The growth of air travel in the USA was such that by the mid-60s there was an increasing role for third-level operators to pick-up short hops from the local service airlines, who only a few years earlier had themselves been picking them up from the trunk airlines. Now they had replaced their DC-3s with gleaming BAC One-Elevens and Douglas DC-9s and a new breed of small operator was stepping in. One of the most successful of these new contenders was Air Wisconsin, which within 18 years was itself a jet operator.
Air Wisconsin can trace its roots all the way back to November 18, 1963 when Karl Baldwin formed Fox Cities Airlines, Inc. The name changed to Air Wisconsin in 1965 and on August 23 the fledgling airline began its first scheduled service between Chicago and the new Outagamie County Airport at Appleton, Wisconsin. This was a route that had recently been discarded by North Central Airlines. The initial equipment was a pair of nine-seater de Havilland DH104 Doves and the carrier started with only 3 pilots and 17 station employees.
One of these was Preston H. Wilbourne who was a 23-year veteran of Piedmont. He joined Air Wisconsin as Traffic Manager and quickly became the leader of the little airline.
Wisconsin’s original Dove appears to have picked up much of its livery from its previous owner Catalina-Vegas Airlines but to the orange and green stripes was added an aw logo designed by Gordon Fischer Advertising. The letter at the front of the tail was always in orange and the other in green so that on each side of the aircraft the colouring was different for each letter. This scheme would be used all the way through to the mid-80s when commuter airlines began to lose their identities.
Despite the difficulty in making money in these early days Air Wisconsin’s operation grew quickly and picked up new destinations in Wisconsin and the neighbouring states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska. The base remained at little Outagamie in Appleton. The Doves were supplemented and then replaced by the latest new commuter aircraft types.
In October 1966 the first of 2 new DHC-6 Twin Otters was delivered. The second didn’t arrive until May 1967. A third and fourth DHC-6 were added in 1969 and 1970, both nearly new second-hand machines. When the first aircraft was written off in 1972 a second-hand replacement was added to keep the fleet at four. From 1969 Air Wisconsin gained a mail contract and the DHC-6s were used for this purpose each night with the seats removed.
The Beech 99 was another new top-end commuter type and had a more elegant look to it than the stubby Twin Otter. The first two joined in mid-1968 and were followed by another in 1969. A fourth unit was leased from Golden West for a year in 1970.
As Air Wisconsin continued to grow it cemented itself as a leader in the commuter realm and in 1970 went public. It also undertook a complete fleet renewal replacing its DHC-6s and Beech 99s with the larger Swearingen SA226 Metro II. The 19-seater Metroliner was a pressurised aircraft offering a significant improvement over the unpressurised Beech 99 and DHC-6. Air Wisconsin was the second airline to put the Metro into service, in April 1973, and the fleet grew to a maximum of 14 aircraft by mid-1980.
During the 1970s Air Wisconsin built relationships with many of the larger airlines and flew 'joint fare' services along its network as advertised in its 1976 timetable:
By 1979 the route network had expanded significantly with new service into North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Not content with acquiring 50 seaters Air Wisconsin decided to double-it and order 100-seater British Aerospace 146-200s. The initial purchase was for four aircraft with a further four options. The first aircraft joined the fleet on June 16, 1983 and began operations on June 27.
Delays to delivery of some of the 146s also led to Air Wisconsin to acquire another jet type, albeit only on a short-term basis. These were four ex-Pacific Express BAC One-Elevens that were used on scheduled flights from Chicago O’Hare to places such as Appleton, Cedar Rapids, Green Bay, Kalamazoo, Mosinee, Rhinelander and Toledo. The One-Elevens were returned in 1986 and went to Florida Express.
The BAE-146s proved a success and all four options were taken up and another pair ordered for a fleet of 10. The 146s low noise characteristics enabled Air Wisconsin to use it on services to noise-sensitive communities such as New Haven in Connecticut.
1985 was a vital year for Air Wisconsin as in January it acquired Mississippi Valley Airlines to become the largest commuter airline in the USA. The airlines had mutually complementary route networks from Chicago and the 700 staff at Air Wisconsin was almost matched by the 530 at MVA. One thing that wasn’t compatible was the fleet make-up.
Air Wisconsin had sold its last Metroliners and had begun to replace the Dash-7s with the new BAE 146-200s. MVA brought a fleet of 4 Fokker F27-500s, 2 Shorts 330s and 6 Shorts 360s. MVA had only acquired four F27s to date but had another 12 on order who joined Air Wisconsin direct between September 1985 and June 1986. These included the last F27s built. The original 4 F27s were sold almost immediately and the rest were sold in 1991.
Perhaps more important than the merger with MVA in 1985 was the July agreement to become a United Express affiliate. Gradually the US majors were creating closer relationships with regional airlines to enable the feeding of passengers into their growing hub operations. Air Wisconsin’s agreement was one of the first that enabled code-sharing and gave the regional access to United’s computer reservations system. Up to this point Air Wisconsin’s aircraft were operated in its own colours but gradually into 1987 they began to bear the United tulip instead.
With its new enlarged network and agreement with United Air Wisconsin upsized once again and became the launch customer for the larger BAE-146-300. The big quad first arrived on December 16, 1988. Nonetheless, it wasn’t all roses and Air Wisconsin’s relationship with United was at times fractious. Disappointing results in 1989 for example were partially blamed on United having taken away some of the most profitable routes such as Milwaukee – Chicago.
Air Wisconsin's last equipment decision as an independent airline was the acquisition of 14 British Aerospace ATPs. The 'Advanced Turboprop' was intended to replace the F27s in the fleet but in the end only 10 were delivered. The ATP never lived up to expectations and Air Wisconsin was the only customer for the type in the USA.
Preston Wilbourne retired as Chairman and CEO in 1990. He had seen Air Wisconsin grow from a tiny one route airline to the largest regional in the USA and would be inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame in October 1997. His airline was by then operating from dual hubs at Chicago O’Hare and Washington Dulles.
Air Wisconsin would go on to acquire the Denver based Aspen Airways in 1991, partly as a way to regain some independence, but the following year it was acquired in its entirety by United Airlines. United never really appeared to want to own the airline, just secure its service, and the carrier's assets were split. Air Wisconsin became an all-jet operator with the 146s whilst the ATPs and their operations from Chicago were sold to the owners of Trans State Airlines becoming United Feeder Service in September 1993. The jet part of the airline was sold to CJT Holdings and renamed Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation (AWAC) since United still owned the name and original logo.
Since then Air Wisconsin has gone through several ownership changes and different agreements with airlines to fly for them but continues to fly as Air Wisconsin Airlines Corporation using a large fleet of CRJ-200s. In many ways the original Air Wisconsin ceased to exist with the United takeover but nonetheless the airline has shown an impressive longevity and few have done as much as Preston Wilbourne to shape the commuter industry.
2006. Selman, J. Air Wisconsin. Wagging the dog? Airliners #98
Kathe, W, Fokker F27/Fairchild FH-227/Fokker F50. Airline Markings 13
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I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: