Hometown Spotting – KMKE

By: Category: AirlinesAirports Around the WorldMidwestSpotting

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It’s officially known as General Mitchell International Airport or its three-letter designator MKE; for me it is my hometown airport. General Mitchell International is Wisconsin’s busiest and largest airport, except for the week of EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh. General Mitchell International is situated on two thousand one hundred eighty acres of land and is only eleven miles south of downtown Milwaukee. Our Airport is named after U.S. Army Air Service General Billy Mitchell, the father of the U.S.A.F. In this article, I will touch briefly on history, but the focus of this article will be on current statistics and spotting opportunities.

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The original Airfield was established in 1920 as Hamilton Airport; Milwaukee County purchased the land in 1926. The first terminal opened the next year with Northwest Airlines being the first airline to serve the city. The airport was renamed in 1941 and coincided with construction of a new terminal to accommodate ongoing growth. The present terminal was constructed and opened in July, 1955. Mitchell ushered in the “Jet Age” in July, 1961 when Northwest Orient Airlines began service with the Boeing 720. Northwest Orient also brought the age of the “Jumbo Jet” to Mitchell as well. In late 1972 the McDonnell Douglas DC10 started flying between Milwaukee and Minneapolis. In 1974, the Boeing 747 started service with routes to Minneapolis and New York JFK.

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Growth, expansion, and modernization continued in the years that followed. In 1983 a little known (at the time) Airline made Milwaukee home. Midwest Express, as it was known at the time, made a name for itself by offering leather 2×2 seating and gourmet meals on all flights. Midwest Express soon added more flights, aircraft, employees, gates and facilities. “The Best Care in the Air” became its trademark slogan, and freshly baked onboard chocolate chip cookies became its unique signature. On 9/11 everything changed on that September day, and Midwest Express was not immune. In 2002 Midwest Express became Midwest and was forced to make the hard changes that all airlines needed to make in the post 9/11 world. In 2009 the final Midwest 717 departed Milwaukee, and with Republic Airlines in firm control, Midwest slipped into the history books. The downfall of Midwest allowed other airlines to expand service, such as Air Tran, or opened the doors for new ones like Southwest Airlines. Delta Airlines would also expand service in the months and years that followed.

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General Mitchell is a joint use airport with the Wisconsin Air National Guard occupying twenty acres of land on the east side of the airport. The 128th ARW is the currently-based unit, flying the Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker. The 128th was first formed back in 1947, and has flown such famous aircraft as the F-80, F-86, F-89, and the KC-97 before transitioning to the KC-135. The Citizen Airmen and Women of the 128th have participated in many conflicts, operations and humanitarian missions. The chances of seeing a KC-135 are greatest during the week, when they routinely head out on training missions.

When it comes to civilian use Mitchell is served by the following airlines:
Air Georgian (Air Canada Express)
Alaska (Skywest)
American Airlines
American Eagle (Air Wisconsin, Mesa, PSA, Skywest)
Atlas Air (DHL)
Cargojet (DHL)
Delta Airlines
Delta Connection (Endeavor Air, GoJet, Skywest)
Fedex Feeder (CSAir)
Freight Runners
Norwegian Airlines (Apple Vacations, Funjet Vacations)
Pro Aire Cargo
Southwest Airlines
United Airlines
United Express (ExpressJet, Skywest, Trans States)
Volaris (scheduled to start in March)
Mitchell also has maintenance bases for Air Cargo Carriers, Air Wisconsin, Cessna Citation, Freight Runners and Skywest Airlines.

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Mitchell has five runways, with the longest being 19R/1L at 9,990 feet allowing even the largest of aircraft to fly in and out. Mitchell has hosted the largest aircraft flying today including the A-380 and both the AN-124 and AN-225. The current terminal has 3 concourses (C, D, E) with a total of forty-eight gates with the majority being equipped with jet bridges. The current International Arrivals Building is a standalone structure with a single jetway. Every winter, Funjet and Apple Vacations provide service to much warmer locales. This service has been provided by AeroMexico and Sunwing in the past, with Norwegian handling flights this year. Mitchell has plans to turn the E Concourse into a new International Arrivals Concourse in the hopes to attract more international service to the city.

