Sunday, July 30, 2017

Viroqua Municipal Airport (Y51) shares insight from above

Viroqua Municipal Airport Commission member Mike Olson

“This is why people fly,” Mike Olson said over the hum of his white and maroon propeller plane looking 2,400 feet down to Vernon County, “Not many people get to see these views.”

Indeed. Olson and fellow Viroqua Airport Commission members Doug Swenson and Mike Skildum (also the manager of the Viroqua Municipal Airport), have had those views for decades and have watched the airport transform and grow over the years.

The Viroqua Municipal Airport has been operating since 1966, when, according to accounts published in the “Vernon County 1994 History Book,” a group of flyers used their equipment and manpower to develop the piece of land the airport sits on. They built, seeded and tended-for one 1,900-foot-long grass runway, and had a glorified shed as their welcome building.

Viroqua Municipal Airport Manager Mike Skildum 

Two decades went by and in 1990 Viroqua’s City Council, under direction of then-mayor Chuck Dahl, applied for and received a Wisconsin Division of Aeronautics grant to pave the entire area, including a second runway that is 4,000 feet. To oversee the expansion, the city concurrently formed an Airport Commission, which included members Dwain Munyon, Willard Werth, Robert Greene, Jim Hudson, Jeff Olson and Ellis West. Mike Olson, whose plane wasn’t yet white and maroon (he and some pals recently did that), managed the airport at the time.

Since the expansion, the airport has steadily grown. Documents in the history books, dated in 1994, have the airport at 11 hangars and about a dozen airplanes. Now, two decades later, those numbers have doubled.

The 142 acres at the airport are owned by the city, and to help accrue some cash for the upkeep, they lease out three separate parcels of land, 82 acres in total. This generates more than $16,000 a year, and any other money the airport needs comes from state and federal aviation grants, which the city periodically applies for.

Viroqua Airport Commission members said that finding the money for the airport isn’t necessarily the difficult part, it’s finding the people to fly that is.

Public interest in aviation is on the decline lately, and flyers are generally worried by this trend. Interest in flying rose steadily after baby-boomers and World War II veterans came back from war with experience in the sky. But youth aren’t choosing to fly as a hobby or occupation as much lately, and “it’s becoming a real problem now a days,” Swenson said.

Plus, flying isn’t cheap. Once it’s all said and done, a prospective flyer should expect to pay about $10,000 to get their pilot’s license, Swenson said. That price-tag includes the training and mandatory time in the sky, but not the cost of the actual plane. If you don’t have at least $50,000 to spend on a plane, your best bet would be to rent an aircraft, with rates starting at about $115 an hour, plus fuel.

But planes are more than a hefty initial investment (which, as veteran flyers will ensure, can be spaced out in increments). If used like the people at the Viroqua airport do, traveling through the air can be a convenient alternative to traveling on land.

With 140 airports in Wisconsin, pilots have the luxury of hopping in their planes and ending up virtually anywhere in the state in the same amount of time most people ration off for their daily commute to work.

Flying from Viroqua to La Crosse takes about 20 minutes through the air, but closer to an hour on ground. An aerial tour of Vernon and La Crosse counties, starting in Viroqua and flying through Cashton and Stoddard, catching a glimpse of Tomah and Sparta, continuing west to La Crosse, following the mighty Mississippi south to De Soto, then swinging back east into Viroqua takes 40 minutes.

Chris Jackson, the owner of Borah Teamwear, which sells custom cycling apparel out of Coon Valley, uses this quick transportation to his advantage for adventure and business.

Jackson has one of the bigger planes stationed at the Viroqua Airport, and was on his way to Wautoma (a half an hour flight by air) after he told the Broadcaster that having a plane is “just a lifestyle. When it comes to recreation, flying is about as good as it gets.”

"To be able to just jump into your airplane and go to Door County for a day, enjoy your day, jump back in the airplane and be back in the evening . . .” Jackson said. “It opens up a lot of opportunities you certainly wouldn’t have.”

Jackson and his wife and daughter hopped in their plane and took off. When his tiny front tires released from the runway, Mike Olson said of Jackson’s ride, “That plane’s got some snort."

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