Checkpoints: AirVenture 2019

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I finally got the new engine back on the Stearman. All seems right with the world now, and I have the National Stearman Convention in Galesburg, Illinois, back on my calendar.

As I write this, we have been home from AirVenture 2019 exactly one week, and I am feeling much better than when I wrote last month’s column. Why? Because within 1 hour of landing back at home base last week, my son, neighbor, and I headed to the airport to hang the new engine on the Stearman. It was a wrestling match for a couple of hours, and we were quite sore when finished. I spent 12 hours the next day plumbing oil and fuel lines with new hoses and reconnecting all of the wires and engine controls, and then was able to fly it home the following evening after work. During the week I’ve managed to put about 8 hours on it, and I am really pleased so far. My goal of flying it to the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, Illinois, during Labor Day week now looks achievable again! Yeah!

I’m guessing my editor is about to tell me I should pay attention to the name of the magazine and knock it off with the Stearman, so I guess I will write about AirVenture now. As usual, we try to arrive on Friday prior to the show starting. It gives me an extra weather day if needed, and if not, I get to watch airplanes land (my favorite part of OSH). Well, this year we didn’t need the extra weather day as all of the weather moved off to the east by the time we arrived. We had a nice early-morning departure right over the top of Atlanta and arrived 1 minute into our 14:15 IFR reserved slot, putting the mains right on the assigned orange dot. What a wonderful trip, and I was looking forward to Saturday.

When we left Atlanta on Friday morning, all of the weather had moved east of Chicago. We had a planned fuel stop in Gary, Indiana, and an IFR arrival slot of 14:15 at OSH. You can see the building weather out to the northwest of OSH that would hit us later that night.

Rain, Rain, Rain

In the middle of the night Friday we got about two inches of rain. Hard rain. At times I thought it was hailing, as it really sounded loud in the trailer. We woke up to quite a bit of mud and lots of flooded areas throughout the campground and flight line. In the campground we witnessed quite a few of the very large motor homes get so stuck in the mud that they required tractors to pull them out. Really large tractors! I had never seen any tractors so large that the tires alone looked taller than our camper. The sodden flight line forced a shut-down of some incoming traffic until the grounds could get a chance to dry out a little. Vintage aircraft parking was severely impacted. Some of the tents in homebuilt camping were probably viable candidates for special airworthiness certificates as a few were actually seen airborne.

Drying out was not meant to be. Just after lunch Saturday, another series of storms came through and proceeded to drop six to eight more inches of rain. This forced a complete shutdown, including all of the mass arrivals planned for Saturday, although some of the Bonanzas did manage to get in late Saturday. Even the campground was shut down, and campers were parked along the road for about 4 miles overnight. It was not a pretty sight.

For the most part, the arrivals stayed very organized this year. There were a few times it got really crowded, but the controllers were definitely on top of their game. In this photo I thought the airplane cutting across the lake was trying to cut the line, but when I zoomed in on the info, it was actually at a much higher altitude and just transitioning the area. Controllers were using ADS-B this year and calling out line jumpers. Be forewarned for next year when most everyone will have ADS-B.

The cool thing was that no one seemed upset. Many campers just set up camp and cooked out along the road. The volunteers did an amazing job over the next few days laying rock, siphoning water, and stabilizing the wet grounds. From what I saw, FEMA could probably have learned a thing or two from the volunteers. The skill sets some of them displayed were simply quite amazing, and we were very lucky they were there. Soon after the storms pushed through, we were all rewarded with much lower temps and sunshine, giving everyone time to replenish supplies at Target.

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The old adage of the battle plan is great until the first shots are fired was never more true than in this case. Mother Nature was clearly in charge. Many of the plans that were laid out over the last year to help with the arrivals were almost a moot point now. I say almost because many things really still did work. We had planned for the mass arrivals on Saturday, and that schedule was published for all to see. As I mentioned, that didn’t work quite as planned, so new plans were made for some of the mass arrivals to begin on Sunday morning at 6 a.m. As much as the mass arrivals annoy some of the pilots circling at FISK, it really is much more efficient to land all of these airplanes via a mass arrival.

The controllers seemed to really be on top of their game this year. They even made great use of ADS-B to call out pilots who were trying to cut in line, sending them back out for another turn. About time! For the most part, the huge mess of last year at RIPON and FISK was avoided. There was clearly less “air rage.” In fact, I didn’t even hear of any (although I was in meetings all day Sunday and Monday). Kudos to the pilots. I spoke to quite a few pilots who actually landed at some of the outlying airports and were riding the bus back and forth each day. Almost all of them said they were having a great time and had no intention of moving their airplanes. What a different theme from last year.

In all the years I have been coming to OSH, I don’t think I have seen as many vehicles stuck in the mud as this time. It took some really large tractors to unstick some of the motor homes in Camp Scholler. Since no airplanes were landing, it was fun to watch.

Happy Campers

The campers were a complete story in their own right. Many locations in the city of Oshkosh jumped in and opened up parking lots and facilities so that the roads could be cleared. Tent campers were all over the grounds at OSH in places I had never seen them before, such as the grass fields around the museum and behind Pioneer Field. To me it was ironic that this was also the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and OSH was beginning to remind me of it, albeit with a whole lot better behavior.

Of course we all go to OSH for the fun of it, or at least that’s the way it is supposed to be. I know it has been one of my favorite destinations since 1981, when I first met Dick VanGrunsven and got my ride in the RV-4. AirVenture is a really huge and awesome event, and the only fly-in I know of that you have to see to believe. One has to be there to experience the magnitude. I still remember how awestruck I was the first time I attended, and it was maybe one-quarter or less the size it is now. I can only imagine what it must be like for someone to see it for the first time now.

An event like this takes a super amount of planning all year long, and in some cases the planning is out more than five years. It certainly couldn’t happen without the volunteers, who are over 5000 strong. I know some of you think you have passion when it comes to building your airplanes. Try hanging around some of the volunteers during the week, and you will really understand what passion is all about. You might even volunteer yourself. There were some volunteers who had been there for 50 years! Yep, been there every year it has been held at OSH. I bet it would be a safe bet to state that there are probably more volunteers who have attended every OSH than there are pilots who have done that.

In spite of all of the good times that were had by the majority, there are still some who were upset that they couldn’t get into OSH exactly on their schedule and, of course, think that the field should be open later. Again, it’s the volunteers that make this thing work, and they need to eat and rest as well. Sometimes Mother Nature throws us a curveball, and sometimes there are mechanical problems that unexpectedly close the runway, like the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy with the brake fire one evening. There continues to be lots of room for improvement as the event grows and we are presented with new challenges. The texting service was a key addition this year, and even it was optimized as the week progressed and should be even better next year.

Hey, it happens. The key is to be flexible and remember that we are all there to have fun! Don’t forget that.

While we always go IFR to OSH to avoid all of the arrival traffic, we really try to go VFR on the way home and sightsee. The journey past the Chicago skyline is always memorable and makes the ride home seem shorter.

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