What draws us to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, each July? The question can be answered in practical terms: EAA’s need for perpendicular runways that do not cross and a large field to park airplanes. Those conveniences by themselves have never drawn anyone to Oshkosh. We’ve all heard homebuilders say they hope to get their airplane finished “…for Oshkosh.” The Oshkosh they speak of, whether they recognize it or not, is not the airport in east central Wisconsin. It is the event that occurs at that airport. What draws us to Oshkosh is intangible—inspiration comes to mind— though I’ll admit the twist cones are a real draw. Inspiration is driven by people, not by place. Take, for example, Steve Wittman, the Oshkosh airport’s namesake.
In 1924, when EAA Founder Paul Poberezny was three years old, Steve Wittman was already designing and building airplanes in Oshkosh. His first design, the Hardly Abelson, was aptly named. It didn’t fly. Undeterred, he and his race planes Chief Oshkosh and Bonzo were nationally competitive by the early 1930s, topping the performance of the military aircraft of the time. Buttercup, Wittman’s two-place general aviation design, emerged in the late 1930s. Fairchild Aircraft licensed the design from Wittman but wartime obligations prevented it from being produced. Buttercup morphed into the Wittman Tailwind, which in 2020 remains a popular homebuilt. Wittman invented the spring steel landing gear, which Cessna licensed for its piston singles. Until his death at age 91, in the crash of his O and O Special, Wittman remained a homebuilder and innovator.
Steve Wittman was an early and active member of the Experimental Aircraft Association. In 1959 he lured EAA’s wandering convention to Winnebago County Field, just outside Oshkosh. At the 1968 EAA convention in Rockford, Illinois, with his one good eye still on air racing, he presented a forum on a new class of racing aircraft, Formula Vee. Among those in attendance was a high school art teacher from Elgin, Illinois.
Wittman lured the convention back to Oshkosh’s perpendicular runways and large fields in 1970, this time to stay. The art teacher from Elgin attended that convention as well. He carried home the personal goal of designing and building his own Formula Vee racer and returning to Oshkosh with it the following year. John Monnett finished his plane days before the convention and more than met his goal. He and his Sonerai captured the Best Formula Vee and the Outstanding Contribution to Low Cost Flying awards. The seeds of a new career were sprouting, sown by a person, Steve Wittman, not by the airport that now bore his name, Wittman Field.
In 1981, before EAA moved its museum and headquarters to Oshkosh, Monnett moved his family and his business, Monnett Experimental, there. Wittman and Monnett now shared Wittman Field’s perpendicular runways year round. Monnett Experimental succumbed to a combination of factors in the mid 1980s, but John remained in Oshkosh and returned to the kit-aircraft arena in 1998 with Sonex Aircraft. Even so, Oshkosh’s homebuilding history could never be credited to the soil of what is now called Wittman Regional Airport, soil that lies frozen under snow four months a year.
It’s the People, Not the Place
Steve Wittman was, perhaps first and foremost, a homebuilder. John Monnett, inspired by Steve, set out to build a homebuilt for himself and in doing so created an aircraft others wanted. Homebuilding is the soul of EAA and AirVenture. Each of us feeds that soul one rivet, one rib stitch, one first flight at a time, wherever we may be. Somewhere, the next design or innovation to captivate homebuilders is being sketched, prototyped or test flown in anonymity. Whoever is doing it is doing it to feed their own soul. But one day it will be brought to Oshkosh, for AirVenture, and its creator will join the ranks of Wittman, Pietenpol, Poberezny, Evans, Monnett, VanGrunsven, Schlitter and the many others who have inspired us by feeding their own souls.
The people who make Oshkosh an aviation mecca are not limited to those we can name. You don’t need to invent, innovate, or break records to have an impact in homebuilding. Each of us can influence and inspire others just by filling a homebuilt with camping gear and parking it on the flight line where it may whisper to someone, “You can build one just like me in your basement.” I’ve seen faces light up when that realization strikes. AirVenture is where the inspired inspire and dreams take root to return one day fully realized.
What draws us to Oshkosh each year? It’s not the land or the buildings. It’s not the perpendicular runways. It’s not the field to park airplanes. Had you come to Oshkosh in late July, 2020, as some were still planning to do in the wake of AirVenture’s cancellation, you would have found—well, a general aviation airport like most others in the country. Oshkosh’s airport was a field in 1924 when Steve Wittman began innovating in his hangar. Nearly 100 years later, Oshkosh’s airport, for 51 weeks a year, is still a field, as witnessed by post-AirVenture photos of trampled grass outlining where airplanes once sat. Oshkosh is legendary because inspiration is exchanged and homebuilding’s soul is fed when we gather on that field one week each year under the banner of EAA’s AirVenture.
Photos: Kerry Fores