AirVenture or Oshkosh – whatever you call it, there is a mystical quality to this event that draws 600,000 of our closest friends to the cornfields of Wisconsin each July. The meaning of Oshkosh is different for everyone who attends. For some, it is a place to get together with the same friends they see only in July, something they have done every year for decades. For others, it is a chance to shop for a new airplane kit – or bits and pieces for the kit that they are currently building. And for many with a deep and impossible-to-define love for all things aviation, it simply draws them like seabirds to a shrimp boat. It is something that they just have to attend, either once, or year after year, and they don’t know exactly why.
As I said, the reasons for everyone are different—they might fall into the same categories, but the feeling that each of us gets when we close in on KOSH is personal. For me, it is an odd combination of expectations, excitement, and a little dread. Let me explain.
Even though I grew up in Minnesota, and was aviating by the age of 13, I never made it over to the Oshkosh event during my formative years—I was just too busy, and didn’t have family who attended. It wasn’t until I had been living in Texas for many years that I travelled to the “the show” for the first time. The Grumman I had been flying for over twenty years was finally becoming hard to maintain, and I was building an RV-8… and I needed to shop! The organization for which I worked had many folks who attended, so logistics were easy – show up, and there was a cot with your name on it in a big tent in Camp Scholler. I was just an attendee, looking to see what this was all about and I was blown away! I came away with a better understanding of just what AirVenture was, along with a car full of expensive airplane avionics and various custom parts.
I made it a habit to go back for a few days each year for the next couple of years – especially once my RV was flying and I could join the flock! A few years later, I found myself writing for Kitplanes magazine as a columnist and correspondent, and AirVenture became part of the “job” – I had a media pass, and got to poke my nose behind the scenes, meeting movers and shakers, and beginning to understand how EAA worked.
Not long after that, I was selected to serve on the EAA Homebuilders Advisory Council, and REALLY learned how the sausage was made – and they make such GREAT sausage in Wisconsin! As my involvement grew deeper, I was asked to do forums, attend meetings, and generally make appearances – all while at the same time I was working as a media person – gathering stories from attendees, testing airplanes for flight reviews, and flying photo missions to help grace the magazine pages with pretty pictures. AirVenture became a ten-day event filled with eighteen-hour days.
These days, I look at the week leading up to Oshkosh with that mixture of excitement and dread. I wouldn’t want to miss it because I am part of it, and it is part of me. But at the same time, I sit on the west coast looking at weather systems, planning a ten-hour cross-country, thinking about the heat of the plains and the thunderstorms it generates. I think about the heat shimmering off the runway in Nebraska in the early afternoon, the oil temperatures near redline as I sweat through a hurried refueling and struggle to get back up into the cool air in the teens. I think about the arrival – crazier every year, and try to time my own Time-on-Target to hit a spot where no one else is lining up on the string of waypoints leading to Fisk. There is angst and anxiety…. Is the airplane going to hot start? Will I find a place to spend the night if the approach is clobbered (with airplanes or weather)? Did I remember to print out my arrival cards (HBP, HBC, etc.)?
It’s enough to drive a person to think “maybe I should just stop in Minnesota, visit the family, and call the whole thing off!” And then I pick up the ATIS, and I hear some folks on the radio. FISK controllers are chatting with pilots (even though pilots aren’t supposed to answer back, the controllers seem to get excited and want to know where they’re from!), and the thunderstorms petered out near Albert Lea. It’s less than an hour to go, and someone in Homebuilt Camping has a beer with my name on it, and as I slide into line at 1800’ and 90 knots, the low sun behind me creating the golden light of evening, I realize that I can do this again. I can commune with my friends (all six hundred thousand of them) for ten days, and rest when its over. And next year I’ll go through all the angst again, wondering if it is worth it, knowing that I can’t NOT go back.
Attendee, volunteer, paid media geek… we’re all pilots, and Oshkosh is where we have to be.