This summer I turned 38, and to celebrate another year of living my best airplane nerd life, I received a book about backcountry flying from my mother, wrapped in a sectional chart. Right away I knew it wasn’t just any sectional chart. For one, I’m the only pilot in my family of origin, so all aviation-themed wrapping material has passed from my flight bag to their closets and sometimes back again. Secondly, it depicted South Dakota, and there was only one time in my life I traversed the airspace of that state below Flight Level 180—a solo trip to AirVenture 19 years ago. If you’re quick with math, you’ll have deduced that I was 19 years old. What is 19 times 250 horses (I rented a Piper Comanche 250 for the trip) divided by 3000 nautical miles? The thrill of a lifetime is what that adds up to. And now, double my age, it’s time to go back, though I’ll be subtracting 70 horses and adding a copilot to this year’s equation).
What compelled a teenage girl to fly from Oregon to Wisconsin alone in a complex, high-performance airplane with no autopilot or GPS, camp among 10,000 strangers, survive for a week on a diet of Cliff bars and never experience a dry moment between hours of sweating in the humidity, showering and being showered upon by thunderstorms? Simply, the inspiration and goodness of the homebuilding community.
When I fell in love with aviation as a pre-teen, no one in my family flew and we did not have the money for flight lessons. Despite the lack of access to flying, I dove into aviation literature, magazines and anything else aerospace-related I could get my hands on. Somewhere along the line, it was suggested to me that the most affordable way to learn to fly was in your own airplane, and the cheapest way to obtain an aircraft was to build it yourself.
Well, one thing led to another, and I took a deep dive into learning about airplane building. I even found myself a wing and empennage kit for a Fisher Flying Products Dakota Hawk! The project didn’t get completed, but that’s a story for another time.
Fast forward a few years, and I was able to secure a scholarship for my first two years of college, which freed up savings left by my grandparents to take flight lessons. With all the ratings under my belt and a renter checkout in the aforementioned Comanche, I had everything I needed to finally go to the event I’d read and heard so many reverent stories about in my formative years.
They’re not kidding when they call it a pilgrimage. It really is the stuff of legend to be there! But on a personal level, it was a chance to meet the folks whose articles, emails, message board posts and phone conversations had encouraged me through those youthful years of yearning for an airplane and a license to fly, when it seemed like I would never get there.
Getting there is half the fun. By the time I wrestled myself away from my flight instructor job on departure day it was after 11 am when I lifted off eastbound from western Oregon, having no idea what magnitude of turbulence awaited me over the continental divide. Well, I learned. This year, I plan to be done with those mountains by noon, and even then I won’t expect a smooth ride.
As the sun was setting on that July 2003 evening, I chose Pierre, South Dakota, as my first overnight. It looked like a scenic place near the Missouri river, and had a pilot lounge to sleep in if I couldn’t find a patch of grass for my tent. I don’t remember why it ended up like this (teenage laziness, stubbornness or naïveté?) but I slept in neither of those places. Instead I thought it adequate to roll out my foam sleeping pad atop the Comanche’s wing, my nose at the leading edge and my toes tickling the flaps, while the dihedral held my torso snug against the fuselage. I did not sleep well. I recall listening to the local coyote songs and rehearsing the AirVenture arrival NOTAM procedures by memory: Ripon, railroad, Fisk, Ripon, railroad, Fisk… which doesn’t work like counting sheep. I was so grateful when dawn slunk into the eastern sky and I could hightail it to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for one last fuel stop and weather check.
While at AirVenture 2003, the standout moments were, of course, the aerial demonstrations, walking the tie-down lines (I’d never seen so many exotic warbirds in one place, or so many Cessna 195s sporting toy ducks impaled on their pitot tubes, or you name it— the list goes on), meeting the Fisher Flying builders and fliers and getting to know my fellow campers in the North 40.
I fell in love with a neighboring Bellanca Viking—that fuselage, those wings! I was treated to hot dogs, cold beverages and good company by the guys parked just south of me in their Grumman Cheetah, who seemed to think it admirable I’d traveled so far on my own to attend. Once I was even invited off airport for dinner at a restaurant by a nice family with a youngster about my age. I wish I could recall the names and faces of those folks, but their generosity and kindness to a stranger is all that stuck with me.
At AirVenture 2022, I hope to become that tiedown neighbor who offers camaraderie and a cold drink to the solo traveler camping out nearby. What else will be different this time, I wonder, as I fiddle with route options on my ForeFlight app, dragging that teal line across the western skies and snapping it onto intersections named YOWSO, VPGRN and airport symbols emblazoned with a compelling green fuel price tag.
First, what I do know will be different: I’ll be a whole lot of knots slower, traveling in my 1959 Cessna 175. I’m trying to make a point to find scenic places to fly over, and pit-stop airports with healthy GA communities or pleasant campsites to break up the staggering 29-hour flight-time estimate. I’ll also have the company and resources of my best friend, a FedEx 777 pilot who has agreed to all kinds of airplane silliness with me over the years. I will have a pair of brand new Garmin G5s and a GNC 355 in my panel, which will likely prevent me from getting lost in the hinterlands north of Gillette, Wyoming, where 19 years ago I had to start that “climb communicate confess comply” sequence when no VOR signal could be received and nothing, literally nothing, was a navigable landmark. (To this day, when I cross the country in my workhorse of a Boeing 737, I see KGCC on the navigation display and breathe a sigh of relief.)
I will also be approaching the AirVenture experience as an active homebuilder this year. My husband and I are knee deep in a Belite Chipper Two kit we acquired as a “COVID winter project” but still haven’t completed, even though the worst of the pandemic and the winter appear to be over.
It probably goes without saying that what I hope hasn’t changed the slightest bit at AirVenture 2022 is the thrill of joining a flock of aviators funneling into the skies above Ripon, the satisfaction of touching down on an assigned landing spot, the heady buzz of taxiing to your temporary homesite as the adrenaline subsides and the unknown but guaranteed reward of connecting with folks whose hands you first shake as a stranger, but later grasp in a fond farewell, after exchanging email addresses and promises of Oshkosh reunions. When exactly any of us will make it back to the show is hard to say. Maybe after our age doubles, or kids are out of college, or the homebuilding project in the garage gets its airworthiness certificate….
But isn’t that the beauty of a reunion at an event this grand?