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While Mitchell is not as busy as other airports in the region, we do however make up for it in some fine spotting areas. While most U.S. airports these days do not have any “officially designated” spotting areas, Mitchell has three. The Airport Administration has been very accepting of spotters and enthusiasts for years. The three locations Mitchell has will give you several different vantage points in which to observe the action. The first two spots are around the perimeter of the airport. These are paved lots that are normally open from 0600-2200, but are closed during snowfalls or VIP movements such as Air Force 1 or 2.

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The first spotting area is on the north side of the airport, off of South Layton Avenue adjacent to the Northwestern Mutual Life hanger. This spot is best for the photographer from mid-afternoon to sundown when the sun angle is perfect. When the winds are favoring 19 Right operations you can easily observe and photograph every arrival and departure. You will also be able to catch any arrivals or departures off Runway 7 Left/25 Right. This location is also near to the Signature FBO, with the majority of aircraft taxiing right by, heading to or from the ramp. If the winds are favoring 1 Left departures, you have a perfect spot to catch departing traffic, all though some departures can be too high for decent photographs. The view from this location is excellent with the majority of the terminal, east side hangers, and the 128th ARW all visible.

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The second spot is on the west side of the field, off South 6th Street. This spot is located on the south side of runway 7 Right/25 Left. This spot is best for the photographer from early afternoon to just after mid-day before landing aircraft are backlit. This is easily overcome however as there is a public sidewalk that will allow you to walk to the north side of the runway keeping everything lit perfectly. This spot is only good for arrivals on 7 Right, and departures off 25 Left. The view of the field is extremely limited with only the Cargo Ramp visible and the former Midwest/Frontier/Republic hangers visible. Aircraft lining up on 7 Right for departure are visible but photographs are very difficult.

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The third spot, and in my opinion the best of the three, is the centrally located parking garage. The preferred area is the 6th floor/top level, long term section. This location offers great views of all sides of the field, especially anything parked on the E Concourse, C Concourse, and the current International Arrivals Building. You will also have an unobstructed view of the west ramp which is the first location that any diversions from Chicago O’Hare will park. This location will give you great views of any arriving or departing traffic from any of the runways. The sun angle can be very tricky at times especially during the winter months, when you are shooting anything on the south side of the field, as the aircraft will be backlit. A few words of advice, you will need pay to park in this section, and during winter months the top floor will be closed due to snow and ice, but the 5th floor will work as well. You may be approached by local law enforcement but such encounters will be brief and friendly, in the years I have been shooting from this location, the only time I was asked to leave was when Air Force One was coming into MKE later in the day.

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The big area to avoid would be anywhere on the east side of the field, and more specifically East Grange Avenue. The 128th ARW is located on this road with at dead ending right at the Main Gate. I highly recommend not even driving down that road for even a quick look, avoid the area completely, besides you have much better views from the other mentioned areas.

The most common airline and aircraft type you will find here would be Southwest with all models of the 737, and Skywest with the CRJ flying for many different airlines. We do see a fair amount of business jets, with the Cessna Citation being the most popular with the Maintenance Base located here. Freight Runners does a lot of charter work separate from the UPS runs in the later evening hours, you stand a pretty good chance of catching a Beech 99 or an Embraer E-120 at any time. We have a fair amount of transient military traffic with T-6 and T-38 types being most common. It is not uncommon to see several trainers types occupying the ramp on weekends, more than likely they will park on the Signature North FBO ramp so you can catch them taxing to parking or departure from the observation area on Layton. Mitchell does have some daylight widebody traffic in the form of Fedex MD10’s, A300’s and A310’s everyday but Saturday. On Sunday evening’s DHL brings a 767-200F from Cincinatti.

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General Mitchell International Airport has something to offer everyone. We are not the busiest but we try to make up for it in the variety of traffic and locations in which to spot and photograph from. If you are ever in the area, stop by to see what we have to offer and check out the action. I have included several of my photographs from each area to give you a better idea of what Mitchell has to offer. If you could like to learn more about Mitchell, please to contact me at BAX727@HOTMAL.COM. Until next time, “Blue Skies to All!”

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