AirVenture! It’s finally here. How is it a year can pass so quickly yet take so long? For many, AirVenture is more than the center of their aviation world, it is the center of gravity of their calendar year. This is true for enthusiasts and even more so for vendors. AirVenture is their trade show, an opportunity to show their products at the world’s largest aviation gathering, one whose very roots are in homebuilding. A company that dabbles in homebuilding doesn’t exist lest it displays at AirVenture. One that misses a year suffers the rumors of its certain demise. Nearly all plan their product development and press releases around it.
For many vendors, AirVenture prep begins over a year in advance of the event. As you walk around AirVenture 2022, know that planning for 2023 is already underway; in big ways (engineers are hunkered down back home, sorting the details of next year’s big reveal—that’s right, there are secrets being kept from you this year) and in small ways (next year we bring more towels and fewer brochures. And sunscreen, lots more sunscreen). As AirVenture draws nigh, preparation intensifies. Day-to-day business gets up-ended. Display aircraft are serviced and cleaned, trailers are packed, prototypes are finished over intensifying weeks of 16-hour work days. Then comes the drive or flight to get to Oshkosh; days of travel, bad traffic, rude drivers, flat tires, weather delays, fast food, public restrooms, Check Engine lights and naps in FBO recliners. On arrival, the physically demanding booth set-up begins. For many vendors, the first break in weeks comes when the booth is set-up and nothing more can be done. It’s like the eye of a hurricane. A brief respite. Let the show begin, because it’s going to whether we’re ready or not.
Ah, the show. To paraphrase a former director of one of EAA’s departments when asked by a staffer when they could see the show, “See the show? You ARE the show.” And that’s true. Every vendor’s staff, every EAA staffer, every volunteer, the guys in the garbage trucks, the guys servicing the little gray saunas—each and every one is the show. Without them you couldn’t sit in the aircraft you’ve been dreaming about building for months or years, enjoy an ice cream cone on an 87° day, or ride a tram to a shady spot for a hamburger while (yet another) Extra 300 tumbles through the sky.
My AirVenture experiences have been quite polarized. Twenty years of wandering the expansive grounds at will, dreaming of building while browsing the exhibit hangars were followed by 20 years of being mostly confined to a patch of dirt smaller than a state park’s campsite; the Sonex booth. I went from seeing the show to being the show. What is that like, you ask?
It’s exciting (a bit heady, even), it’s exhausting, it’s inspirational, it’s tedious, it’s rousing and its wearing. And that’s the first hour. The crowds, questions, heat (one year a coworker collapsed from the heat just sitting at the booth’s counter), humidity, rain and noise—my gosh, the noise—come in waves. The booth can go from being severely under-staffed to grossly over-staffed in a moment as booth traffic unpredictably waxes and wanes. (Every year at least one email arrives after the show complaining that the staff was so busy the email’s author couldn’t get his questions asked. Frankly, that person didn’t try.) Conversations are interrupted, again and again, by the ear-crushing passes of military aircraft. Staff gets surrounded and questions fly in from all quarters. Some questions have readily dispensable answers, others do not, but we do our best to answer each. If we guide you into the shade, it’s to limit our sun exposure. And we understand when you dive into our booth to escape the rain. You should also know that when we eat our lunch in front of you we don’t mean to be rude, it’s because the other options are we go hungry or we’re not available to you while we eat out of sight.
As a vendor’s AirVenture experience can be limited to the boundary of their booth, the attractions in their line of site and the well-beaten path to the little gray saunas, its possible they haven’t seen the exciting new engine you want to put on your airframe and therefore cannot answer your pointed questions about its feasibility. We hope you understand. We also appreciate that you drove 500 miles, but we didn’t bring airframe parts with us so you’ll have to go home without the parts you hoped to collect. Vendors get that some people only have one day at AirVenture, but it can be difficult to accommodate you when we’re closing up for the day and have previously scheduled obligations to attend (vendors only have the after-hours to do their business). But, if possible, we’ll do it. Back when I was sightseer I arrived at Marge Bong-Drucker’s booth late on the last day to find it packed in a truck. The most gracious woman I’ve ever met (she was the widow of Richard Bong, America’s highest scoring ace), she unpacked part of her truck to find and sign the book I wanted to purchase. Speaking of the last day, if that’s all you have, get there early, as the show is all but over Saturday night.
Did your friend make it to AirVenture? We don’t know, not all builders check in with us. What time is the Blue Angels’ fly-by? (There’s a Blue Angels fly-by?) While we may fall short on answers about the general goings-on of AirVenture, we are delighted to discuss our products with you and answer any building questions you have within the scope of the resources we brought to Oshkosh. The questions we cannot answer at AirVenture we’re happy to address by email or phone after the show.
There is also a population of AirVenture attendees, one that most likely is not reading this, that will gaze upon a vendor’s diverse product line and ask, “What can you tell me about these?” After ten minutes of answering their basic questions, their kids emerge from an EAA merchandise tent and they’re quickly off to find the NASA tent. Write that exchange off as being an ambassador for homebuilding. Some people, believe it or not, approach us for the sole purpose of starting an argument. Online, they’re called trolls. Around the booth there is another name for them. It is for those people I wear dark sunglasses, to hide my rolling eyes. They possess the skill to extract career-limiting comments from a thread-bare booth staff. We endure them, however, to be there for our current customers who are brimming with enthusiasm; the occasional grump who never fails to remind us how we sent him a defective part 15 years ago; our past customers who have become treasured friends and our future customers whose excitement reminds us of the unique industry we are part of. Manning a booth at the world’s largest airshow beats any day in the office.
Vendors, volunteers and participants alike go to great lengths to attend AirVenture. Unlike the big box vendors on Boeing Plaza, the average kit plane booth is staffed by the same crew that erected it, the same people that drove 1000 miles to get there, then same staff that put in the long hours to get their display aircraft or engine ready. We start the week tired, but excited. That excitement is driven by a shared passion for aviation (okay, and soft-serve ice cream cones) and, as with most people reading this, a particular passion for homebuilding. We end the week even more tired, but even more excited. Let’s all practice patience, kindness and understanding and end the week energized, informed and looking forward to next year. It’s already being planned, and you’re gonna love it!