EAA AirVenture Oshkosh - The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration

 for Sun, July 27, 2008

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EAA AirVenture Today is published by the Experimental Aircraft Association for EAA AirVenture from July 27 - August 3. It is distributed free on the convention grounds as well as other locations in Oshkosh and surrounding communities. Stories and photos are copyrighted 2008 by EAA AirVenture Today and EAA. Reproduction by any means is prohibited without written consent.


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The official daily newspaper of EAA AirVenture Oshkosh

Volume 9, Number 1 July 27, 2008     

Farewell to ‘The (Original) World’s Busiest Control Tower’
By Barbara A. Schmitz

Tower Transition. Today’s Tale of Two Towers presents the crowds at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2008 with the old and retired air-traffic-control tower on the right and the new taller tower now operating on the left. Next year at this time the familiar brick structure will be gone but not forgotten by the hundreds of thousands of pilots privileged to fly into the world’s greatest fly-in. Photo by Dave Higdon

The tower was moved by about 240 tires that were placed on 30 dollies underneath the tower. Only one tire failed during the move, and it was a valve failure.

Workers finish work on the foundation after the tower was placed in position.

Nineteen jacking stations were arranged in key places under the six carrying beams placed beneath the tower. To ensure a steady, level lift from the foundation, all jacks were powered from a truck equipped with a unified jacking machine that activated all of them simultaneously. Photos courtesy Berg & Henn

If there was just one landmark you had to name at AirVenture Oshkosh, more likely than not it would be Wittman Regional Airport’s control tower. Built in 1962, the aged brick and mortar icon has more than stood the test of time. It has served as a no-brainer rendezvous location (I’ll meet you at the control tower), a natural point of reference (We’re about two blocks north of the control tower), and ritual backdrop to undoubtedly millions of snapshots over the years. Just type "Oshkosh Control Tower" into Google’s image search and see what you come up with.

Well, that all ends this year. With the new, state-of-the-art structure now operational, our old friend is set to be demolished shortly after this year’s convention. If you want to have your photo taken in front of the old tower, this year is your last chance to do so.

The five-story Oshkosh air traffic control tower has had a long and prosperous life at the airport. Talk of a tower first surfaced in 1958, but it was April 1959 before the Federal Aviation Administration (formed the previous year from its predecessor, the Civil Aeronautics Administration) officially proposed a tower be constructed for the princely sum of $130,000 after determining that airport traffic warranted it. That might seem like a bargain by today’s prices, but a contract for engineering services at the time shows that survey helpers were paid $1 an hour; draftsman $1.50 to $2/hour; with the "big bucks" going to architects and top engineers, $4.70/hour.

A series of lengthy delays caused by repeated changes in requirements due to new developments in aviation engineering meant that the FAA didn’t approve the tower’s plans until December 1960. P.G. Miron Construction Co. Inc. was awarded the 60-foot tower project in 1961 and built it in 1962. Total cost: $150,000. It was commissioned on May 15, 1962, and operated 16 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., says the historical collection at the Oshkosh Public Library. A seven-man team of air traffic controllers worked the tower, led by chief traffic controller Larry Davis.

New runway prompts move

A new north-south runway built in 1967 created problems for the tower—the southern limit of Runway 18/36 was out of range—and by January of 1968, airport officials started studying whether the five-year-old structure could be moved about four-fifths mile, or 4,600 feet south-southwest to its current position.

Only one company submitted a bid to move the 900-ton tower—Berg and Hein Company of Appleton, Wisconsin—for $125,000. The company proposed moving the entire structure plus the ground three and a half feet below the floor slab. Moving the tower wasn’t going to be easy, as the proposal called for moving the building on tracks mounted on 240 tires, according to the January 25, 1968, Oshkosh Northwestern. And once moved, the contractor would raise it approximately 10 feet and place it on a cement foundation with steel columns in the center, providing a nine-foot basement.

Still, moving the tower was cheaper than building new—estimated at $342,750—so the bid was accepted after the chief engineer for the Wisconsin Division of Aeronautics called it "fair and reasonable."

The 37-by-50-foot concrete, brick, and steel tower didn’t just have to be moved; it also had to be turned 180 degrees. Vincent Berg operated the jacking machine to raise the building 5 feet so 240 wheels could be placed below the tower. He still lives in Appleton and vividly remembers that job. It was the heaviest building in the country ever moved on wheels and brought national media attention to the company.

In fact, until they put the tower on the jack machine they didn’t know for sure how much the tower weighed. "We knew about all the weight that went into the building, so we did have a good idea of what it would weigh—about 1,000 ton," Vincent says.

They were close. Newspaper reports show the tower weighing 880 tons, but Vincent insists it was 980 tons.

The move began on September 4, 1968—the same day Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew spoke at a campaign rally at the airport. The move was completed on October 13; however, it took until early December before it was operational. An FAA mobile tower served as the air control traffic center from May 7 through December 17 while the tower was being moved and installed. Final cost for the move: $322,000, including installation and land acquisition.

The facility has been replaced with a new, $5.6 million control tower

that went operational only weeks before AirVenture. (Coincidentally, the Miron company built this one, too.)

Airport Manager Peter Moll said the old tower could not be remodeled to meet accessibility standards, and the electric and heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems were old and ineffective. In addition, the old tower was too short since trees have grown up, he said.

While the old tower is almost synonymous with Wittman Airport, there are some things that won’t be missed. Like the stairs, the new control tower has an elevator.

"It was quite a trip up the steps of the old tower—six flights," said Ruth Elliott, who served as airport manager from 2003 to 2007. "I remember when I first started working there wearing high heels and dresses and having to go up those metal steps; it was something else. I was out of breath by the time I reached the top, and I was much younger then."

Besides an elevator, the new tower is nearly twice as tall as the old tower—the controllers are sitting about 120 feet up—and allows air traffic controllers to see the entire airport unobstructed, Moll said. It also features up-to-date electronics and includes additional space for controllers during AirVenture.

"I’m really glad this project was done," Moll says. "It’s the shining jewel of the airport."

And it will provide a whole new backdrop for the hundreds of thousands of EAA AirVenture visitors who stop to take a picture at the bottom of the world’s busiest—and newest—control tower.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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