Owning and operating an airport was never one of Ted Vander Wielen’s life goals. But in 1995, Ted says, he learned that Bill Brennand was retiring and selling the airport he built 10 miles north of Oshkosh in 1968. The only party interested in buying the 22-acre Brennand Airport (79C) was a salvage operator looking to relocate his junkyard, and that would never do. Ted learned to fly at Brennand in the early 1990s, and he built a home in the subdivision next door. His backyard, from the lot line to the runway, is maybe 100 feet.
Looking around the Currier & Ives image of the perfect country airport, a junkyard is hard to imagine. A student is preparing the CAVU Aviation Cessna 172 for his solo cross-country. During the summer EAA Ultralight Chapter 41 holds monthly donut day fly-ins. During EAA AirVenture a dozen or so airplanes roost at Brennand for $10 a night, “but we have room for dozens more,” Ted says, nodding toward the mostly grass runway that he describes as “2,500 feet long and 90 feet wide, with a 20-foot asphalt centerline.” Besides a roost, the airport runs a shuttle to EAA, and folks in the subdivision rent rooms and homes.
Roughly 50 airplanes live at 79C. Most of them reside in the 26 hangars that face the runway like soldiers smartly turned out for a Saturday inspection, each of them privately owned. “It was the only way to build them,” Ted says, adding that he set the standardized requirements for size and style, and each of the insulated metal structures are served by natural gas and electricity. There isn’t a chain link fence in sight, and, he says, “the day they tell me I need a fence is the day I close the airport.” It is just one of the challenges that gives all private airports an uncertain future.
If you think owning an airplane is expensive, try an airport, Ted says, adding that patching the runway and ramp cost $3,000. Sure, Brennand generates some income, but not enough. “You don’t want to know how many people don’t know this place exists,” he says, punctuating this fact with the wish that aviators from near and far would “discover” it. The more people who use the airport, the more students who learn to fly (and the flight school is working on adding an Ercoupe to its fleet so it can offer sport pilot training), the more secure the airport’s future. The hangars are full, but if there was money for three acres to the north….
But Brennand has come a long way since 1995. As Ted describes it, the field was pretty ragged. Abandoned airplanes and pieces of them hid in the overgrowth, trees growing through them. He hauled six semi loads of junk off the property and bulldozed the rest into a big pile and added a match. And each year since then he’s made improvements as time and money allow.
Employed full-time in electric motor sales, Ted works the airport on the weekends. After he retires with the coming New Year, he’ll be at Brennand every day. With his retirement, he’s also looking at the airport’s future. Ideally, he’d welcome a wealthy provider with open arms, with one stipulation: Brennand remain an airport. Barring that, when the time comes to retire from the airport, and there is no qualified buyer in the wings, Ted says he’ll offer it first to the tenants.
What matters is that the airport survives. That it takes everyone involved is clear, a point Ted reiterates with a note next to the door of the pilot lounge/office: “Enjoy your stay. The pilot lounge was built for your comfort and convenience. Please help keep this the friendly ‘country’ airport we dreamed about.” Living the “dream” is easy, and finding it even easier, just follow the 357-degree radial 10 nm from OSH. — Scott Spangler