Heck, Brauer reminisce about the evolution of local airport

April 11, 2018

Jamie Taylor & Heather Schaefer

River News

The Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport has changed a lot in the last 43 years and retiring airport commission chairman Bob Heck has had a front row seat for every aspect of that evolution from prop airplanes to the jet age.

At his side for the last 28 years has been airport director Joe Brauer, who is planning his own retirement next month.

Talking to the two men about aviation is both an entertaining and educational experience.

The statistics alone are staggering. Beyond the passengers that come and go through the terminal, the airport is an economic engine which has had a profound impact on the entire area.

"The actual economic benefit has been over $450 million since 1975 when I came on board, that's based on what our consultant has done the figuring for us," Heck said, adding that 2,500,000 people have flown into or out of the airport since 1975.

"2,500,000, that's unbelievable," he said. "You throw those figures at people and they are just overwhelmed. This year alone, we're up 19 percent, traffic has been great."

Selling the airport

Heck was an unusual choice to chair the airport commission as his background is in sales not aviation. As it turned out, a salesman is what the airport needed.

"People would always say (to me), 'are you a pilot?' 'No.' 'Are you this or that?' And I would say 'no, no.' I will tell you something, I'm one hell of a salesman, and that's what this project needs," he said. "And that, exactly, is what it did need, it turned out that way."

Taking over the airport commission meant Heck had to become acquainted with the alphabet soup of aviation: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Minneapolis, WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics (WBA) in Madison, as well as many others. He also had to familiarize himself with a staggering number of politicians, both at the state and federal level.

One member of the alphabet soup side of government, with the FAA in Minneapolis, proved to be very important to Heck.

"Ed Vie, everyone had told me what a tough son of a gun this guy was. You'll never be able to crack him at the FAA," Heck said. "And I said, 'let me try.' I'm a salesman, I think I know how to deal with people. And I went to this humungous round table and we sat down, just the two of us, and I said 'Mr. Vie, I'm Bob Heck, I'm head of the airport, blah, blah, blah, and I will be very honest with you, I'm here to ask your advice. The situation is that we need an airport desperately in Rhinelander. North Central Airlines is thinking of pulling out and whatever you can do to help me I really would appreciate because I'll follow you intensely.' And he stands up, puts his arms around me, and said 'son, we're going to get along real well."

The Thunderbirds

While there have been many ups and downs, Heck said the biggest heartbreak he suffered connected to the airport was his pursuit of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds for the air show held as part of the dedication of the terminal building in April 1979.

His quest started in New Orleans at a gathering of pilots and others where he didn't know a soul.

"So I started my usual routine and talking, and I got to the head honcho (of the Thunderbirds) there and I told him who I was," Heck said.

Not surprisingly, the Thunderbirds accepted Heck's invitation and coordination with the team and support crew occurred.

"I will never forget this until the day I die. I was sitting at my teletype machine and I see that I had a message come across, air crash at Nellis Air Force Base (Nevada where the Thunderbirds are based)," Heck said.

Using his connections, he called someone he thought could tell him what had happened.

"I told her I had just saw this, tell me it isn't what I think it might be, because I didn't want to say it," Heck said. "And she said 'it is' and hung up."

A simple error in a training flight led to a crash that killed one of the pilots and led to the grounding of the team.

"My wife and I met some of the nicest gentlemen you'd ever want to meet," Heck said. "And they were so looking forward to coming to Rhinelander. I had worked so hard to get the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, that's no easy task. And then to have that happen was just as heart-wrenching an experience as I have ever could have had."

The day aviation changed

The Rhinelander airport was relatively unaffected by the events of the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, even after every airplane in United States airspace was forced to land, according to Heck and Brauer.

"It was a sad day in aviation," Brauer said, referring to the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania involving hijacked airplanes. "I remember exactly where I was that day. I was on the corner of Davenport and Stevens streets and I was meeting with the florist because my daughter was getting married in October. I went down to the Holiday Inn to get the menu all finalized and I had heard on the radio as I was at the corner of Davenport and Stevens streets that an aircraft had gone into one of the towers."

He said he remarked to his wife that it was strange a private aircraft was in that airspace as it is heavily restricted.

"I get out to the airport and I've got Gary Johnson, Sherrie and there might have been another person, and you can see that something was wrong," Brauer said.

It was then he learned two commercial aircraft were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

"After that, aviation would never, ever be the same again," he said.

In the hours immediately following the attacks, air travel in the United States stopped completely for two days after the FAA issued an all stop, basically telling everybody to get out of the sky as quickly as possible. None of the grounded commercial airliners landed at Rhinelander, however Marquette, Green Bay, Madison, Milwaukee got the brunt in this area. According to Brauer, this was because those airports had customs facilities while Rhinelander did not.

Security enhancements

The airport has worked closely with the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration) to make sure its security procedures are well beyond what is normally called for at an airport Rhinelander's size, the men said. All of the screening equipment has also led to various remodeling project.

"That is why we're redoing our screening area because they have brought in so much more equipment that we need to expand it," Brauer said.

Baggage is screened by a sophisticated combination X-ray and explosive detecting machine before it is placed in the plane, he added.

"We have what is called a CT-80 x-ray machine. We were the second airport our size in the country to get the CT-80," he explained. "But, because of our relationship with TSA, and our willingness to always work with them (we were able to get one.)"

When Rhinelander-Oneida County Airport got its CT-80, they were mainly found in larger airports. But the security enhancements Heck insisted on implementing at the airport are, in many ways, better then what is found in comparable facilities.

"We have a camera system that a lot of the airports that are in some of the higher categories couldn't touch. They weren't anywhere close to us in the sophistication," Brauer said.

"Right from the start, I told Joe that I was always concerned on security. I wanted people that if they came here early in the morning and it was dark, a wife with some children all by herself, or get off the aircraft at 11 o'clock at night, I always said that a couple or whatever would be secure at our airport," Heck said. "That meant everything, the whole commission and Joe and me, that is exactly what we've fought for and achieved. Our airport is a really secure airport, and we take pride in that."

Jamie Taylor may be reached via email at