BY NAOMI KOWLES
For the Star Journal
Rhinelander-Oneida County airport director Joe Brauer has offically passed the baton to Rhinelander native Matthew Leitner as Brauer’s aviation career came to a close Friday. After 48 years serving the industry and its fliers, he couldn’t stop smiling as he chatted about his approaching retirement and reflected on his career.
Despite a career decorated with accolades and awards, Brauer was quick to attribute his success entirely to the people around him.
“At the end of the day, it isn’t because of Joe Brauer; it’s because of the employees,” he said. The colleagues and customers around him are what he’ll miss the most. “Walking through the terminal greeting people – that’s going to be the biggest adjustment.”
Brauer’s career started with a postcard. As a boy growing up on a dairy farm in Door County, he said he never planned to spend his life in aviation. That changed when a card arrived in the mail with the words, “Want to see the world?” A week later, he had signed up for the airline school and was headed to Minneapolis by the fall of that same year.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said.
He joined Air Wisconsin Airlines, a regional airline based at Appleton International Airport, and served as a customer service agent for five years before moving to Midstate Airlines, based at that time in Marshfield. He spent the next 15 years holding various positions in the airline industry until one day Bob Heck approached him, asking him to consider the Rhinelander airport manager position.
“It took me all of about 10 seconds to say, ‘Yes, I think I can do this,’” Brauer recalled. That was 28 years ago.
Today, Brauer counts several advancements at Rhinelander airport among the highlights of his tenure. Chief among those was an infrared deicer installed in 1998, the brainchild of former airport commission chairman Bob Heck and Brauer, and the first in the world of its kind. The deicer used infrared technology to remove ice and snow from airplanes “for less than a buck a minute,” Brauer explained. It took just six years to form the concept and create the first prototype in Rhinelander – an accomplishment Brauer said the Federal Aviation Association noted would normally take 20 years.
Another achievement that brought smiles to the faces of disabled passengers was a non-motorized disabled passenger lift, ending an era where such passengers would have to be carried up steps – at times a frightening and humiliating experience. A frequent flier came to Brauer after using it for the first time, he recalled.
“Mr Brauer, I want to thank you,” she said. “I finally got on an airplane with some dignity.”
“I’ve had a very, very blessed career,” Brauer finished. “I’ve been very lucky. I’m looking forward to retirement after 48 years of doing this.”
Pilot, aircraft mechanic, instructor and experienced airport director, Matthew Leitner is stepping in to fill Brauer’s shoes. A Rhinelander native returning home, Leitner found his start in aviation at the very airport he will now manage. His lifelong passion for flying took its first step on his 11th birthday when his mother gifted him with an hour of flight instruction.
“As a child, I was smitten with flight,” Leitner recalled. But his passion was roadblocked by what many said was insurmountable: he is blind in his left eye. “I was told ad nauseum, ‘No, you can’t be a pilot,’” Leitner said. But despite that, he spent five years working odd jobs at the airport and scraping together money for flight instruction until he was 16, when he made his first solo flight.
“When I soloed, it was rapturous.” He took a flight test with the FAA and obtained a first class medical certificate, a waiver that would allow him to even fly for airlines. “I’ve never met anybody else that has it,” he remarked.
After graduating from Rhinelander High School in the late 1990s, he relocated to Atlanta, Georgia where he began amassing the education needed to pursue a career as an airport director. But when he finished graduate school in 2008, during the Great Recession, breaking into the workforce was “extraordinarily difficult.”
After failing to procure several openings, he traveled to Jamestown, North Dakota, where he made an “earnest appeal” for the airport there to take a chance on an inexperienced director. He got the job, and despite Delta pulling out of the market just months after starting, he went on to oversee the building of a new terminal, obtain government subsidies to procure jet airline service, and introduce much needed technical upgrades in the form of hangars, runway lighting, electronic gating and a rotating beacon light. Today, he says, the airport – comparable in size to Rhinelander – is breaking monthly boarding records and has become a primary commercial service airport.
In 2014, he moved on to Crescent City in northern California, where he says he essentially repeated the same story. Under his supervision, the airport got jet airline service, a new terminal and a higher classification of FAA certification.
“It was a real rush,” he remarked.
At a city council meeting Monday night, he said he had stayed in touch with Brauer through the years, turning to him for advice during his early days as a director. When he heard last year there was an opening, he jumped at the chance to return to his hometown.
“My objective is to enhance our collective quality of life here, as community, county and region,” he said of his goals for Rhinelander airport. Unlike Jamestown and Crescent City when he started, he remarked, the airport here is thriving and he wants to build on the foundation that Heck and Brauer have laid.
Reaching out to the young people to give them their start in aviation is a vision both Brauer and Leitner share for the future of aviation. Leitner says he wants to visit local schools and bring students to see the airport and get hands on experience that could potentially inspire them to direct their careers into aviation fields.
Though Brauer’s last day was May 18, but he plans to remain a “friend of the airport” and provide assistance to Leitner as needed.