Every year, the truck and jeans capital of Wisconsin becomes home to the largest aviation gathering on the planet. Thousands of aircraft and hundreds of thousands of people converge on the usually peaceful burg, and thousands of its residents flee for other climes, leaving the keys to their residences in the hands of strangers (but these strangers are aviation people…so it’s OK). The entire city of Oshkosh turns its attention to the sky, and a large percentage of the population that stays in town supports the event known as AirVenture in one way or another. Whether it’s providing food service, driving buses, or helping out with traffic control, the local volunteers join the many other volunteers from around the world that make up the main event of the homebuilding year.
For many, the week of AirVenture is their primary vacation and has been for as long as they can remember. Every year, they trek to Camp Scholler or their other favorite haunt to spend time helping to set up, enjoy the show, and stay through teardown. And most of them pay to do so, directly, or through volunteer time. Many more people attend by ground than they do by air—and the number that attend by air is staggering. Anyone who has flown into Oshkosh knows the feeling of accomplishment as they clear the runway and hear, “Nice job yellow high-wing; welcome to Oshkosh!”
What is it then that attracts people from all over the world to a formerly small Midwestern town in Wisconsin? What makes us all gather in one place to share food, conversation, and experiences? Why do we put up with the stress of the Fisk Arrival and wipe our brow with relief when it is complete? Is it the airplanes? Is it the shopping? No—it is more than that. Simply put, it comes down to the people. Nowhere else in the world can you mingle with so many aviation-minded humans for so long in one place. We flock together for the same reason we attribute to the birds: We share the feathers, the love of flying, the passion for aviation that has gone away for so many of the people on the planet.
Oshkosh, for me, is a mad, busy, tiring week of talking, meeting others, smiling—and collapsing each night for a few hours of sleep before charging back into the fray first thing in the morning. Eighteen-hour days rule, for there is so much to do and so many people to see and talk to. I must admit that I rarely see the airshow, looking up only when I hear something that sounds different: a small jet sailplane, the synchronized exhaust note of Lycomings, or the silence that accompanies a sailplane. (I’m not much for the overt noise of the big iron or the transonic whine of too-long props at too fine a pitch. But I respect that others find this to be the most exciting part.) No, the afternoon show is when I catch up with friends and those who will become my friends by finding the little knots of people who have likewise burned out on paying rapt attention to every single airshow act.
Slowing down to spend time with individuals at AirVenture can be difficult, but it is rewarding. You may be surprised at how many people you recognize by name from internet forums, type clubs, and chat rooms—people that you knew of, but never knew for real—until you joined them sitting in the grass under the wing of their airplane. For many, the show isn’t up in the air or in the vendor areas; it is out in the fields of airplanes, some with tents pitched beside them, others simply tied down with a lawn chair or two for company. Last year, I ventured to the far southern reaches of the show, a different place entirely from the big event of Oshkosh. It’s laughingly known as “Fond du Lac North” because it might be closer to the next town than to Oshkosh itself. The airplanes there nuzzle up against tall corn on new-mown grass, far away from the madding crowds. It’s a hike, but well worth it if you want some quiet time and good conversation with people who just want to be with their planes.
AirVenture is something different for everyone, of course. It has something for everyone—even those not crazy about flying machines. That is probably its greatest charm: the fact that it has a niche for all. You can attend for decades—for a lifetime—and still be hearing about cool things from other people that you never knew existed, all within the confines of the AirVenture grounds.
Why should you go? For one shining week, the city of Oshkosh opens its arms to this strange and wonderful community we call aviation—and how could you miss that?
Paul Dye, Kitplanes Editor in Chief, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the space shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen, and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 that he built in 2005, and an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra they recently completed. Currently, they are building a Xenos motorglider. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 5000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor, and a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.