FLYING A 1969 TRAINING MISSION WITH THE AIR NATIONAL GUARD UNIT BASED IN MILWAUKEE, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Poberezny orbited an expanse of rural Wisconsin. Looking out the window of his KC-97 tanker, he concluded that the several thousand acres of verdant pasture below would suit his purposes perfectly. For 40 minutes he circled the area, memorizing the roads, railroad tracks, lakes, and rivers of the site, 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee: Oshkosh.
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More than three decades later, the name of the town has become synonymous with the world’s largest annual celebration of general aviation, hosted by a group Poberezny founded in 1953. The Experimental Aircraft Association has grown into an international organization with more than 170,000 members. It has built its week-long AirVenture into a phenomenon that draws almost a tenth of the globe’s general aviation fleet and attracts more than 800,000 participants from around the world. (By contrast, in 1970, the year the event first moved to Oshkosh from Rockford, Illinois, attendance was fewer than 10,000.) “This is the big Disneyland of Aviation,” Poberezny says.
Mike Shade, an airframe and powerplant mechanic from Bluffton, Ohio, has come to almost every show since 1977. He and his 15-year-old son plan to fly to the show this year in a 1939 Luscombe. “It’s still the only place where you can see everyone, get tuned in to everything that’s happening,” he says.
Repeat visitors often display patches from each year’s show on hats or shirts to show off their veteran status.
“No matter what else is happening in the world, this is the one event I always attend,” says U.S. Senator James Inhofe, who has been coming to Oshkosh for 26 consecutive years.
“This is my mecca,” says Ron Judy, a pilot and cattle rancher from Gate, Oklahoma, who first started coming to the show in 1978.
Poberezny’s son, Tom, now heads the EAA and runs AirVenture. Tom Poberezny is both praised and criticized for transforming the county-fair-like fly-in into a glossy, commercial mega-show, replete with corporate sponsorships. It has become much, much more than a gathering of folks who build airplanes in their garages.
Although the event doesn’t start until the end of July (this year’s dates are July 29 to August 4), some attendees arrive at the EAA’s Camp Scholler (a field southwest of the showgrounds, named for the director of the group’s charitable foundation) as early as July 1. The weekend before the event, various activities take place at airports within 200 miles of Oshkosh. T-6, T-28, and P-51 warbirds assemble at Kenosha for a formation clinic and fly-in. Yak pilots do likewise at Manitowoc. Mooney owners congregate at Madison or Watertown. Bonanza pilots rally in Rockford.
Hotel rooms, rental cars, and reasonable air fares evaporate months ahead of time. During the week of the event, restaurants and bars see more than five times their usual number of customers. Overall, the one-week windfall for the local community is an estimated $200 million.
Negotiating an event this size takes savvy. I first went to Oshkosh in 1973; I wish I had known then what I know now, a dozen Oshkoshes later. Want to learn from my mistakes? Read on.
Most attendees do not fly themselves or ride in light aircraft to the show. They either drive or fly the airlines into nearby Appleton, Green Bay, or the larger terminal at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee, about 90 miles south of Oshkosh. The cheapest fares will be into Chicago’s Midway Airport; however, both Milwaukee and the smaller airports are blessed with frequent airline service. The main constriction at any of these airports will be the availability of cars to rent, so book ahead. Tip: Milwaukee and Green Bay have several off-airport car rental firms that are more than happy to help you if the on-airport firms run out of cars.
Road traffic into Oshkosh arrives mainly from the south. From Chicago, on any given afternoon, the Tri-State tollway can tax the patience of even the most seasoned commuter, but especially so on Friday evenings, when regular traffic piles atop Illinois weekend vacationers fleeing northbound. The scuttlebutt is that the Illinois State Policemen tend to ignore speeders.
