in Oshkosh. We had logged 9.3 hours on this trip to Northwest Wisconsin. After refueling the airplane and wiping off the bugs, we put it back in the hangar for the next club member to enjoy. And yes, we celebrated a bit, at Solea Mexican Grill in Neenah with an excellent meal, one margarita for John, and one Corona for me!