Overwhelming is the best word for it. I still think about my first trip in the mid-1990s to “Oshkosh,” shorthand for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture fly-in held every summer in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. For the rookie it’s impossible to avoid being totally overwhelmed. Thousands of airplanes. Hundreds of thousands of people. There’s so much offered up simultaneously: lectures, forums, workshops galore on building, restoring, and flying every imaginable type of aircraft. Where to start? Where to go next? You dive in, and from the moment I did, I was hooked.
You start out in the morning with a to-do list, and find yourself immediately distracted by something you didn’t expect. At Oshkosh, you bump into legends: World War II veterans, show pilots, astronauts. But the ordinary folks (like this shuttle bus rider) turn out to be just as interesting.
The richness of the experience is constant from year to year, but a lot has changed since my first Oshkosh. Thirty-six-frame rolls of film are a memory (good riddance) as my digital camera now lets me shoot thousands of photos on a card the size of a postage stamp, all the better to try to preserve all the little moments at AirVenture 2010 (already fading in my memory, just a few weeks later). There were no cell phones my first year—if you wanted to meet up with someone back then, you agreed on a time and place, usually the base of the control tower. Today, that old brick tower has been replaced by a taller concrete one, more capable for sure, but without the old-school charm.
This year got off to the soggiest start ever, and what struck me right off was the lack of airplanes. And, although there were anniversaries to celebrate for the B-17 Flying Fortress and the DC-3, and veterans to salute, the show lacked a big-ticket item—an Airbus A380 or a Rutan-built rocketplane—as an anchor, a centerpiece. That only seemed to give back ownership to everybody. The weather improved. The airplanes and the tents appeared. Oshkosh happened again, of course. In fact, it wrapped up with the first ever night show, which drew a bigger crowd than the daytime attendance. All the while, I explored, camera in hand, and stumbled across lovely surprises such as Ben Scott’s 1945 Grumman Widgeon in sunset light, an airplane I’d hoped to see. You’ll see it too, as you wander through these photographs.
Caroline Sheen is the Photography and Illustrations Editor at Air & Space.
Wings, tails, and props cram AeroShell Square, the primary outdoor showcase at AirVenture. Wittman Field’s new tower, shown here, stands twice the height of the old tower built in the 1960s, and began operating in 2008.