All that changes at the Wisconsin border. Along I-94, between Kenosha and Mitchell Airport, a fleet of unmarked Ford Crown Victorias sits waiting to apprehend—and fine—speeding motorists. The Wisconsin State Patrol enforces speed limits with gusto. Compounding the adventure, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation has scheduled freeway restorations that threaten to snarl northbound traffic out of Milwaukee for the next four years. Drivers should seriously consider alternate routes that avoid Milwaukee altogether. An enjoyable, albeit lengthy, alternative for attendees arriving from the east is to drive to Ludington, Michigan, and take the car ferry across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. From the west, approach through Madison, Wisconsin, and drive up Highway 151. Or better yet, fly.
To capture the true flavor of Oshkosh, arrive in a light airplane. The Federal Aviation Regulations allow passengers of private—non-commercial—pilots to share the cost of a flight. Your local EAA chapter may have a list of pilots in your area looking to cut the costs of flying to Oshkosh by taking a passenger or two. The Federal Aviation Administration publishes detailed Notices To Airmen (NOTAM) about arrival procedures, but basically pilots aim for the tiny town of Ripon, Wisconsin, southwest of Oshkosh, get in line, follow some railroad tracks, and join the swarm arriving at Wittman Regional Airport. This is one of the rare instances when pilots are instructed not to reply to controllers’ radio calls. To avoid overtaxing the already clogged special frequencies, pilots acknowledge transmissions by rocking their wings.
In the days leading up to the show, Oshkosh becomes the busiest airport in the world. Think O’Hare is busy? Try 64 arrivals in 15 minutes.
“I always like taking someone along who’s never flown in before,” says Mike Shade. “Once you get to Ripon, you basically throw the Federal Aviation Regulations about controlled airspace out the window.” It is not uncommon to see three aircraft landing on different touchdown points of the same runway at once. On years Shade arrives early, he and a few friends sit in lawn chairs near the approach end of an active runway, watch airplanes arrive, and listen to the chaos on hand-held radios. These are definitely not the types of transmissions heard over air traffic control frequencies in the real world:
“Flight of two, flight of two, c’mon down, c’mon down, cleared to land three-six right.”
“Cessna high-wing, keep it high, there’s a twin coming underneath you now, put it right down on the numbers if you can.”
“Kitfox, follow the T-28. Three-ten, follow the Kitfox on right base.”
“Kitfox that just landed, turn into the grass, I’ve got a twin Comanche following you close.”
Controllers are nominated by their supervisors to work at AirVenture and are considered the best, from some of the busiest towers in the country.
“The fly-in procedures are not for the faint of heart,” says Shade, “but it’s amazing how well it works.”
It is not, however, without risk. The National Transportation Safety Board Web site contains 11 pages of Oshkosh-related accidents and incidents, including 30 fatalities. Given the traffic volume over the years, these are statistically insignificant, and the majority fall into the “pilot error” category.
PACKING Pack heavy. As evidenced by the overlapping stickers on the merchandise in Oshkosh stores, prices on everything from batteries, film, and snacks to gasoline can shoot up 10 to 30 percent during the week of the event. If at all possible, bring along whatever you will need. Among the essentials: sunglasses, sunscreen, bottled water, batteries, camera and film, cargo shorts, back pack, fanny pack, cell phone, hiking boots, bug spray, compact rain poncho, straw hat, long-sleeve pullover, and lots of cash. You will need these things because Wisconsin’s mid-summer weather is highly changeable: boiling during the day, cold at night, and spirited, soaking thunderstorms at a moment’s notice.
LODGING During the show, hotel rooms go for three to five times the normal rate. If you’re used to staying in New York City, the rates won’t faze you. Several hotels have been built in recent years, but the added rooms still don’t handle anywhere near the demand. Fortunately, thousands of residents choose to escape the cacophony, leaving behind empty houses for rent at $60 to $100 (or more) per night per bedroom. The wooded subdivision adjacent to the south end of the airport’s Runway 09-27 is a particularly choice location; it allows you to walk to the show and mingle with those in the General Aviation Camping area, not altogether fondly referred to as “the North 40” for its pasture-like appearance and absence of shade trees. Many residents have been renting to the same conventioneers for years. For those wishing to rent private homes, the EAA maintains a private-housing hotline—(920) 235-3007.
