Being Assimilated

Rear cockpit.

Friends present and past, human and mechanical, are the biggest reward for all the bother of attending the big aviation events.

By dint of starting young and aging rapidly, I’ve been doing some of this stuff for a while now. By stuff, I mean flying and driving, going to shows and especially races of all descriptions. When it comes to the aviation side, this means hanging around little airplanes since before high school (next reunion is the 50th, one year hence), if not flying hardly at all compared to the pros. For events it’s been the air races at Reno and more lately AirVenture.

AirVenture 2022, now well-concluded, is worth reflecting on my somewhat tenuous relationship with the event. In the beginning, that being my first 40 years pawing at Cessna yokes and later clutching Starduster sticks, “Oshkosh” was a distant abstraction. Way back when it wasn’t AirVenture, it was but a vanishing blip, something you had heard about but literally and fiscally so distant it was as relevant as moon travel.

But eventually I bought an EAA membership and brother did I start hearing about AirVenture. The holy grail, the “you have to go” event. Presented as the be-all, end-all of general aviation and then some, I felt beat about the head and shoulders by the EAA marketing stick. If I had not been to Wisconsin in summer I was missing out—and it’s your loss, you know—plus, perhaps more subtly, I wasn’t truly participating unless I made the hajj. I was made to feel a near-outsider, an auxiliary.

And, you know, it is a trip from the far corners of the country. Living an hour’s drive from the extreme southwest corner of the lower 48, the trip to Oshkosh is measured in thousands of miles or many hundreds of dollars in airline fare plus significant housing hassles once there, or for sure a couple of grand worth of 100LL in my own airplane or what inevitably turns into a month’s walkabout by car. There are 14,000-foot mountains in between and scorching deserts to cross. In short, it’s not a passing fancy for a guy with a 50-hour-a-week job, mortgage, hard-working wife and kids and ceaseless publishing deadlines. Traipsing off to some big airshow was no more on than booking a solo room in Cancún.

But, eventually I went. I was in my 50s and that first time was thanks to the largesse of friends who carried my wife and me as so much unpaid baggage in their Twin Bonanza. That some people actually had that kind of time and money was a real jolt; we had been lifted mightily out of our league. Later this magazine gave me reasons to be there. Now AirVenture is inked into the calendar as far as the dates are set.

Is it worth the hype? Absolutely, if you’re active in sport aviation. It’s the overwhelming opportunity to meet vendors and inspect airplanes similar to what you’re working on. The seminars and workshops are excellent and all told the sportsman pilot has much to do of value at AirVenture.

Then there is the “go for the planes and return for the people” part. This is also true and in a world apparently unraveling by the hour, that little puddle of civilized interaction at a Midwest airport can be restorative. Not too many ear-budded zombies there.

But AirVenture is still an effort, and I don’t begrudge anyone who takes every other year off. Or who by living far away is still mustering the stuff to go.

Off to the Races

Then there is Reno. Much more in my flight plan, my first year at Reno was 1982, and I thought I was unforgivably late to the party even then. This was in no small part because the late Tom Aberle, the biplane racer most recently associated with his all-conquering Phantom race plane, was based at my home airport. In fact, his father was both my flight instructor and my employer (lineman), so there was always some reminder or activity around sporting biplanes starting in 1968, the year Tom first raced. Later, I worked some for Tom himself, so air racing was a tangible year-round reality for me.

Furthermore, Reno is far closer to home, just a 10-hour drive for a guy who didn’t own an airplane, so even as a youth it was conceivable I’d be able to make the trip someday. Plus motel rooms were inexpensive and numerous. Now, I haven’t gone to every Reno race since that first one, but I’ve managed probably three-quarters of them, including the last 20 or so in a row.

The air races, of course, are totally different than AirVenture. Summer in Wisconsin is all about everything: Experimentals, warbirds, welding, antiques, rag work, ultralights, industry news, seaplanes, the whole lot. It’s big and family friendly, a model farm of aviation enthusiasm. On the other hand, Reno is about winning, with an airshow to fill the between times. It’s far smaller, single-purposed and definitely western with its dry air and high-desert backdrop. I’ve never seen it rain there. Snowed once, but never rain. Speed is what matters, and while there’s enough county fair hoopla around the headlining Gold races, the corporate sheen glossing over AirVenture is missing, replaced with a grittier, more genuine air of accomplishment. It’s also staggeringly more dangerous, which tends to focus the mind.

One thing the National Air Races and AirVenture have in common is a dichotomy on my time. I’ll find myself standing under a pylon waiting for some race to run. Time crawls and I think about all the other things I could be accomplishing…but if I stay home I’m missing the races and resenting the work that kept me home. It’s getting to be the same with AirVenture now as well, although I must admit as long as I’m working in Wisconsin, there’s obviously no sense of missing work. It’s perhaps more so for a guy building. If you go to either event, you see new things and meet new people, which could be important. But it’s also time you’re not at home building.

If you haven’t been to either event, you probably should. For sure if you’re building, then the dazzle in dairyland has much educational to offer. There are so many airplanes on hand that just kicking tires and eyeballing various details can be worth the trip, and the forums or workshops can be tremendously educational. It’s a big, well-attended place so there can be the crowd-hassle occasionally, but generally AirVenture is a well-oiled machine with all the burrs honed off, and you’ll be able to get around easily. It’s also an easy place to approach vendors and other attendees because that’s why they’re there. Always prepare for warm, humid weather (very light clothing is helpful) and buckets of rain, because it will rain somewhere during the week.

Reno is far more specialized and while you’ll see some workmanship in the traditional EAA sense of glossy, baby-butt- smooth finishes, that’s absolutely not the reason to go. Think innovation, especially the kind that works and got done in a hurry if not overnight. Sometimes it borders on carnival equipment, but there’s an urgency and purpose in the endeavor that redeems the sometimes rough finish. Results are what count at Reno. There’s much to be learned just by looking at the faster equipment, and with a pit pass—overwhelmingly more important than sitting in the stands—you can get close to the hardware. Especially earlier in race week it’s normal to have the cowlings and covers off so you can peek inside, but by Friday cowlings are taped shut unless something is wrong.

Also expect brassier personalities, as normal people aren’t particularly drawn to pylon racing. And they’re there to race, not sell you something, so you can have that first day of school feeling where everyone is running around purposefully while you wonder where the bathrooms are. Or they’re standing around in cliques. It takes a stronger personality to break through at Reno, but it can be done. Try and ask smart questions.

A first-time Reno visitor should be happy enough just to be there, wandering the pits and eyeballing the machinery. If there’s enough call for a return visit then see if you can’t make some contact with a race team, as a personal connection makes racing incredibly more interesting. The big wheels are overfull with camp followers, as well as truly valued team members, but some of the more homespun teams in the F1, Biplane or Sport hangars might be able to use some actual help with a polishing rag, if not just a spot of personal interaction.

Whether these trips are worth the time off building or flying your own plane is a personal decision, but as you’re inevitably drawn into the flying world, resistance is futile.

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Tom Wilson
Pumping avgas and waxing flight school airplanes got Tom into general aviation in 1973, but the lure of racing cars and motorcycles sent him down a motor journalism career heavy on engines and racing. Today he still writes for peanuts and flies for fun.


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