The rich history surrounding Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport is detailed in the articles below. For more on MKE's history, visit the Mitchell Gallery of Flight, a free non-profit aviation museum located pre-security in the main terminal. The museum is open 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
- General William Mitchell - (1879-1936)
- Milwaukee Aviation History - Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport
- Military Aviation History - MIlwaukee Mitchell International Airport
General William "Billy" Mitchell, for whom Milwaukee County's largest airport is named, was born to a prominent Milwaukee family on December 29, 1879. His father, John Lendrum Mitchell, who eventually became a United States Senator for Wisconsin, was an only child to millionaire Milwaukee banker and railroad tycoon Alexander Mitchell.
At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Billy Mitchell returned to Milwaukee from what is now known as George Washington University in Washington, D.C. to enlist. Mitchell quickly rose through the ranks in the Signal Corps and in 1912 was appointed to the General Staff, the youngest person at that time to hold such a position.
In 1916, when Europe was on the verge of the first World War, Mitchell recognized the increasing importance of aviation in war and took it upon himself to learn to fly at his own expense. Mitchell was promoted to Major and appointed the head of the Army's aviation section. He was then sent to Europe, where he became a leader in establishing a United States aviation force. Mitchell was promoted again, this time to the rank of Colonel, and was appointed Chief of Air Service of the First Army. In the Battle of St. Mihiel, he was given command of more than 1,500 British, French, and American aircraft units. This was the largest air force ever assembled to that date. For Mitchell's action, he was promoted to Brigadier General and made Chief of Air Service of the Group of Armies, the top aviation command.
Returning to the United States in 1919, Mitchell was appointed Director of Military Aeronautics. He vigorously began promoting aviation, planning the building of a strong air force and fostering the budding aircraft industry to establish commercial aviation on a sound footing. But his opponents were not in sympathy with his efforts. His claims of air superiority over the sea led to a confrontation with the U.S. Navy. In July, 1921, in a test bombing of German warships, Mitchell proved his point when his men sank a battleship.
Inevitably, Mitchell's forceful promotion of his ideas led to a clash with the traditional forces. As his opposition grew stronger, Mitchell became more outspoken in his criticism. Finally in September 1925, he charged the administration with neglecting the national defense. He was tried by court-martial and found guilty of insubordination. He resigned from the service February 1, 1926, but his influence lived on as he carried his case to the people. He continued his work incessantly until his untimely death in February 1936.
On March 17, 1941, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors voted to change the County airport's name to Billy Mitchell Field. It is a source of pride for Milwaukeeans that our main airport is named in honor of General William Mitchell, who, though impatient with those who did not share his beliefs, nevertheless retained until his death his boundless faith in aviation's future which he so unerringly visualized.
Milwaukee formally entered the aviation era on July 3, 1919, when it established the first county-operated airport, named Butler Airport, on the current site of James Currie Park and Golf Course, located in the northwest corner of Milwaukee County. At this humble airport facility, the Lawson Airliner was assembled. On August 27, 1919, the airliner departed on a demonstration flight to the east coast of the United States. Airmail service began for the Milwaukee region on June 7, 1926, and soon the local residents and aviators realized the current airfield was too small, but a small river to the east and a railroad line to the west prevented any significant expansion.
On October 5, 1926, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors approved the $150,000 purchase of a new airport facility. The land was owned by Thomas Hamilton, a local aviator who operated a propeller manufacturing business and small airport. Soon after the Hamilton land purchase, aviation activity at the Currie Park site ceased and was transferred to the new location. The first airport terminal, the Hirschbuehl Farmhouse, opened on the Hamilton Airport site in July of 1927. That same month, Northwest Airlines initiated air service from Milwaukee to Chicago and Minneapolis/St. Paul. World-famous aviator Charles A. Lindbergh visited the Milwaukee airport on August 20, 1927.
During the late depression years from 1938 to July, 1940, a new two-story terminal building was constructed by the Works Progress Administration. In 1941, the name of the Milwaukee County Airport was changed to "Billy Mitchell Field" after Milwaukee's military advocate, Brigadier General William "Billy" Mitchell.
Shortly after the completion of the first terminal and through the early 1950's, the Mitchell Field airport experienced growth in the number of flight operations, including the large propeller-driven StratoCruisers and Constellations. Due to congestion at the Layton Avenue terminal building, construction began on a larger terminal facility to be situated on Howell Avenue. On July 19, 1955, at a cost of $3.2 million, a new three-concourse, two-level structure opened with a capacity of 23 aircraft gates. The airfield then included 1,530 acres of land for runways and taxiways.
Milwaukee entered the jet age in July of 1961 with the arrival of a Northwest Orient Airlines Boeing 720 four-engine jet (similar to a Boeing 707 jet). In 1983, Mitchell Field entered the space age and welcomed Eastern Airlines "Spirit of Milwaukee," an advanced technology Boeing 757 jet aircraft which utilized the same computer system as that of the American Space Shuttle.
In the late 1970's, deregulation and continued growth prompted another expansion project. The focus of this project was to renovate the existing terminal building. The $44 million expanded facility houses larger shops and an enlarged ticketing and baggage claim area.
In keeping with the new appearance of the airport and its increased national recognition, a new name was also appropriate. On June 19, 1986, the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors officially renamed the airport "General Mitchell International Airport," also reflecting the presence of United States Customs at the airport.
In October of 1989, a new Airport Systems Cargo Complex was opened to provide security and ground support services for cargo carriers. The complex also provides services for loading and unloading freight and houses a vehicle maintenance shop, which provides maintenance for ground support equipment.
With increasing air traffic and growing airline service, Mitchell International needed to expand its gate area. On December 14, 1990, a 16-gate addition to Concourse D opened. The additional 16 gates boost Mitchell International's total number of gates to 42. In addition, a new $6 million, 425-foot moving walkway was constructed to move passengers swiftly from the Concourse D entrance to the new gate area. More recently, eight new gates were added to Concourse C in 2007. A complete renovation of the Baggage Claim facility was complete in 2015.
In 2019, the airport was renamed "Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport" to incorporate the airport's location and anchor city in the airport name.
The 128th Air Refueling Wing of the Wisconsin Air National Guard is located on the East Ramp of Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport. The 128th ARW transfers fuel to United States Military and Allied aircraft, provides aero-medical evacuation, and airlifts personnel and equipment to strategic locations. In service since 1947, the 128th has served a variety of missions, from natural disasters to service in the Korean War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Restore Hope and Operation Deny Flight while simultaneously serving the communities of Wisconsin and incorporating a 24/7 National Guard Reaction Force.
From the 1950s until 2008, Mitchell International’s South Ramp was home to the 440th Airlift Wing of the Air Force Reserve. The 440th was deployed on strategic missions around the world, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and relief missions during national emergencies and natural disasters. In 2008, the base was closed as part of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Act and moved to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina. Today, in its place is Milwaukee County's MKE Regional Business Park.