In the midst of all this capitalism, there are a few deals to be had:
The University of Wisconsin—Oshkosh, Lawrence University (Appleton), and several other area schools open their dormitories during EAA week. The rooms aren’t air-conditioned and the showers are communal. Still, for an average $40 a night, the dorm spares one the indignity of greeting the day in an overly ripe porta-potty and sloughing through mud in flip-flops to brave the long lines for the camping areas’ outdoor shower houses.
The Jesuit Retreat House, south of the airport and next to the EAA’s Vette Seaplane Base, along the shore of Lake Winnebago, has been a well-kept secret (until now). Although monopolized by members of World War II’s Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) and students from Parks College, the retreat house usually has a few vacancies, although the Jesuits prefer that guests be recommended by someone from the WASPs or Parks. The dormitory-style rooms are single occupancy, and morning Mass is at seven. “This is definitely the best place to stay at EAA,” says 82-year-old WASP Ethel Finley of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. Buses run from the adjacent seaplane base to the showgrounds at regular intervals and are very reliable.
Buses also link the overflow airports of Fond du Lac (15 miles south, aircraft camping permitted) and Appleton (20 miles north, no camping). Aircraft parking spaces at Oshkosh are filled after the first day of the show.
CAMPING For many, there is no other way to see the show. “Listening to hangar stories by the campfires” is Paul Poberezny’s favorite thing to do at AirVenture.
“If you don’t camp, you miss half the activity,” according to Ron Judy, who flies his Navion up from Oklahoma a couple of days early to get a good parking spot. “If you get there the day the show starts, you’ll be parked all the way down in Rockford,” Judy warns.
On Thursdays of the event week, Senator Jim Inhofe departs Washington, D.C., and flies himself to Oshkosh, where his two sons already have pitched camp. Inhofe is a commercially rated pilot and owns a stable of aircraft, including an RV-8 kitplane and a Cessna Crusader. “We eat very well when we’re there,” says Inhofe. “I enjoy the fellowship. We talk about nothing but airplanes.”
While most fly-in campers prize spots near the Theatre in the Woods, a large, covered, open-air pavilion adjacent to the vintage aircraft area, Mike Shade prefers the North 40 for its relative quiet. On-site camping runs $17 per night with a three-night minimum. The nightly fee is refundable for early departees, but securing the refund is often more trouble than it is worth (by design, some attendees cynically believe). To use Camp Scholler, which caters to the drive-in crowd—some 40,000 campers—one must be an EAA member.
Near the campground are stores for things like ice, with the markup one would expect from vendors selling to a captive audience. EAA campsites have a prohibition on alcohol that is universally ignored, but you can’t buy it on the grounds. There are many private camping and parking areas near the show grounds. Indeed, adjacent property owners make a small fortune peddling everything from bratwurst to bottled water.
Parking is the Achilles’ heel of the event. If you arrive later than mid-morning or try to leave immediately at the conclusion of the day’s performances, you will be stuck in traffic for a long time. General parking is herded into a handful of color-coded fields that can be lengthy and dusty (or muddy) walks from the main show grounds. (Sweet-talking volunteers directing vehicles will not gain you more proximate parking; they’ve heard it all.) During times of peak load, the police reroute the streets into a one-way racetrack, easing but not dissipating the traffic jams. However, there are a couple of things you can do: Show up really early, or…
Take a shuttle bus. First, park at the Appleton or Fond du Lac airport, the seaplane base, the shopping mall on the west side of the freeway, or the University of Wisconsin dormitories, then take the bus. Some buses are free; others charge a nominal fee. The bus won’t get you to the show any faster than a car would, but you won’t have to walk as far to the main gate or endure the aggravation. Using the lots at UW-Oshkosh also allows you to bypass the traffic jam that forms at the main freeway show exit (Highway 44).
