I’m Heading West Again…
Why do I want to attend an event where you have to walk miles just to see the headlining acts? Or, withstand heat, chill, wind, thunderstorms, and a few other surprises thrown in by Mother Nature over just a few days? Or, end up with a daily dose of a stiff and sunburned neck from looking up and around in the sky for the next attraction? Why? Because its AirVenture time, the Experimental Aircraft Association’s long-running, week-long fly-in, air show, classroom, social gathering, and trade show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Along with hundreds of thousands of other people with an affinity for aviation, I’ve made the trek from New Hampshire to the Midwestern U.S. on more than a few occasions. I’ve got many stories tucked away in my mind, loaded with excitement, smiles, knowledge, and maybe even some disbelief, all from attending the EAA’s yearly “Convention”. Before AirVenture, it was known as the EAA Convention, or even as just the “EAA Fly-In”; “Oshkosh” is a common name that describes the gathering too. Here are just a few memories that come to my mind as I’m prepping to go, showing why I’ve endeavored to go to Oshkosh many times over the past 25 years.
An EAA volunteer talks with Jack (center) while Tom snugs up the Stinson’s tiedown ropes
My first trip to Oshkosh was in a Stinson 108-2 Voyager, owned and flown by my friend Jack. His father Tom flew in the right seat, and I occupied the rear bench along with the tents and gym bags – yup, we camped out next to the airplane for the better part of the week. This journey was quite an introduction to General Aviation for me – with stops programmed in for fuel and hot dogs along the way, we hugged the coast of Lake Michigan and flew past and below the tops of Chicago’s lakefront high rise buildings, and even made a low pass down Meigs Field’s runway as ATC wished us a great trip to Oshkosh. Jack did most of the flying, but Tom added lots of advice gathered from years of his own trips to Oshkosh in an open cockpit Pietenpol Air Camper… like when crossing any of the Great Lakes, always head near the freighters and other ships traversing the waters instead of flying a straight line… if your engine fails over the lake, at least someone would be nearby to pick you up if you went into the water. I learned a lot about aviating during the trip, much of it quite valuable for me over the years, even though I’m a non-pilot.
I made two other flights into Oshkosh over the years, one in a Piper Lance where we pitched tents planeside again, and the other time in Steve Sevier’s Antonov AN-2 biplane. The Oshkosh runway configuration is modified just for the event, and taxiways are made into parallel runways. Arriving at the Oshkosh airport during peak airborne traffic, we were on a right base in the big biplane, landing to the north, and ATC cleared us to land on “runway 36 Right, traffic was a Lockheed Constellation departing runway 18 Right”. Wait – What? Well, the Connie was well clear of us after departing in the opposite direction of our landing, from a parallel concrete surface beyond our runway. It sure was confusing to me for a moment though!
Shorts Sunderland floating on Lake Winnebago, Wisconsin
Oh, some of the legendary planes I’ve seen… Kermit Weeks’ Fantasy of Flight Sunderland bobbing gently in Lake Winnebago, a Hiller H-32 Hornet helicopter, powered by rotor-tip ramjets, Delmar Benjamin’s replica GeeBee R-2 racer, the Scaled Composite White Knight 2, a flyby of two Lockheed Constellations in formation, a drag race between two Cold War jet fighters – a MiG-21 and a Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, and my list goes on and on!
I’ve met and listened to some legendary people too, like the group of Apollo astronauts discussing their amazing journeys, Bob Hoover, Chuck Yeager, Paul Poberezny (the EAA’s founder), John Denver, plus many more aviators whose names aren’t as recognizable, but were equally interesting. Like the guy who walked up to our campfire one night with a miniature banjo and guitar, and led us in song around the campfire for hours. His story was that he was flying from Albuquerque NM to Upstate New York to visit his father, who was in a hospital fighting cancer. Our musician was flying a Pitts (or was it a Starduster Too?) cross country, and his scaled down musical instruments were perfectly sized to fit inside the tiny fuselage. The EAA Convention was just one of many memorable stops for him as he headed eastbound, but it was a memorable one for us too!
Dusk at Ardy and Ed’s Drive In, at Oshkosh, Wisconsin
When one attends Oshkosh over the years, certain events and places bring back warm memories. An “off campus” treat for me is going to an old-fashioned root beer drive in – Ardy and Ed’s, in town. A block from the shore of Lake Winnebago and about a mile from the airport, waitresses on roller skates still deliver your order to your car.
At the Seaplane Base during a rain shower
The Seaplane Base, although a few miles south of the main airport, is nestled in a cove off of Lake Winnebago, and another treat for me to visit. A short walk through lush forest from the parking area to the lake sets a mood of tranquility before you see the dozens of planes on floats… I find it to have a calmer energy level than what’s felt at the airport, but it is still an active base. Bus service from the Oshkosh airport to the seaplane base runs regularly too, so leave your car in the parking lot. And, I see that the Seaplane Base Watermelon Social is on Saturday evening this year…
Weather affects flying in many critical ways, and it effects Oshkosh like any other place. My first trip was an eye-opening example of Midwest weather… as I was leaving the showers one evening, the tornado warning sirens went off, and the sky to the north looked pitch black at 6PM. Here I was in a flat field with 10,000 airplanes, just a few trees, and only tents as shelter. I finally found a dry drainage ditch, which luckily we didn’t need to use as the storm stayed north of us! Another time, while in our tents next to our Piper Lance, another severe storm swept through around midnight, and we all got soaked. Winds blew rain through our tent fabric, many tent poles snapped, and lightning crackled all around us. As the storm subsided and we all emerged from our soggy or crushed tents, all around us voices called out of the darkness, asking if we all were OK, or if there were any injuries and damage. Soon, Civil Air Patrol members walked through to primarily check on us too, and to see if any aircraft were damaged or leaking fuel. We all looked out for each other, and that spirit has always been present while I’ve been in Oshkosh. On our side of the airport that night, people and aircraft were spared from serious damage, but later the next day, the local Walmart quickly ran out of tents and sleeping bags!
Golden Anniversary F-16 on static during the 1996 EAA Convention
I know that I’m not going to see everything at Oshkosh in the two days I’ll be there this year; I challenge anyone to see it all over the span of a week! It’s more than a two-mile walk (maybe even double that) from one end of the aircraft parking area to the other, which is across a pair of runways. There are hundreds of show planes, and thousands of attendees’ private aircraft to see too. To me, it is total aviation immersion, with all of the people, planes and activity at what becomes the world’s busiest airport for the better part of a week. And it’s time to tuck away even more memories from the EAA’s giant gathering, to remember sometime before my next trip.
I’m not the only one who feels this way… Stephanie Othersen has already shared some of her Oshkosh memories and excitement in her article “Welcome to Oshkosh” in April of this year – read it again at: http://photorecon.net/welcome-to-oshkosh/
The Photorecon.net/ClassicWarbirds.net/PHXSpotters.com team will have five journalists reporting on the 2016 AirVenture spectacle; visit all three web sites to get a “big picture” of what this year’s event was like through our words and cameras in the coming weeks!