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.