Park in Camp Scholler. This is tricky; it requires knowing a camper with a pass. But it allows you to exit Highway 26 to the south instead of the “cattle gate” at the Highway 44 exit. Usually, campers don’t use all the vehicle spaces allotted to them and someone has an extra pass.
Park at the EAA Museum. There are shuttle buses available from the museum to the show grounds.
Along the northern perimeter of the airport, there are other non-sanctioned places to park, which will become apparent as you drive east down 20th Avenue (Highway 44) and look to the right. Even homeowners not officially selling lawn space can easily be persuaded to accommodate your vehicle for a few dollars and a smile.
GENERAL ADMISSION If you are inclined to join the EAA anyway, do so months before the show rather than at the show. EAA membership ($40 annually) earns a discount on the admission fee and access to Camp Scholler. For members, the daily adult admission fee is $19; non-members pay $29. The weekly fee is $94 for members, $203 for non-members. You can pay the admission fee with a credit card.
With the relocation of the show main gate several years ago, the arduous registration process became much faster, but you can avoid any remaining hassle by showing up on a non-weekend day or a day or two prior to the show.
DOING A QUICK RECON Buy a program, which contains a detailed map, grab a free copy of AirVenture Today, and read both before starting out. First-time visitors are almost always unprepared for the scale of the 1,400-acre show grounds.
“Originally, I walked myself to death,” says Ron Judy, who now stays close to the vintage aircraft area, which is his main focus at the show. For neophytes, the quickest way to get a feel of the place is to “walk the line” parallel to runway 18-36: warbirds to the north, homebuilts in the middle, vintage aircraft south of them, and ultralights way down at the south end with their own little ultralight runway. West of the “line” are specialized buildings and pavilions, most of which are occupied by vendors, the forum tents, and the static aircraft display areas. Food tents and kiosks selling programs are interspersed within this mosaic.
The grounds are incredibly clean, compared with other events of this size. People who attend don’t litter, and the EAA makes it a point to remind first-timers of the fact.
WATCHING THE AIRSHOW Oshkosh continues to attract the finest airshow pilot performers in the world. Unquestionably, the best place from which to watch them is just south of the performers’ tent, located at show center. From there, you can often see the performers “walk through” their pre-show routines; they fly their acts with their hands. You can also catch glimpses of the various celebrities and VIPs invited into the performers’ tent. Other good places from which to view the action are the International Aerobatic Club’s pavilion and on the hill in front of the control tower.
For those wanting a more exclusive venue, rent a boat and spend the day on Lake Butte des Morts and Lake Poygan (they are connected). The practice aerobatic box is directly overhead—and everyone practices.
SOCIALIZING More interesting than the airplanes themselves are some of the people you will meet at the show. Legendary test pilot and airshow performer Bob Hoover always makes an appearance, either at one of the forums or at a booth in the exhibitors’ pavilions. Ken Hyde, one of the most knowledgeable experts on the Wright brothers’ aircraft, will be on hand this year with his reproduction Flyer and simulator. Many airshow performers appear at various vendors’ exhibits throughout the show. Pilots standing next to their warbirds and vintage aircraft are generally approachable and almost always have interesting stories.
Then there are the more eccentric: Jerry Sleger’s homebuilt one-man band near the Theatre in the Woods and Steve Hay’s ornithopter, its asthmatic engine chugging down the flightline, his wife Joan clad in animal skin and Viking helmet, perched atop the flapping wings.
THE FLY MARKET Housed in a shabby tent city north of the exhibitors’ buildings and west of the control tower is a collection of kitsch not to be missed.
“My favorite part is the Fly Market,” confesses Senator Inhofe. “The first thing I do is head to the Fly Market and buy my stuff.” Inhofe once found a clock for a Stearman biplane. You can also find a lot of non-aviation-related items: awful hotel wall art, stir fryers, “magic pens,” hammocks, hats, hoses, paint removers, drills, anti-bacterial solutions, an endless variety of offensive T-shirts, and a “leather blow-out.” In the waning days of the show, peddlers determined to dispose of this “inventory” will often sell out for pennies on the dollar.
