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How to Do Oshkosh

What to see, where to eat, who to talk to, and how to make the most of the great big airshow in the quiet little town.

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Getting There

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.”

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