The World’s Busiest Airport For a Week… Oshkosh Tower
For one week during the year, the busiest air traffic control tower (ATCT) in the world takes the stage front and center, at the world’s largest gathering of aircraft for a single event – that of the EAA’s AirVenture Oshkosh. To be sure, Atlanta’s Hartsfield and Chicago’s O’Hare airports, along with a handful of others around the world, are consistently busier, but for the one week that AirVenture is running, you can’t beat Oshkosh for the volume of air traffic that operates into and out of the airfield.
To assist with the influx of traffic, special procedures are set up to use a taxiway on the south end of the airport as an additional runway, and colored dots on the landing surfaces add visual cues for controllers to allow more than one airplane on a runway at the same time. This makes the impossible possible… like the famous direction to overfly one aircraft that has already landed on a colored dot, and on the same runway land two dots later… thereby procedurally allowing some 3,000 feet of pavement between the two landing planes. A snippet of this year’s Monday arrivals at OSH sounded like: “V-tail on base to runway 36 Left, cleared to land on the yellow dot. High wing following the Bonanza, sidestep… sidestep to runway 36 Right, cleared to land on the red square. Nice sidestep!” Other “not normally heard” clearances routinely include the “Exit the runway onto the grass at your earliest convenience” and of course, the “Nice job, welcome to Oshkosh!”. You’ll notice that most pilots won’t answer ATC… and “rock your wings” is an acceptable method on communicating too. There are loads of audio files out there on the internet, find a few and listen to the clearances… what a rhythm.
We got to visit the Whittman Regional Airport’s (KOSH is the airport ID) air traffic control tower during the early part of the world-renowned fly-in during 2019, and watched and listened to some of the best FAA air traffic controllers in the country juggle arrivals and departures during a busier than normal early week arrival session. Volume was heavy because the field was closed part of the prior weekend because of waterlogged field conditions. Conversations were kept to a minimum, except those by the controllers working the actual runway operations. Teammates added words of caution or a suggestion every once in a while… it was evident that more than one set of eyes were watching each runway.
There are sixteen crews of four controllers who work various shifts during the airfield’s operations. Oshkosh’s airport shuts down overnight, so a continuous 24-hour full staffing schedule isn’t needed. The crews contain one veteran controller with more than two years’ experience at an AirVenture, two one-to-two year veterans, and one rookie – who is attending their first event as a controller. This spreads experience over each and every crew. Normally, one of the four controllers works the radio, the other two or three are extra sets of eyes and/or are guiding the first year controller while working the radio or primary control position.
For those extra sets of eyes, binoculars are an oft-used tool to help identify specific aircraft, or to search for any intruders who haven’t followed the extensive arrival procedures. There are others who take part in the control process too… the Air Traffic Manager, the operations Manager, and a host of Tech Ops personnel to keep equipment like radios and lights working correctly.
There are other control positions in the AirVenture Oshkosh process, besides in the OSH control tower. Departure sequencing is done at the ends of runways by controllers in MOOCOWS (Mobile Operating and Communications Workstations – the FAA is great with acronyms!). They also staff the tower at nearby Fond-du-Lac airport and run a visual approach sequencing facility called “FISKE” to the west of the main airport.
Training begins for the first personnel that’ll arrive in the area during May of the year. This includes Air Traffic and Tech Ops personnel. Almost all controllers volunteer for OSH duties and are chosen in a very competitive process. When they finally meet and team up, they become inseparable for the week, always together through the event. One highly coveted benefit that the controllers receive is the hot pink Oshkosh Tower shirt… which gains the wearer instant notoriety and respect during the Fly-in too. Originally chosen for its brightness, the pink now stands for more than visibility, it sort of stands as a symbol of the best of the best.
Erin Rausch was the Operations Manager at the 2019 AirVenture, originally the Air Traffic Manager at South Bend, Wisconsin’s air traffic control facility. Next year, she will assume the Air Traffic Manager’s position at the world’s largest fly-in at Oshkosh. She briefed a group of media representatives at the base of the control tower, answering various questions about what the FAA has called “The Super Bowl of Air Traffic Control”.
Of major concern this year was the condition of the airfield after heavy rains the week before the main event. Airfield Operations worked closely with the FAA representatives to insure that field closures were widely disseminated (via NOTAMS, etc). Muddy grounds were dried out and standing water cleaned up in time for Monday morning arrivals. As cell phone use climbs, information was readily available this year for inbound pilots to monitor opening and closing times for the field via many means – including cell phone applications.
So, what did this year’s record-breaking AirVenture mean to air traffic control in 2019? Here are some numbers released by the EAA about a week after the event:
“Total aircraft: More than 10,000 aircraft arrived at Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh and other airports in east-central Wisconsin. At Wittman alone, there were 16,807 aircraft operations in the 11-day period from July 19-29, which is an average of approximately 127 takeoffs/landings per hour.”
Total showplanes: 2,758 included: 1,057 homebuilt aircraft (including a record 592 homebuilt aircraft campsites), 939 vintage airplanes, 400 warbirds (6 percent increase), 188 ultralights and light-sport aircraft, 105 seaplanes (40 percent increase), 62 aerobatic aircraft, and 7 in other categories.”
[Of note, Oshkosh, Appleton, and Fond du Lac airports handle the vast majority of AirVenture air traffic. There are a total of five runways normally used at the OSH airport, three main landing runways, plus Pioneer Airport and the Ultralight landing strip.]
A special “thank you” goes to Elizabeth Isham Cory, my FAA External Communications/Public Affairs contact who made my last minute request for a tower visit possible!