FORUMS & WORKSHOPS The forums harken back to the EAA’s roots as a group of builders assembling aircraft at home and are the means by which the tradition of this craft is passed to the next generation of self-airframers. Here you can learn “The Do’s and Don’ts of Resins,” how to install a Subaru engine in your airplane, and the latest techniques in welding, working with sheet metal, wood, and composites, and applying fabric covering.
The better forums tend to be held earlier in the morning. Past attendees have heard noted aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s insights into future aircraft design, gotten an FAA briefing on the latest plans for the national airspace system, or received helpful hints from a flight surgeon on staying fit for flying.
One show favorite is the Dawn Patrol, led by the folks who represent Canon camera equipment. From Canon’s small headquarters, next to the EAA media center, a few steps west of the control tower, staff members lead daily photo expeditions very early in the morning when the light is soft, the weather is cool, and the crowds are small.
SHOW FOOD About the best thing one can say about the on-site food is that it is available and no worse than one would find at a county fair. Prices are about what you would pay at a major sports stadium. Amid the many opportunities to increase your cholesterol, the warm doughnuts stand out: deep-fried as you watch and rolled in sugar and cinnamon, sold in the morning near the International Aerobatic Club’s pavilion. KEEPING YOUR COOL The important thing is to take regular rest breaks and drink plenty of water. Heat prostration is a common affliction at Oshkosh among all ages. But there are pockets of air-conditioning available. The Bose headphone trailer is one of them (but you have to sit through an infomercial). Another is the Cessna tent (but they will try to sell you an airplane).
The museum would be my first choice. The EAA AirVenture Museum, set well away from the center of the action, houses one of the most diverse private collections of aircraft in the world. The museum giftshop offers the standard books and keepsakes, along with odd treasures such as videos of the 1950s “Sky King” TV series.
During AirVenture, noted aviation authors, such as Rinker Buck and ace Clarence “Bud” Anderson, lecture in the museum’s theater. It’s a welcome respite to slouch in your theater seat, soak up the air conditioning, close your eyes, and listen to tales of flying.
Oshkosh at Night
INSIDE THE FENCE Night programs feature everything from aerobatic/pyrotechnic shows to polka bands to astronauts who answer audience questions in the Theatre in the Woods. The most fun, of course, is had at the individual campsites, the details of which have been omitted here to protect the guilty.
OUTSIDE THE FENSE Befriending vendors pays, as they get invited to the best parties and often have extra invitations. These are catered, corporate events, and Flying magazine’s is the undisputed champ. Past parties have featured pyrotechnic airshows over Lake Butte des Morts and enough chow and booze to placate the 101st Airborne. The warbird pilots host a spirited event Thursday evening at the Fond du Lac Holiday Inn. If you don’t make the guest list, a self-guided night on the town around Oshkosh can also provide a cultural education.
The establishment most frequented by fliers is the Acee Deucee, a place reminiscent of Pancho’s Happy Bottom Riding Club, the pilots’ hangout portrayed in the movie The Right Stuff (see “On the Town,” below). But the bar at the Pioneer Inn is quiet, civilized, and a good place to grab a nightcap. Airshow performers often stay at the hotel there.
LEAVING The hardest part of the show is the departure. Even though your feet are aching, your face is sunburned, and your money is gone, you’ll be reluctant to leave the land Paul Poberezny first spotted from the air in 1969. Oshkosh is where I began my photo collection of World War II aircraft nose art, first flew in a Ford Tri-Motor, and marveled at the ground shaking beneath my feet as the Concorde raced down the runway. This is the place where I fell in love with Navions, gull-wing Stinsons, Beech Staggerwings, and aerobatics. Whatever you’re interested in, it’s there. At least once, you’ve got to do Oshkosh.
