Sunday, July 24, 2016, will remain a day not to be forgotten by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of AirVenture participants. The day before, when the Oshkosh airport typically ramps up to a busy but not crazy flow of aircraft arrivals in anticipation of AirVenture’s Monday start, the skies were a dreary overcast. The only VFR arrivals came from the north, tipping the percentage of Canadians on the field toward an all-time record high. Most of the traveling U.S. pilgrims found cozy hotels as close as the weather allowed and sat out the night, waiting for better skies in the morning. When the field opened on Sunday, a thunderstorm pounded Oshkosh and hundreds of little planes sat on ramps and in hangars throughout the upper Midwest, awaiting the opportunity to take wing toward their destination. About 10 a.m., MVFR was creeping into the Oshkosh area, and a few planes trickled into KOSH in the storm’s wake; but it wasn’t until about noon that true VFR conditions returned to our Mecca. The clouds parted and airplanes flooded in from all directions!
Many a grizzled aviator arrived on the field that afternoon with horror stories and frayed nerves. “I’ve been flying into here for over 40 years, and I’ve never seen anything close to the number of airplanes and craziness I saw this afternoon,” one factory pilot told me. “When we were circling Green Lake and saw two planes circling in the opposite direction, I knew it was time to get out of there.”
Every person who flew in that day had their own story, and just about everyone felt worn and tattered. First-timers were at their breaking point. All anyone wanted was to find a parking or camping site, turn off the engine, and settle. With sheets of white paper declaring their intent (e.g., HBC for Homebuilt Camping, HBP for Homebuilt Parking, etc.), the flow of little airplanes taxiing up to North Point didn’t stop until the field closed that night.
Wim van Malcot (right) of Belgium has been volunteering at AirVenture for four years, the last two with the Homebuilt Parking team. He joined the team by walking into the HBP prep area and volunteering.
North Point is the entrance to the homebuilt and warbird areas. It is a four-way-stop intersection where homebuilts and warbirds landing on both runways converge. Spam cans landing on Runway 36L also pass through on their way to the North 40 camping area. To add to the complexity, local homebuilt pilots who arrived on Friday, just to spend the weekend and help set up, were now looking to taxi out for a departure home to get back to their day jobs. Often, the conflict of traffic was handled by putting arriving pilots in the “penalty box” (through no fault of their own), making already exhausted pilots and passengers wait several minutes with their campsite in sight.
The field is close to capacity by the end of most Sundays, but AirVenture says they never turn away a homebuilt. (Be sure to let the controllers know you are in a homebuilt if they ever tell you otherwise.)
Despite all these challenges, the day went off without a significant hitch, thanks to the dedicated and professional volunteers of the Homebuilt Parking (HBP) team. Every frazzled pilot found a parking and/or camping spot, information on camping or obtaining a ride to their final destination, maybe a cold bottle of water, and a sympathetic ear. According to the HBP staff, about 400 homebuilts arrived on Sunday in 2016. Given the short time that the field was VFR, that would translate to about one every minute in addition to the warbirds competing for access to the same taxiway. That day was likely the Homebuilt Parking team’s most challenging ever, but it was also probably their finest.
Despite the long hours, heat, rain, irritated and tired pilots, mud, and even cold, volunteers for the Homebuilt Parking team return year after year, and many think they have the best jobs at AirVenture. Belgians Wim van Malcot and Virginie Jorion have returned for several years to direct traffic at North Point and various other jobs. In 2017, several Germans volunteered to help. Many of the American volunteers speak of working with HBP for decades. Jeff Point, Homebuilt Parking jefe, has been working the lines for 19 years. Some of the regular volunteers started as Venturer volunteers. The Venturer Scouts are teenagers involved in aviation-focused groups affiliated with the Boy Scouts. Some of the Venturers come from local chapters, and some travel from distant states to volunteer. They are mostly involved with preventing pedestrian-aircraft conflicts and helping to flag aircraft to their next intersection. Galeb Gish joined five other Topeka, Kansas, Venturers in 2017 to work his second year at AirVenture. The kids camp out next to the warbird area and swap stories and experiences with other aviation-minded teenagers. Alicia Walby volunteered at AirVenture for five years while a Venturer with Post 9924 in Appleton, Wisconsin. She also had a part-time job loading FedEx trucks at the airport while in high school. She went to college at Michigan Technological University and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering while continuing to volunteer with HBP as an adult volunteer. A masters degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute followed. She continues to return to AirVenture most years as a volunteer, taking vacation time from her manufacturing engineer job with Pratt and Whitney.