Away from the noise of the flightline and the press of the crowds, Oshkosh has plenty to offer those seeking a lower-key experience.
The Vette Seaplane Base is a five-mile drive down Highway 45 (buses run regularly from the main show grounds). Located in a sheltered cove on the western shore of Lake Winnebago, Vette is everything the main grounds are not: quiet, orderly, and bucolic. The manicured pathways from the parking lot to the camping areas are lined with potted geraniums and impatiens. Neatly painted signs warn walkers of poison ivy off the path.
At 7:45 a.m., Lloyd Anderson has been on duty for almost an hour. Waterfront campers begin to stir, emerging from campsites with nicknames like “Parrothead Avenue.” The smells of coffee and bacon begin to waft through the humid summer air. Anderson, a retired air traffic controller, is reprising his career for a visitor as he directs seaplanes in and out of the base with a small radio. He stands on a tiny deck at the mouth of a cove surrounded by massive willow trees, 30 moored airplanes behind him bobbing in waters mottled with bright green algae. The aircraft have arrived from as far away as the Bahamas and Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The sky is starting to streak gray, and several departures are being expedited before the weather traps them. Between departures and arrivals, Anderson talks about the Stinson 108 he is restoring in his garage. The engine needs a crankshaft. He has not found one yet. Small skiffs begin to tow aircraft into the docks for loading. Across the cove, at the Jesuit Retreat House, Mass is letting out.
A little closer to the action but still a world away, the grass strip of Pioneer Airport stretches out behind the EAA Museum. A trio of Bell 47 bubble-canopy helicopters whine overhead, spiriting riders around the grounds for $30 a pop. Paul Poberezny built Pioneer Airport to mimic the feel of a small airport in the 1920s and 1930s. “I wanted to convey that charisma of aviation,” he says. Within Pioneer’s five hangars rest standards like a J-3 Cub and a 1936 Aeronca C-3 Collegian, also known as “the flying bathtub.” History is there in such one-of-a-kind treasures as Little Mulligan, Harold Neumann’s 1941 monocoupe, a cousin of the famous Ben Howard racer Mister Mulligan. And there’s the Folkerts Henderson High Wing, an early design from Clayton Folkerts, who was later chief designer for Don Luscombe’s company.
Posters from 1930s air races and expositions decorate the hangar walls, which support racks of ancient engines.
The flavor of Oshkosh cannot be fully captured within the airport grounds. While the choices are numerous, the following have been recommended by veteran Oshkosh-goers.
HOBBY SHOPS Dymond Modelsports has one the best selection of remote-control model aircraft in the country and is a perennial favorite for pilots of full-size and scale aircraft alike.
RESTAURANTS The local restaurants all serve Wisconsin-size—that is to say, huge—portions, and their prices remain reasonable during the show. Want a 32-ounce prime rib? You’ve come to the right place: It’s on the menu at Winemakers. The sandwiches at Friar Tuck’s are said to be delicious, as are dinners at both the Granary and the Roxy. Waits for tables at both of these places used to be interminable, but thanks to years of practice on the part of the staffs at both places, now rarely run more than an hour. Be warned, the Roxy is boisterous. If you actually intend to hold a conversation with your fellow diners, the Granary may be a better bet. For something a little different, drive up to Menasha to Los Compadres for authentic Mexican food.
For a slice of past Americana, wheel into Ardy & Ed’s Drive-In, where, since 1948, car hops on roller skates take your order. You can enjoy an authentic Wisconsin perch fry at Wendt’s, just south of the seaplane base in the hamlet of Van Dyne. Leon’s is still the spot for the best frozen custard.
BARS On any given night during AirVenture, the lines at Acee Deucee are out the door. Stories of Chuck Yeager and Bob Hoover holding court in the back bar are regularly repeated. Last year on the back patio, a band called Redline 7,000 performed unique interpretations of 1960s rock standards such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
At the RCR Split Level Bar, aviation writers and photographers gather in the evening in a real neighborhood saloon, complete with actual neighbors.