When a homebuilt arrives with their sign requesting either HBP or HBC, the entire field seems to mobilize to direct the pilot to North Point, where they are urged to take the taxiway west. A scooter or UTV (utility task vehicle) will take the lead on the left side, escorting the aircraft to the appropriate row, then turn into the grass and guide it to a parking spot. The scooter driver will hop off the scooter and signal the pilot when they reach the exact spot. If the airplane shuts down in HBP, a golf cart generally follows, part of the aircraft greeters contingent, and the scooter driver heads out for his or her next escort. The greeters provide cold water, a handy shut-down list, the phone number for the Welcome Wagon, a fuel tag (if needed), and answer any questions. They also want to ensure that the plane gets securely staked and tied down to protect the surrounding planes if a wind shear comes through the area. In Homebuilt Camping, the greeters from the Homebuilt Camping crew similarly greet arrivals and help provide an orientation to camping next to the plane. Once the pilot seems settled and comfortable, everyone is off to greet and help the next arrival.
Arrivals slow on Monday, but North Point becomes a more complicated operation during “the show.” The HBP crew now not only has to manage arriving and departing homebuilts and warbirds, but the kit manufacturer factory pilots give hourly demonstration rides during the show, the two Ford Tri-Motors each taxi in and out for passenger rides about twice an hour, and the warbirds frequently go in and out to strut their stuff in the air. All of them pass through North Point each way. The HBP team’s only reprieves during the entire nine days are between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m., prescheduled mass arrivals of Mooneys, Bonanzas, Cubs, and others headed for different parts of the field, and afternoon airshows. Airport closures following incidents and accidents, as well as bad weather, might also slow the movement of planes around the field, but the HBP staff can still be busy ensuring planes are securely tied down and folks remain safe.
About Tuesday, the focus shifts from arrivals to departures. Scooters troll the taxiway, looking for planes pulled out from their parking spaces and pointed toward the way out. No engine starts until the escort arrives. Then the process reverses as the scooter driver escorts the plane to North Point, and flaggers point the way to the departure end of one of the runways. While arrivals are strongly concentrated on the weekend before AirVenture opens, departures tend to be scattered throughout the week. A few years ago, there tended to be a mass exodus of homebuilts about Wednesday, but the HBP staff says more folks are staying longer, and the flow out of the area is generally less frenetic. Nonetheless, by the final weekend, homebuilt camping and homebuilt parking resemble ghost towns…mere shadows of the glory days earlier in the week.
Safely taxiing while holding up your destination sign can be a challenge if no passenger is along, but it is essential to smooth parking operations.
Homebuilt aircraft are the fastest growing segment of general aviation, and the demand for Homebuilt Parking and Camping continues to grow, while some other areas are shrinking. EAA has said that no homebuilt aircraft will be turned away from landing at AirVenture, even when parking on the field is at capacity. They make room for all of our “show planes,” even when certified aircraft are told to land at other fields. Thus, our geographic domain has expanded, along with the HBP crew’s workload. The peak so far was 2016, in large part because Van’s Aircraft celebrated the 30th anniversary of the RV-6, the world’s most popular kit, and hundreds of -6 and -6A owners made sure they brought their planes to the party. But the upward trend has been consistent with a 22% increase in Homebuilt Camping between 2006 and 2016. These figures do not include Homebuilt Parking and the many homebuilts scattered on display across the entire AirVenture grounds. There also are always a few “slumming it” in the North 40, in order to camp with less-fortunate friends.
Most pilots are offered a bottle of cold water when they leave the cockpit, an especially welcomed treat on a hot day.
Many, including myself, argue that the homebuilt community’s participation is the heart of EAA, and if that’s true, the heart is healthy and growing stronger. We all owe a debt to the fine folks who welcome us at the end of our pilgrimage to Oshkosh and then send us safely on our way. Sometimes we forget to thank them in the tension of the moment before they rush off to escort the next plane, and of course we can’t stop at North Point to do so. But the next time you see someone with the fun meter on their shirt, you are probably talking to an HBP staffer. Please thank them for what they do to make AirVenture a great experience.